book review

Writing Love Notes to the Archive of Black Performance

Photo-Illustration: Vulture; Photos by Publishers

One day as a small child, Toni Morrison found a heavy metal trunk belonging to her mother. “The lock,” Morrison remembers in the foreword to her novel Jazz, “clasped shut but not key-locked, was thrilling.” Inside were clothes her mother wore before she was born — dresses made of crepe and a glittery evening purse, “jeweled with fringe dangled in jet and glass.” Then the trunk’s lid fell shut on her tiny hand. Her mother soothed the pain away, but the memory lingered.

Morrison set Jazz, about doomed romance between freshly transplanted Southerners, in Harlem circa 1926, the middle of what would later be called the jazz age and five years before she was born, when her own Georgia- and Alabama-born parents were living in the Midwest. Morrison read yellowed newspapers as she wrote, and “listened to the scratchy ‘race’ records from Okeh, Black Swan, Chess, Savoy, King, Peacock.” She remembered her mother’s glittery purse and the songs — holy and ribald, sweet and caustic — her mother sang throughout their home. The novel those memories inspired is polyphonic, with circles of time and points of view that feel like the music. “Improvisation, originality, change. Rather than be about those characteristics, the novel would become them,” writes Morrison.

The evening purse, the overheard lyrics. They clung to the author until she needed to retrieve them. “These are the sorts of experimental methods that come alive in Black feminist expressive cultures,” writes Daphne A. Brooks in her recent book Liner Notes for the Revolution: The Intellectual Life of Black Feminist Sound. She’s describing the world-mining done by Morrison in Jazz and Beloved, poet June Jordan in her prose poem on Phillis Wheatley, Cheryl Dunye in her faux-archival rom-com Watermelon Woman — works about the creative output, and the inner lives, of Black women artists and laypeople. There have been many books about major African American figures in history and culture-making. But Liner Notes, which came out in February, examines both Black women music-makers and what Brooks calls, in a nod to Saidiya Hartman, “the chorus” — the Black women critics and collectors who inspire the music, listen to it, curate it, live with it, make love to it, analyze it, and tell us its stories.

Brooks’s book is part of a new wave of nonfiction keen on indexing the breadth and significance of Black expression, especially through the lens of women’s lives. Last fall, Maureen Mahon published Black Diamond Queens: African American Women and Rock and Roll, which traces a history of Black women vocalists “whose race and gender identities made their impact difficult to hear and acknowledge.” In February, Clover Hope published her rap history The Motherlode: 100+ Women Who Made Hip Hop. Danyel Smith’s Shine Bright: A Personal History of Black Women in Pop is due out next year. Even when these works aren’t authored by Black women, Black womanhood is still being considered: In March, poet and critic Hanif Abdurraqib published the intimate essay collection A Little Devil in America: Notes in Praise of Black Performance, which places a fine point on the centrality of Black women’s labor to American entertainment.

These books are coming out alongside a flood of films and TV intent on reimagining, reanimating, and revisiting our haunted, shared past. Brooks argues this is also happening in music, writing that our moment has taken a “curatorial turn,” in which “Black women musicians make history and memory their principal sources of concern, aesthetic inspiration and avant-garde experiment.” Some works aim to redirect the ways we think about American art. Some point to artists from the past in an attempt to name the overlooked. Others just want to embellish and speculate. All are exercises in learning to see better, to hold our past up to the light.

Liner Notes for the Revolution, which came out in February, is a big book, physically — nearly 600 pages, with endnotes making up almost a fifth of that — as well as in its range, its significance, and its ambition. When Brooks, a critic and Yale professor, writes about the beginning of the rock-and-roll era, she proposes: “What if we start at 1619?”

That idea is key to the questions that Liner Notes ponders. It’s Brooks’s third book, and while her tone is mostly academic, it’s also rich with insights and warm, folksy asides. It is divided into sections the author calls “Side A” and “Side B,” like a vinyl record, and each of the chapters are meant to accompany the work of the people Brooks writes about, like actual liner notes. “The notes had the potential to shore up the supposed import and ambition of a recording,” Brooks says, “amplifying its intellectual resonance by writing its value into the cultural imaginary.” (As she has pointed out before, only three women have ever won album notes Grammys since the category was created in 1964.) Liner Notes, the book, is a litany for what could have been.

Side A focuses on writers and critics, Brooks’s peers and predecessors, such as the essayist and artist Lorraine O’Grady and Ebony editor and author Phyl Garland. The first chapter introduces Pauline Hopkins, an early 20th-century journalist, novelist, editor, and former singer, whom Brooks considers the first African American woman music writer. Hopkins published articles on Black opera singers and serialized fiction in the Colored American in the early 1900s. Brooks contemplates feminist rock critic Ellen Willis through the lens of Willis’s early encounter with Lorraine Hansberry — Willis, as a 19-year-old Mademoiselle intern, once interviewed the playwright for special issue of the magazine. There’s no proof they ever met again, but Brooks imagines what Hansberry’s influence on the future critic could have been: “What kind of a mark might this meeting have left on her as she was coming of age as a writer?” Brooks ponders. “Perhaps it was a pivotal connection that she stored away yet cherished.” The author admits the questions have utopic aims, positing that, one day, a kind of music criticism could be born that would ignore “the enforced boundaries between Black radical thought and rock and roll passion prose.”

In Side B, Liner Notes illuminates the artists and informal archivists who have insisted on covering and “re-covering” the women of the classic blues — the female record geeks who often don’t get the credit for collecting sounds and knowledge. There Brooks writes about Morrison and, poignantly, Brooks’s own Texas-born mother, who “made her way into the heart of downtown Texarkana — usually by foot but occasionally by bus — in order to visit Beasley’s Music Store at 202 East Broad Street,” in the 1940s. To Brooks, this category also includes contemporary singers who dig through ephemera and record-store flyers to make their music. Artists such as Valerie June, Cécile McLorin Salvant, and Rhiannon Giddens are “making new records of history,” Brooks says, performing “Black feminist excavation labor at the site of music” — keeping the old traditions alive, reminding us of their radical possibilities, and innovating.

Sometimes Brooks is confrontational, especially toward white critics, reporters, and collectors who have misinterpreted or undersold women artists and thinkers. She writes about the narrative around the “rediscovery” of the early blueswomen Geeshie Wiley and L.V. Thomas, advanced by, among others, white writers like Greil Marcus and John Jeremiah Sullivan, sometimes in the Oxford American (a magazine Brooks has also written for, and where I am now editor-in-chief). A lot of those people overlooked Geeshie and L.V.’s histories of incarceration and domestic violence, reasons why the women may have never wanted to be found. Brooks wonders if the narratives “constitute their own troubling romance and threaten to perpetuate the kind of confounding myths that tell us much — if not more — about the mythmakers themselves.”

Each chapter covers so much ground, it can be overwhelming; many chapters seem as though they would have worked better broken out into a series of individual essays rather than as part of some unified whole. When Brooks begins to experiment with possibilities, sentences can descend into a menu of rhetorical questions. She praises the “spaces beyond academia, quotidian public and consumer cultures” that produced innovative art and criticism. But I wonder how Brooks’s own enormous book would ever get into the hands of the “quotidian public.”

Still, she offers a rigorous and sweeping counter-history of American pop. In the epilogue, she juxtaposes Bob Dylan’s endlessly bootlegged 1967 recording, The Basement Tapes, and Beyoncé’s Lemonade: Both map a sonic genealogy of American music. Lemonade may be the most written-about album of the internet era; Brooks employs the work of Black Atlantic theorists Édouard Glissant and Katherine McKittrick to remind us why. She writes that Beyoncé employed “woman-of-color critical thought and study,” remembering forebears in her “subterranean expedition” to New Orleans streets, the Superdome, old plantation homes, the Atlantic Ocean, “where buried New World truths lie.” Lemonade enfolds decades of rock-and-roll history while remaining beautiful. In the most graceful sections of her book, Brooks achieves that, too.

In every flurry of creative activity, the whims of commerce and capitalism play a part — from the white benefactors in 1920s Harlem to guilty corporations holding court in Zoom meetings. Black artists have always labored both within the trends of market demand and outside of them.

To be sure, Blackness is chic; social and political awareness are popular enough to feign or co-opt. When Beyoncé performs an homage to the anticapitalist Black Panthers at the Super Bowl, as she did in 2016, then releases just two years later an album where she raps, “Got that dinero on my mind,” it’s hard to see her curatorial endeavors as anything more than good business. “The Super Bowl is not a radical platform … no matter what performance of radical politics can be projected onto it,” writes Hanif Abdurraqib in A Little Devil in America. But he’s not ready to dismiss Bey completely: He still believes the artist’s 2016 Super Bowl performance was “a conscious decision about how to show up to work.” By then, three years into the Black Lives Matter movement, he writes, “Black people had found new ways to say, ‘I am angry about every measure of American violence.’”

This deft consideration of seemingly irreconcilable values, between the personal and private dimensions of performance, can be found throughout the essays in A Little Devil in America. The title of this book — Abdurraqib’s third book of prose — references a 1963 speech given by Josephine Baker, who traveled back to the U.S., after decades of living in France, to speak at the March on Washington, the only woman to do so: “When I was a child and they burned me out of my home, I was frightened and I ran away,” she said, referencing the East St. Louis massacre of 1917:

Now I know that all you children don’t know who Josephine Baker is, but you ask Grandma and Grandpa and they will tell you. You know what they will say. “Why, she was a devil.” And you know something…why, they are right. I was too. I was a devil in other countries, and I was a little devil in America too.

Like Brooks, Abdurraqib sees performance as a site of radical questioning, experimentation, and dream-making. This book is not a work of theory. It is sensual. We watch him watching his idols and we watch him dancing along with them, sometimes clumsily. If Brooks’s goal is to make a case for performers’ intellectualism, Abdurraqib’s is to help us understand how they teach us to live richer, more embodied lives.

Little Devil is formally elegant, its chapters arranged into five “movements,” like a symphony, with titles like “Suspending Disbelief” and “On Matters of Country/Provenance.” Abdurraqib meditates on a wide range of performances that have moved him, musical and otherwise. There is Beyoncé’s Super Bowl performance and Merry Clayton’s gut-wrenching vocal on “Gimme Shelter”; there’s Dave Chapelle, Ben Vereen, and Bert Williams’s uses of blackface. A short prose poem by Abdurraqib opens each section, each poem is a variation on a central theme, recurring like a refrain. Some essays are not about what most people would call “performance” at all: the culturally Black rituals like playing spades, talking smack at the barbershop, attending a funeral that lasts for hours.

Toni Morrison’s legacy suffuses Abdurraqib’s work as it does Brooks’s. He suggested in an essay for the Guardian that Little Devil would have been much different had Morrison not passed away before its publication: more focused on racism, less on actual performances. Instead, Abdurraqib produced a book about sparkling, transcendent events — a text about texts we can sing along to. My favorite essays in A Little Devil, “On Going Home as Performance” and “Nine Considerations of Black People in Space,” mine the particularities of a moment from many angles, a prism of delights and hauntings. In the former, a childhood memory of a dead bird spins into a lamentation on the author’s late mother, which brings us to the night of Michael Jackson’s death, when a bar in Columbus “called off every other purpose it served for one evening and told the city to come dance in the name of the King of Pop.” As performed by Jackson, Abdurraqib says, “the moonwalk is all about trying to run from the past when its hands keep dragging you back.”

Abdurraqib is less concerned about tracing an intellectual lineage than Brooks. Still, the work of one complements the other, and both books were released as publishing houses consolidate and local, independent news outlets — once reliable sources of music criticism and knowledge — disappear from most cities. Longtime cultivators of insightful critics and engaged audiences, the Black and multicultural press has a fraction of the resources that it had 50, or even 20, years ago. At the same time, Black Lives Matter and local movements for racial and gender justice have pushed the publishing and entertainment industries to embrace more nuanced ways of understanding power. Notable figures and events in African American history have been revisited and reconsidered. Some of the films, TV series, podcasts, and books recasting the past are doing it a lot better than others. In Time, author Ibram X. Kendi declared this flurry of activity a Black Renaissance, “the third great cultural revival of Black Americans, after the Harlem Renaissance of the 1920s, after the Black Arts Movement of the 1960s and 1970s.”

While something is happening, Kendi’s framing of Black cultural production as a series of bursts feels ahistorical to me. It undersells our resiliency through dark times. What about the art and institutions created during the nadir of American race relations, the years after Reconstruction through the early parts of the 20th century, when Black people organized the NAACP, fraternities and sororities, and shows and venues for vaudevillian talents, who would eventually play uptown in the 1920s? Zora Neale Hurston wrote Their Eyes Were Watching God during the Great Depression. The 1990s saw the crime bills, but it also saw the ascendance of hip-hop and the film careers of Lee, Singleton, and Dash.

What both Brooks and Abdurraqib are working toward — a full accounting of the ways Black culture has imprinted itself, moved and shaped the whole of the West — can never be complete. Both writers use the word “notes” in their titles, bringing to mind an unfinished quality, something that is part of something else and larger than itself. Conceiving of history as a few isolated surges of brilliance ignores the threads that have been woven all along, across generations — the dance of time specific to Black art, the dance that allows it to last.

Writing Love Notes to the Archive