A Subaltern Black Woman Sings the Blues: A Blues Aesthetic Analysis Sherley Anne Williams' Poetry.

Author:Armstrong, Jasmine Marshall
Position:Critical essay

The Green-Eyed Monsters of the Valley Dusk sunset knocks the edge from the day's heat, filling the Valley with shadows: Time for coming in getting on; lapping fields lapping orchards like greyhounds racing darkness to the mountain rims, land's last meeting with still lighted sky. This is a car I watched in childhood, streaking the straightaway through the dusk I look for the ghost of that girl in the mid-summer fields whipping past but what ghosts lurk in this silence are feelings not spirits not sounds. The first two stanzas of the hauntingly beautiful poem above by Sherley Anne Williams, provide perhaps the best evocation of California's Central Valley, a place known for its flat surface, hemmed in by the Sierra Nevada and Coast Range--and as a parched, forsaken and poverty stricken region. Williams' poem evokes the crushing heat, the endless cycles of labor with the metaphor of the greyhounds lapping the field. The "ghost of that girl in mid-summer fields" likely refers to the poet herself, the child of African-American agricultural workers, or her sisters, all of whom worked picking cotton and harvesting other crops in the fields of the San Joaquin Valley. What emerges is a as powerful as a Blues song, one that calls up the past, but anchors the listener to the spot contemplating a sense of place--its beauty and oppressions, its impact upon the girl child lapped by the swift, greyhound-like heat and light. The girl, watching the car, watching the passage of light and time, is not the daughter of a wealthy grower. The poet's Blues tone clues the reader in that this girl is a proletariat figure, whose body and being have been marked by laboring on that sun baked soil.

The San Joaquin Valley is known for problems of persistent, systemic unemployment, poverty and even violence, some might be tempted to wonder what aside from valuable agricultural commodities this region of California has produced worth celebrating. Yet it is a region which has produced a bounty of poets, including Williams, a native of the region, who has been hailed as one of the greatest African American poets of the latter half of the 20th Century. Despite being orphaned by the death of both parents by her teens, William would become a nominee for the National Book Award and finalist for the Pulitzer Prize, as well as an important developer of theory regarding the Black Arts aesthetics. Although Williams' novel Dessa Rose is one of the most important neo-slave narratives by an African American woman in the past 50 years, I shall not be dealing with that work for the purposes on this paper, as I feel it deserves more time than I could devote to it here. The works discussed shall also all be reflective of Williams' status as a Central Valley and California member of the Black Arts Movement.

In this paper, I shall argue that Williams used her poetry, children's literature and theoretical writings in order to transform both her own personal and her community's painful experiences of poverty, racism and defacto segregation both here in the Central Valley and in urban California into transformative, empowering art, reflecting Antonio Gramsci's contention that truly liberating arts and literature must come from subaltern, proletariat peoples who speak for themselves--resisting the hegemony of the dominant white culture. Grasmsci himself noted that popular culture and music in particular, can create an artistic aesthetic rooted in the working classes (373). In early 20th Century Italy, Gramsci called this "The Operatic Conception of Life" in his writings on popular culture. (1) He writes,

It is not true that a bookish and non-innate sense of life is only to be found in certain inferior strains of the intelligentsia. Among the popular classes, too, there is a 'bookish' degeneration of life which comes not from books, but from other instruments of diffusion and culture and ideas (373). Gramsci argues that for the working class of his Italy, the Opera of Verdi and others provided a means of interacting with popular tropes through which to understand their lives and oppression. To many common people the baroque and operatic appears as a fascinating way of feeling and acting, a means of escaping what they consider low, mean and contemptible in their lives and education, in order to enter a more select sphere of great feelings and noble passions. Serial novels and below-stairs reading... provides the heroes and heroines (373).

The Music of the People: Gramsci, Subaltern Aesthetics and the Blues in Black America

Gramsci's discussion of music as a popular cultural tool for the working classes to embrace an art which is not that of ".superficial snobs, but something deeply felt and experienced" (373). For Gramsci, although popular Opera might be "pestiferous"--and although he appears, according to the editors of his works to favor the written word over radio, film and other expressions, we can see that he did see the value and ability of music to speak to the proletariat.

Music could play a role in battling against hegemonic oppressions. The editors of The Routledge Critical Reader: Antonio Gramsci note that unlike other Marxists, Gramsci does not see oppression as solely economic. It is also present in the functions of the arts, popular media, propaganda and iconography:

Gramsci argues that culture, politics and the economy are organized in a relationship of mutual exchange with one another, a constantly circulating and shifting network of influence. To this process, he gives the name hegemony (164)

Hegemony via the praxis of culture has played a particularly problematic role in terms of music, tropes, fashions and iconography originating

in African American life, but exploited for capitalist projects of profit in the selling of what is "cool,"" "hip," or even perceived as "dangerous" by dominant White America. A Gramscian analysis of culture means keeping in mind the challenges that the base--in this case Williams' working class, rural and urban African-American communities--made to the superstructure, not only in terms of seeking redress against labor exploitation, de facto segregation, and other discriminatory practices, but challenging cultural norms the superstructure of white America produces, and which reinforced rigid notions of beauty, of musical or literary aesthetics, and gender norms. I shall show that one of the strongest challenges Williams' poetry makes toward white hegemony is a rejection of white femininity, and thus white beauty, as normative. By invoking a Blues aesthetic, Williams turns the tables on white hegemony, and rejects attempts by the superstructure to use imagery of Black women for its projects of subjugation.

William's poem "Blues is Something to Think About," from The Peacock Poems (1975), is a powerful evocation of a subaltern, proletariat African-American woman using poetry to embrace the legacy the Blues, as poetics and philosophy. She writes:

A traditional statement about a traditional situation with a new response (lines 1-3). The opening of William's poem speaks to her desire to use the Blues form in poetry; the spoken of "new response." These opening words announce that the Blues has meaning in speaking to the complicated, often painful nature of intimate relationships, but is far more than simply a tale of love gone wrong. Angela Y. Davis, feminist scholar and philosopher, links the Blues to African-American's women's ability to speak and make arguments about their condition. She notes.

To a large extent, what constituted... Black feminist traditions tend to exclude ideas produced within poor and working class communities, where women have not had the means or access to produce written texts. But poor Black women did have access to publishers of oral texts. In fact, in the 1920s, many Black women were sought after--and exploited--by burgeoning record companies. Black women were the first to record the blues.Even though the period of ascendency of Black women blues singers was relatively short, these women nonetheless managed to produce a vast body of musical texts and rich cultural legacy (3-4). Unfortunately, because the Blues music written by these women came out of a working class aesthetic and tradition, and dealt with sexuality, it was deemed low-brow among African-American arts, according to Davis,

... in contrast, for example to endeavors such as sculpture, painting and classical music (through which the spirituals could be reformed). Consequently few writers, with the exception of Langston Hughes, who often found himself at odds with his contemporaries--were willing to consider the contributions of the Blues performers to Black cultural politics (10). Davis notes that work of other African-American women writers and poets who were her contemporaries, including Williams, would influence her own scholarship into the philosophy of Blues aesthetics and motifs regarding labor, intimate relationships and sexuality (10). Like the operas of Verdi in Gramsci's time, for African-American women writers and theorists of the Black Arts Movement in the late 1960s and Early 1970s, the Blues songs of foremothers like Bessie Smith, Ma Rainey and Billie Holliday would serve not only as inspiration in terms of form and lyricism, but in terms of epistemology--their ways of coming to knowledge and understanding of their subaltern positions as women, and moreover, as African-American women. This would prove especially true for writers like Williams, who, like Blues singers of an earlier era, would bring their proletariat origins into their works. Consider her poem "The Collateral Adjective" from The Peacock Poems:

I sing my song in a cycle round spiral up spiral down the adjective has little to do with the noun (lines 1-6). As with many poems in The Peacock Poems, Williams is claiming back the lyrical, songbased nature of poetry. This is strengthened by the ostensibly simple rhyme schemes, but in that simplicity...

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