Black Inner Life and Black Joy Make Black History, Too
February 23, 2021
Black history isn’t just about the history-makers and big social movements. They begin as everyday people whose day-to-day experiences, inner Black life, and Black joy—this especially!—are just as much a part of Black history. Without daily life and joy, the picture narrows solely on struggle and trauma, and comes off as incomplete. We need it all.
With this in mind, and February being the month it is, we are also sharing selections from our titles—veterans of the shelf, new, and soon-to-be new—that offer a richness of Black life you won’t find in encyclopedias or reference texts. And remember: Blackness is not a monolith.
African American female performers took to stages in cramped bars and grand halls alike, scenes awash in cigarette smoke, thinned gin, and explicit sexual entanglements. In cabarets, Black women engaged the personal in the blues to talk about issues such as domestic violence and incarceration but also to give voice to the erotic. Songs like Ma Rainey’s “Black Eye Blues” told the tale of Miss Nancy, whose man beat her, cheated on her, and took all of her money. It also told of her efforts to fight back by warning, “You low down alligator, just watch me/Sooner or later gonna catch you with your britches down.” Gertrude “Ma” Rainey’s performances also brazenly flouted heterosexual norms. With songs such as her 1928 hit “Prove It on Me Blues,” she crooned, “I went out last night with a crowd of my friends/ They must’ve been women, ’cause I don’t like no men/Wear my clothes just like a fan/Talk to the gals just like any old man/’Cause they say I do it, ain’t nobody caught me/Sure got to prove it on me.” The lyrics and performances exploded respectable concepts of how to be Black women and men in the world, and it opened up a space for a variety of sexual identities to emerge.
Black lesbians like Gladys Bentley donned tuxedos and played before raucous crowds eager to drink in Bentley and bathtub gin by the mouthfuls. Headlining clubs such as the Clam House, in top hat and coattails, Gladys in particular had a commanding presence that made her a top-selling artist in Jazz Age Harlem. As renowned poet Langston Hughes described: “Miss Bentley was an amazing exhibition of musical energy—a large, dark, masculine lady, whose feet pounded the floor while her fingers pounded the keyboard—a perfect piece of African sculpture, animated by her own rhythm.” Hughes beautifully captured the essence of Gladys, who made no secret of her intimate relationships with women.
—Daina Ramey Berry and Kali Nicole Gross, A Black Women’s History of the United States
Being a Black punk rocker is about maintaining a feat of punk rock inception. You are a punk among punks, a subversion of rules that themselves are subversions of yet other rules. At the same time, Black people and aestheticized irreverence are a more intuitive fit than is popularly acknowledged. I would be hard pressed to think of anything more definitional to Blackness than being subject to the chafing of oppressive norms.
—G’Ra Asim, Boyz n the Void: a mixtape to my brother (forthcoming in May 2021)
Our music, our dance, and our visual arts were considered natural gifts, not craft or a complicated rethinking of the possibilities of sound and the body, and I fell for it. It took me years to undo this horrible stereotyped construct. I’d seen Carmen de Lavallade in Amahl and the Night Visitors, and I knew I would never be capable of doing what she did—I wasn’t white enough. I’d see Katherine Dunham in old black-and-white movies, loved her solos, but I was ashamed of the ensemble pieces that drew from Haitian and Cuban influence. Too colored. Too sensual. Any Black person could shake that butt. So, after many years of this psychic and psychological trauma, the Black Arts Movement, as championed by Amiri Baraka and Larry Neal in the anthology Black Fire, gave me a new context; I was re-made.
Not only were our so-called “natchel” talents art, but they were a gift to the world, a craft, and I believe that after realizing that, something was freed in me that has changed my life dramatically. I don’t even have a slave name. Paulette was afraid of her body, it could not fit, move lyrically, or get her knee to her nose in a chorus line. But when I went to the first Black Power Convention in Newark, New Jersey, in 1967, I saw authentic African, jazz, and modern dance in Black bodies of all shapes, colors, and skills, and I said with my whole being, “That’s what I want to do. I want to do that.” Surprisingly, the dancers invited the audience to join in, and my body knew joy in my heart. Since that time (which is before I started writing), I have searched out, studied, and worked professionally with an amazing collection of African American, African, Cuban, Brazilian, and Haitian groups. I threw myself into the world of jazz, tap, and modern dance as interpreted by Black sensibility. Those experiences, I swear to you, are among the most treasured moments of my life.
—Ntozake Shange, Dance We Do: A Poet Explores Black Dance
The historical figures I idolized, Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X chief among them, embodied an idealized sense of strong black manhood, but they were straight. The love poems I absorbed in dog-eared black poetry anthologies were clearly written from a heterosexual point of view. This burning curiosity about other boys, I figured, would pass. Maybe it was because Daddy wasn’t around to help me through this phase. Maybe this longing to be affectionate and sexual with other boys was all about missing him. Whatever it was, I didn’t know what to do with it, and I told myself that the feelings would all fade away. The dashikis and clumsy Afrocentric rhetoric would disguise the desire, distract me from it, or maybe erase it altogether.
—Rashod Ollison, Soul Serenade: Rhythm, Blues & Coming of Age Through Vinyl
Her soaring vocals and preternatural ability to inhabit the characters she sang about left her predominantly white audiences spellbound and a little more open to the notion that someone could be both wonderfully American and proudly Black at the same time.
Odetta, in fact, gave them cause to celebrate Blackness. “She is more than an eloquent Negro voice,” one reviewer would note in the 1960s. “She is the eloquent voice of the Negro.” As Blacks demanded freedom at Southern lunch counters, at voter registrar offices, and on frontline protest marches before seething sheriffs’ deputies, many Northern whites were looking to embrace the nation’s better angels. The young woman with the trailblazing Afro, who sang about prisoners and chain gangs and talked about the Black history not being taught to schoolchildren, helped rouse a political consciousness among a searching and surging youth generation.
For a brief but seminal period, Odetta was a star, selling out concerts in the US and around the world, appearing on TV and in films. Our cultural memory can be short-lived, but at the height of her fame, Odetta’s singing and magnetic stage presence exerted such a force over her acolytes that sometimes their knees went weak, they fainted in front of her, or they tried to steal her food in the hope that it contained some kind of magic elixir.
—Ian Zack, Odetta: A Life in Music and Protest
Racially, I identify as Mixed because my father’s African American, my mother’s European American, and they both have Indigenous ancestry. Culturally, I identify as African American, because whereas the African American community is more of an open community that will claim me in being Mixed, the White community will never accept me as being White. So I wouldn’t even think of it. Never. Most people assume I’m Latino. Caribbean. They rarely think that I’m African American. I’ve been mistaken for Middle Eastern. Every once in a while people think I’m Black and Asian. In Cuba, they would call me Chino but they thought I was Cuban. Same thing in Brazil. Until I open my mouth, they just think I’m Brazilian. A lot of places are like that. But when I went to Tanzania, folks were breaking my heart thinking I was straight-up Italian. When I was in Ethiopia, I got ‘Are you half-caste?’ All the time. A couple times in Jamaica, I even got ‘White man.’ And that hurts. So, it depends on how people’s eyes perceive. You can feel like you’re Black as night on the inside but still be perceived as Other on the outside.
—Joshua Bee Alafia, Brooklyn, NY, in Yaba Blay’s One Drop: Shifting the Lens on Race
My father’s father was White, and his mother was dark. My father’s father owned the sawmill. He never claimed my father as his son, but he did see to it that they were taken care of. My father never laid on us about no ‘yella’ or no light skin or no White or no passing or none of it. He told us we were Negroes. He would tell us about how the White people took advantage of his mother and how we needed to respect her. He said, ‘You see Mama? You see her color? If you disown that, you disown her.’ So, I never gave passing a thought. But my Uncle Felix passed. My father’s brother. He left Florida and went to Ohio because he wanted to pass. Uncle Felix worked for the railroad, and I remember he would come in the dark of night just to make sure we were OK. He’d always give us a little something, but he could never stay. They woulda killed him. When we left Apalachicola for New Jersey, Uncle Felix got our train tickets. We had to sit way in the back by the engine, me and my sister. Can you imagine? Coming all the way up through the South like that? But Uncle Felix worked for it, so we knew not to say, ‘Hi, Uncle Felix.’ We ain’t so much as look at him. But one way or the other he saw to it that we had food and something to drink. He saw to it that we could come up North to be with our parents. But once we got up North, we never saw Uncle Felix again.
When I was in Florida, I went to public school. They treated me so bad my mother took me out and put me in the Catholic school. At that time, Colored people would say, ‘Black is honest,’ and ‘Yella is dishonest,’ and so they was hard on me. They used ‘yella’ a lot. They didn’t trust me, but they knew better than to mess with me, because I’d fight them.
—Angelina Griggs (born in 1908), Fayetteville, GA, in Yaba Blay’s One Drop: Shifting the Lens on Race
In my experience, it’s been my hair that’s been more of an issue than my skin color. People totally change the way they treat me when my hair is different. When I wear my hair straight, people don’t look twice. I look normal, and I guess I’m safe. If my hair is straight, people think I’m Indian. Then it’s like this whole other situation with a whole other set of stereotypes. But if my hair is curly, it’s more risky. Then people are like, ‘Is she Black? She can’t be Black. Is she Jamaican? Oh, she has some mix of something. But she’s definitely got some Black.’ People always do that. But then people who understand Ethiopian features do call me out and say I’m Ethiopian. Most people are just very Black or White. ‘You’re Black. Period. You’re not White.’ And I hate to say it but it’s true—there’s some privilege in my hair. I’ve heard ‘You have good hair’ all my life. And I never really understood, like ‘What do you mean? I know a lot of people who have my hair.’ Especially when I was in Philly at temple, a lot of women were like, ‘You’re so lucky.’ Why does that make me lucky? Just because my hair is curly? I didn’t really get it because I think it’s all beautiful. Straight, curly, natural, permed.
—Sosena Solomon, Brooklyn, NY, in Yaba Blay’s One Drop: Shifting the Lens on Race
I couldn’t help but think that somehow I had scammed them into believing I was worthy enough to model for them, that they’d find out that I was fatter than my photos showed, and that they’d toss me off the set as soon as I walked through the door. I was a small-time model from Detroit without an agent. I mean, I had modeled in Paris and LA, but those were smaller gigs that I had set up myself. Oh, and I had modeled for Adidas Originals, too, but I could barely fit into their stuff. New York was intimidating. They’d expect me to be on the entire time. What if my IBS acted up and ruined the whole shoot? What if I died on the way there and they’d be like, “Ugh, I knew her fat ass would so die on the way here. Such a typical fattie.” And worse, what if I couldn’t fit into any of their wardrobe?
The team and I emailed back and forth about what I could and couldn’t wear due to being a covered Muslimah. Then we got into sizing. The agency gave me the stylist’s Instagram, so I could see who’d I be working with. The head stylist was that typical tan, privileged, and thin white girl with even whiter teeth and soft brown tresses with honey blonde highlights. She’s possibly never seen cellulite in her life. She’d probably vomit seeing mine. I’d been on a set before, and I’d have to be naked during fittings and outfit changes. I knew the drill. Beads of sweat rolled down my neck as I anticipated the judgment.
I sent in my size and measurements. She replied: “Great. Do me a favor and just bring in some of your fave outfits.”
—Leah Vernon, Unashamed: Musings of a Fat, Black Muslim