Sister Citizen: Shame, Stereotypes, and Black Women in America

New Price: $13.99
Used Price: $1.08

Mentioned in:

Summer Playlist: Beyond the Cyclical


It’s summer, which means it’s time for a new playlist.

Instead of seeking out new music, I decided instead to play through the songs in my current music library, combing for old or undiscovered gems. If you’re like me, you’ve accumulated music over the years from who knows when or where (The Afghan Whigs? Gloria Gaynor? Massive Attack? Who knew?). Or you’ve listened to albums only partially or half-heartedly when you get to (maybe even skipping over) the lesser-knowns.

To get started, I set my 3,496 songs (some of you music heads are thinking, That’s all?) to shuffle—in the car, on the subway, on dog walks, while washing dishes or cleaning house. My strategy: When a lyric hit me, I paused, replayed, listened again; if it really hit me, then I played all the way through and, nine times out of 10, tapped “add to playlist” (occasionally, a lyric out of context went in a direction that lost me).

While I don’t always listen primarily for lyrics, this playlist, it would seem, is decidedly “literary.” I’m only about one-fourth of the way through my library; so far, the playlist consists of 34 songs. Here’s a sampling.

“All Alone (No One to Be With)” by Slick Rick

As a recovering evangelical, I’m bound to be hooked by any song that starts with, “As a youth each Sunday, Dawn went to church.” Virtuous, love-hungry Dawn gets involved with a young man, at “mad high cost”; she gets pregnant, and her heart broken:
She cried, for no longer knew which way she’s headed
Once dreamt of actually wearing white at her wedding
and really being pure
Now she thought she’d die without
Still she finds strength to continue with her life without love
(All alone, no one to be with)
Without love
(All alone no one to be with)
Without love
(All alone no one to be with)
Without love
(All alone no one to be with)
Good God, the repetition is inescapable and brutal and sad. But Dawn persists:
She decides to have the child because she doesn’t want to sin.
Props to the girl although ahead hard times;
Was Hell finishin’ school and working part-time.
Yet Dawn did it though her youth went to waste.
Little help from the government, she got her own place.
Hard for an independent woman and a kid
And as soon as she could get off the assistance, she did.
Without no man who she once thought she’d die without

Still she finds the strength to continue with her life without love…
(All alone no one to be with)
Life without love…
Dawn works two jobs, her son grows up, starts cutting school, then, “tired of seeing his poor mother suffering,” he starts selling drugs, gets caught, and off to prison—“nine hours on a bus to go see him.” And Dawn, again:
Without no man who she once thought she’d die without
Still she finds the strength to continue with her life without love
(All alone no one to be with)…
The song risks all the tropes and stereotypes of the “strong black woman” (pair with Melissa V. Harris-Perry’s Sister Citizen, specifically her chapter on the dangers of this idealized and constraining stereotype), but what saves it, I think, is its focus on Dawn’s love life. Good on Slick Rick for foregrounding Dawn’s loneliness as her essential tragedy—not just the relentless strength required to live as a black woman in America, and heartbroken over a son’s incarceration, but the fortitude, and pain, of living (and not dying) without the fulfillment of love and partnership, “no one to be with.”

“All I Really Want to Do” by Bob Dylan
I ain’t looking to compete with you
Beat or cheat or mistreat you
Simplify you classify you
Deny defy or crucify you

All I really wanna do
Is baby be friends with you
Another male-authored song that strikes me as awfully insightful on the subject of love and coupling, and resonates, I think, with a female perspective. Dylan’s waltzy guitar rhythms, his playful yodeling and folksy harmonica riffs, draw us into the song’s whirly twirly lightness. But the lyrics home in from the get on the rough-and-tumble of fragile, passionate, independent egos trying and failing to converge in intimacy (truth is, I listened to this song in the car, driving 78 mph north on the Thruway, away from domestic life, for a brief respite).
I ain’t looking to block you up
Shock or knock or lock you up
Analyze you categorize you
Finalize you or advertise you

All I really wanna do
Is baby be friends with you

I don’t want to fake you out
Take or shake or forsake you out
I ain’t looking for you to feel like me
See like me or be like me

All I really wanna do
Is baby be friends with you
I don’t know what the little giggle after “feel like me” is about, but I’d like to think Dylan has figured something out—about the folly of ego clashing—by the time he gets to that stanza. Consider also what he means by “friends”—something much more dimensional and full than the word’s most common meaning today.

“Amsterdam” by Coldplay

I only started listening to Coldplay, like, a month ago. And yeah, that song “Yellow” is moody and romantic and the kind of song Ellar Coltrane likes to listen to in Richard Linklater’s film Boyhood, but this song, whose title is a pleasing mystery (I’ve never been to Amsterdam, but I do live on Amsterdam Avenue, so that’s also pleasing), feels somehow like it was written for grownups.
Come on oh my star is fading
I swerve out of control
If I, if I’d only waited
I’d not be stuck here in this hole

Come here oh my star is fading
And I swerve out of control
And I swear I waited and waited
I’ve got to get out of this hole
I love the movement here from depression (“oh my star is fading”) to desperation (“swerve out of control”) to regret (“if I’d only”) in the first stanza; then the pivot to solicitude (“Come here”) and defensiveness (“I swear”) and determination (“I’ve got to get out”) in the second. So much going on, like all the stages of grief at once. Then comes a voice—an inner voice? An external one?
But time is on your side
It’s on your side now
Not pushing you down, and all around
It’s no cause for concern
Who is addressing whom? I don’t know, but it feels to me like a shift to second-person narration, self addressing self. In any case, the voice offers what the tormented soul didn’t even quite know it needed: the assurance of time. There’s enough time. With time, you can find your star’s brilliance, settle down and straighten the wheel; you can dig deeper for the patience you didn’t have before, and you can climb your way out of the hole.

“Make It with You” by Bread (Dusty Springfield version)
Oh hey, have you ever tried
Really reaching out for the other side?
I may be climbing on rainbows
But baby, here goes . . .

Dreams they’re for those who sleep
Life it’s for us to keep
And if you’re wondering what this song is leading to

I want to make it with you
I really think that we could make it
For me, the first half of the song—what grabbed me on first listen—was all about reaching for rainbows and living life (as opposed to sleeping and dreaming through it). Yes, carpe diem! But then the whole thing turns—retreats, but in a good way—toward a kind of essential humility:
No you don’t know me well
And every little thing
Only time will tell
But you believe the things that I do
And we’ll see it through . . .

I’d like to make it with you
I really think that we could make it
As someone who married naively in my early 20s, then divorced at 30, I think a lot about the crazy things people promise, with such impossible certainty, during marriage ceremonies. “You don’t know me well” and “Only time will tell” are two of the wisest love-song lyrics I’ve ever heard. Along with “you believe the things that I do” and “I really think that we could make it,” this hopeful realism makes me think this song should be everyone’s wedding anthem.

“Jericho” by Weekend Players
Come fill my senses up with you
You’ve turned the jaded into new
Come fill my senses up with you
Love would be senseless without you
Come fill my senses up with you
You, you, you, you, you, you
OK, people, this song is not about the lyrics, really; it’s all about sultry bass and rich string arrangements and smoky, silky vocals. It’s all about the sensorial, sensual reality of human aliveness and intimacy; the renewal that comes from breathing in—smelling, hearing, tasting, touching—a beloved. Words schmerds.

“You Won’t Let Me” by Rachael Yamagata
I don’t want to say good-bye
I just want to give it one more try
And I’d do anything
Yes I’d do anything
If you’d only let me
I’ve just read bell hooks’s truthtelling and uplifting—and let us recognize just how hard it is to be both of these simultaneously—Communion: The Female Search for Love (the third in hooks’s seminal trilogy on love). While Communion was published in 2002, its insights about the persistence of patriarchal norms in so-called progressive heterosexual relationships (let alone overtly oppressive ones) speak as loudly as ever.
When I began working on these chapters about men and discussed issues with women friends…the question they often asked was “Are there any good men?” My response is “Of course there are.” Since many of these women are in midlife, they often encounter men who are what I call “unreconstructed,” who have not yet converted to feminist thinking in their private lives. These men may grudgingly or happily accept women as equals on the job but when they come home, they often want old sexist gender roles to be in place…[On the other hand] Males who have been raised to be holistic, to be in touch with their feelings and able to communicate them, have more satisfying personal relationships than men who are emotionally closed and withholding.
hooks goes on to write that women of her generation—baby boomers who came of age during the heady days of consciousness-raising and sexual liberation—seeking male partners who are “wholeheartedly committed to feminist thinking and practice” often find themselves attracted to men who are gay, bisexual, or under 35. But young women these days do not find themselves in necessarily better situations: Rachael Yamagata (b. 1977) sings often about heartbreak at the hands of men who just couldn’t “handle” her—emotionally, artistically. Here she sings about the yearning to help “reconstruct” a man, who’s ultimately a horse that can’t be forced to drink:
If you’d only let me
I could show you how to love
Take our time, let it all go
If you’d only let me
I could show you how to cry
In your darkest hour
I would lead you through the fire

But you won’t let me
You won’t let me …

If you’d only let me …

But you won’t let me
You won’t let me
Rachael, I hear ya. You’re a dreamer and a romantic, and so am I. We’ve all been there. You can see it, the better version of him—fuller, freer, evolved—that he can’t see. And to this, bell hooks would say, “I decided to choose men whom I did not need to convert to feminist thinking…when a man changes to please a woman rather than from his own inner conviction, the changes are likely to be superficial.” She would say, I think, Move on.

But I think she’d also encourage us to keep envisioning a new world of fully reconstructed, nonbinary mutuality, where we all have both emotional intelligence and quiet strength.

“Do Something” by Macy Gray
Get up, get out and do something
Don’t let the days of your life pass you by
Get up, get out and do something
How will you make it if you never even try?
Get up, get out and do something
Can’t spend your whole life trying to get high
Get up, get out and do something
’Cause you and I got to do for you and I
It’s summer, and for me that means that the temptation to let the weeks pass too quickly, unproductively, looms. I’m always working, but I’m not always doing something in the way Macy Gray means—she’s singing about underachiever’s syndrome here, the fear of failure, the fear of even trying (why not just stay home and smoke weed, after all?). She’s singing about taking risks, getting “out” beyond the familiar and predictable and cyclical.

All righty, then. Happy summer, all. Let’s do this.

Honorable mentions:

“The Man Who Never Lied” by Maroon 5
“The Makeup” by Cody Chestnutt
“Jamais Seule” by Loane
“Just Like a Woman” by Bob Dylan
“Man in the Mirror” by Michael Jackson
“All I Want” by Joni Mitchell
“Just My Imagination” by the Cranberries

Image: Flickr/Andrew Malone

Surprise Me!