This essay will be looking at Ma Rainey, and her use of performance to approach the subject of black feminism and domestic abuse.
Born in 1886, Ma Rainey began her career at a time in the USA when emancipation for black Americans was still a relatively new experience. In 1863 President Lincoln changed the liberal status for over 3 million black slaves in the Southern states of America.
The theme of emancipation runs heavily throughout her music whether it was conscious or subconscious.
In America in the 1920s and 30s themes of domestic abuse were avoided in (white) popular music. Generally, pop music consisted of nonsexual depictions of heterosexual relationships. (Davis, A. 1998) For example; Rudy Vallee’s “A Little Kiss Each Morning” was number one in January in the United States in 1930.
The theme of domestic violence was often explored in blues music, these were new experiences for the men and women writing them. Before that, “slaves were legally defined as commodities” women were often bred in accordance with their potential with a male partner. Choosing sexual partners and choosing to marry, suddenly became something attainable. Sexual freedom was not a taboo subject; it was something new to be explored. (Davis, A. 1998 p.12)
The theme of domestic abuse runs heavily throughout Ma Rainey’s music, her lyrics provide a close look at the lives of African American women of that era. In Sweet Rough Man, for example, Rainey describes a relationship with a very cruel man, who “treats me mean”. The underlying
sexual and physical power he has over her is obvious. In the song, the man’s attractiveness equates his physical strength when beating the woman. (Lieb. S, 1981 p.121)
“My man beat me last night with five feet of copper coil …but the way he love me makes me soon forget” “My lips split, my eyes black as jet”
(Rainey. G 1928)
Sweet Rough Man has been described as “The most explicit description of sexual brutality in (Rainey’s) repertoire.” (Davis. A, 1998 p.46)
By contrast, the song Black Eye Blues domestic violence is still the dominant theme, however, in this Rainey speaks of an abusive lover of a “Miss Nancy”. The difference is that Miss Nancy ends up standing up for herself after she has been beaten. Rainey’s attitude towards Miss Nancy’s abuser is clear.
“You low down alligator, just watch me
Sooner or later gonna catch you with your britches down You ‘buse me and you cheat me
You dog around and beat me
Still I’m gonna hang around”
(Rainey. G 1930)
The abuse Ma Rainey speaks of is of unbelievable brutality. She spoke out about the issues many women were facing at the time. After emancipation domestic violence was common for many African American women. The subjects in these songs reflected the time period in which these women lived. Women had no voice, these were matters ignored by society. Black women not only lived in a sexist society but an openly racist, and segregated society. Their frustrations could not be vocalised. Ma Rainey’s music is a fantastic example of her response to these problems.
The anger and frustration is heard distinctly in her voice, and in the lyrics Miss Nancy describing him as a “low down alligator”, he’s beneath her. The line could also be seen, as a humorous attempt approaching the subject of abuse, given the cultural climate at the time humour might have been the only way these sensitive subjects could be addressed.
However, the lyric “Still I’m going to hang around” is interesting after hearing the lyrics from Sweet Rough Man, it could be argued that she still wants this “approval” from her partner; “But the way he love me makes me soon forget”.
Edward Brooks argues that Bessie Smith “relates his wrongs with approval” in the song Yes Indeed He Do. This is not uncommon in female blues, Smith does approve of her lovers wrongdoings in this song. (Brooks. E)
“ And when I ask him where he’s been He grabs a rocking chair
Then he knocks me down
And says, “It’s just a little love lick, dear Oh, do my sweet, sweet daddy love me?
Yes, indeed he do”” (Smith, B)
However, Patricia Hill Collins argues that there is a “conspiracy of silence” in the black community in America which “stems from a larger system of legitimated, routinized social hierarchies” this is due to the hegemonic ideologies that domestic violence is routine to many black men and women. Because of this many women would not perceive themselves as victims. This could be why Smith and Rainey’s attitude towards the men in their songs is perceived as looking for ‘approval’. (P. Collins, 2000 p.159)
Smith and Rainy were accomplished performers who were “well acquainted with the uses of humour and irony”(Davis.A,1998) In Yes Indeed He Do Smith criticises the household chores expected of women at the time.
“I don’t have to do no work except to wash his clothes
And darn his socks and press his pants and scrub the kitchen floor” (Smith, B)
“Women’s blues suggest emergent feminist insurgency in that they unabashedly name the problem of male violence and so usher it out of the shadows of domestic life where society had kept it hidden beyond public or political scrutiny”. (Davis. A p.8 1998)
Domestic abuse and violence against women have only been acted on by the government in America since 1994. Ma Rainey’s music written 50-60 years prior highlights how women’s rights were not dealt with by government or society at the time. Rainey and Smith were pioneers when it comes to approaching such a taboo subject in the public eye. Their highlighting of the issues
was a form of public protest.
Though Rainey and Smith both sang about domestic abuse and issues many black women were facing at the time they were generally shunned by the black middle class. Many of these middle-class women saw the blues as having no value of African American life.
Middle-class African American women had their own feminist groups like the National Association of Colored Women and the black women’s club movement. Poor and rural black women were systematically excluded from these institutions. (Suisman, D. 1997 p.71-72)
With no support from government or from middle-class black feminists, Rainey’s lyrics provide a dark insight into the lives of African American women. Rainey was born not long after emancipation, themes in her songs include domestic abuse, travel, and sexuality. These were all new forms of freedom given to the black community in America. Her lyrics depicted the abuse she suffered and issues that had not been addressed before this in American music. Coming from a female perspective alters the music’s impact on the listener. By performing these songs in the public eye it shows her brutal honesty and bravery when others wouldn’t listen. Though arguably she never set out to fight for women’s rights, her lyrics do make her an accidental activist for the working-class black women of America at the time by giving them a voice.