Black Women Citing Towards Revolution

Daphne Brooks brings us there– into the spaces between the footnotes that lie at the margins of the written works that make up what we call Black studies. As my friend, peer and collaborator Desmond Fonseca exclaimed over a GroupMe chat, in the midst of discussing this piece, “it’s a syllabus and a love letter and a review and an essay like HOW!” In what she describes as “a meditative syllabus on Saidiya Hartman’ss book Wayward Lives, Beautiful Experiments: Intimate Histories of Social Upheaval,Daphne Brooke’s article in the New Inquiry titled, “The Beautiful Struggle,” does indeed feel like a love letter to author and historian Saidiya Hartman’s careful excavation of the intimacies of Black-American women at the turn of the twentieth century. In the article, Brooks outlines the utter impact of Saidiya Hartman’s work and methodologies on the fields of Black studies, history and knowledge-making more broadly.

In doing so, Daphne Brooks also carefully maps the rhizomatic web of works that lie tangentially to Hartman’s; these works in Black studies that speak back to one another, that brush up against each other, that serve as foundation for the continuation of these intimate archival encounters, and works that continue to inspire and make possible the evolution of the field of Black studies. Through tracing and citing the interventions that have inspired Hartman’s work, as well the vast number of theorizations Hartman’s work makes fathomable and therefor possible, Daphne Brooks gracefully exemplifies and lights the way for a Black feminist citational practice as a scholarly act of love and care.

In this work, Daphne Brooks begins with an orientation. She begs the question of how we can prepare ourselves for the intimacy of the archival encounter: “How to [square with] those who came before?”[1] In her answer, she describes that importance of pleasurable exertions of freedom; of dancing, of love making, of these sensory experiences that interpolate us—that these experiences can prime us to understand individuals in the archive, who had the ability to feel pain, but also to feel the deepest of pleasures. However, she describes that this approach to the archive isn’t necessarily a direct path to interpreting these individuals’ lives and work, and in fact focusing on one’s self can sometimes even be, “perhaps the wrong way to honor the questions that hover around and shroud the lost, the dispossessed the disavowed.”[2]

In this non-linear archival work or in Hartman’s practice of “critical fabulation,” Brooks describes that one can expect to encounter failure.[3] However, in these moments, one can also expect to be supported by the articulations of, what she describes as “the chorus.”[4] The “chorus” are those authors and thinkers who have come before, as well as those whom continue to write; this notion of the “chorus” is a way of tracing a lineage of Black studies that one may find one’s self, according to Brooks, “writing of and for and toward.”[5]  Here, Brooks, begins to intricately, and I would argue, lovingly, trace the web of scholars that are in conversation with, or rather in harmony with Hartman’s work. Brooks begins to trace the relationships of works of individuals such as Toni Morrison, Lynn Nottage, Tavia Nyong’o, Kara Keeling and Barbra Cristian— outlining a web, or perhaps more appropriately in the case of Hartman’s work, tracing a map of a city of critical studies. If Saidiya Hartman takes a reader through the streets of cities such as Philadelphia and Harlem in her study of Wayward lives, crafting new epistemologies along the way, then Brooks charts and illuminates these paths that Hartman takes, mapping an intellectual trail; developing a citational practice in which nobody gets left behind.

 Brooks’ rigorous practice of citation is one that she not only enacts on the page, but one that she fully embodies as she discusses her work. This past year, when I the opportunity to interview Brooks, over the phone, about her research and studies of recordings of Zora Neale Hurston’s sonic performances, she made a point of consistently citing the scholars and individuals whose work impacts her own. Glenda R. Carpio, Werner Sollors, Alexandra Vazquez, Sonia Posmentier, Roshanak Kheshti and Anthea Kraut are only a few of the scholars she named, who are writing towards the “chorus” of what she describes as “the power and resonance of Zora’s interdisciplinarity.”[6]

In “The Beautiful Struggle,”Daphne Brooks provides us with an intricate model of how to pay attention to and transcribe the intricacies of harmonies, rhythms and cadences of a scholarly “chorus”. But in what key does this “chorus” sing? Does this chorus sound something like Ma Rainey’s, Runaway Blues? Ringing at a resonance of black fugitivity? Perhaps this chorus sings to the rhythm of Black feminist study. Given Daphne Brooks background as a writer, studier and theorist of popular music, deeply anchored in her love of rock and roll, perhaps it would be fitting to turn to the Black women who have hummed a citational lineage through their sonic performances, to begin to tune into the frequencies of this chorus.

Jamila Woods in one such artist, poet and musician. In her most recent album, LEGACY! LEGACY!, Woods uses her voice to chart exactly that: a legacy. Woods’ album pays homage to the intellectual, artistic and creative predecessors who have informed her style and identity as a writer and artist. Each title of a song is named after a thinker or artist–each song, thus, embodying the frequencies of these individual’s lives and works, as Woods describes in an interview with Pitchfork magazine: “‘I thought of it not so much as writing songs about these people, but thinking of the songs as self-portraits,’ she tells me. ‘I was looking through the lenses of these different people, their work, things they said.’”[7] In inhabiting the lives of these individuals through her voice, Woods employs a type of surrogacy. She brings about a closeness between her and those who have informed her work—embodying, through song, exactly how these works have impressed upon her.

In this album, Jamila Woods grapples with Zora’s “feeling most colored against a white background,” sings through Giovanni’s “Ego Tripping,” reinterprets Sonia’s “It was baaaaad,” identifies with Frida’s need for space, listens to Eartha’s lessons in refusal, steps into Miles’ power, channels Muddy’s playing electric guitar over a crowd who won’t shut the fuck up, Basquiat’s right to interiority, Octavia’s power to manifest and Baldwin’s capacity for forgiveness.[8] These 11 songs, representing 11 artists within a legacy–within a chorus– are framed by two songs inspired by the same woman. The opening and closing tacks of the album, titled Betty, pay homage funk pioneer and songstress, Betty Davis. Betty Davis, whose performances trespassed upon the boundaries of what it meant to be a female performer at the time, is a singer who reveled in raunch and channeled it through the raspiness of her voice.

Woods channels Betty’s ground-breaking performance style through the lyric “I am not your typical girl”—first in the opening track of the album, as well as in a remix of this track, which closes out the album.[9] The last song of the album is titled “Betty (for boogie)” and is a House remix of the opening song; house music being a musical genre that grew out of Woods’ hometown of Chicago. In this, Woods demonstrates the ways our encounters with the work of our predecessors is two-fold. First, in the ways that these works impress upon us, and then in the ways that we interpret these works or sing back to them—a type of call and response, writing to the chorus.

But perhaps Woods channels more from Betty Davis than simply a sense of individuality and uniqueness. In her song 1974, “They Say I’m Different,” Betty Davis provides a list of reasons for why she is “different” or why some might perceive hear as strange—outlining her own legacy of divergence. Beginning with a guitar and bassline that punches you in your gut, followed by guitar riffs that are clearly evocative of the blues, Betty first bases her outsider-ness in her Black southern upbringing, singing: “They say I’m different ’cause I eat chitlins, I can’t help it I was born & raised on’em, that’s right.”[10] She then moves to sounding her reasons for being as being tied up with the blues. For practically the rest of the song, she lists off blues artists who have influenced her music, also calling upon the blues as an example of embracing a positionality of the “other” and of digression–of existing within what Fred Moten might describe as, the Undercommons.[11] She describes her grandmother dancing to Elmore James and her grandpa, “a blues lover, rocking his moonshine to B.B. King and Jimmy Reed.”[12] She sings of listening Lightning Hopkins, Albert King, Chuck Berry, Muddy Waters, Leadbelly, Sonny Terry, Brownie Mcghee, Son House and Freddie King. She ends on the names Bessie Smith and Robert Johnson, saying them two and then three times, as almost a type incantation; ensuring that the names of the lineage she calls forth, truly land upon the ears of whoever is listening.

In where academic institutions and society writ large have historically exploited and exhausted the labor of Black women– questioning the validity of Black women’s intellectual, creative and labor-oriented contributions– citation, specifically citing Black women, thus becomes essential to the survival of a Black intellectual and creative tradition. A citational practice such as Brook’s, is not therefor only a Black feminist act, but a revolutionary one. Citation is a practice that black women, such as Daphne Brooks, Jamila Woods and Betty Davis, fashion time and time again–making it seem effortless, but doing so with the rigor and weight of the work of their predecessors; of their respective choruses. A collective called Cite Black Women whose very mission is to combat this erasure of the work of Black women in the fields of academia, explains in their mission statement, “Citation as a practice allows us to engage with voices so often silenced or left behind. As Barbara Christian argues, we have, ‘more pressing and interesting things to do, such as reading and studying the history and literature of black women, a history…ignored [and] bursting with originality, passion, insight, and beauty.’”[13] These notions of chorus emphasize the essentiality of citation within the field of Black studies, but also call us to engage in this practice with care, embellishment and beauty. As Professor Jasmine Johnson, a scholar of Africana Feminisms, always states in her lectures, “give people their flowers while they’re living.”

[1] Brooks, Daphne A. “The Beautiful Struggle.” The New Inquiry, 22 July 2019,

[2] Ibid.

[3] Hartman, S. “Venus in Two Acts.” Small Axe: A Caribbean Journal of Criticism, vol. 12, no. 2, 2008, pp. 1–14., doi:10.1215/-12-2-1.

[4] Brooks.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Personal Interview, 14 March 2019, Brooks, Daphne.

[7] Anderson, Stacey. “Jamila Woods Breaks Down Every Song on Her New Album, LEGACY! LEGACY!” Pitchfork, Pitchfork, 10 May 2019,

[8] Ibid

[9] Woods, Jamila. “Betty.” Genius. Accessed December 3, 2019.

[10] Davis, Betty. “They Say I’m Different.” Genius. Accessed December 3, 2019.

[11] Harney, Stefano, and Fred Moten. The Undercommons: Fugitive Planning and Black Study. Minor Compositions, 2013.

[12] Davis.

[13] “Cite Black Women.” Cite Black Women.,

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