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.,

Black Music as an Expression of Black Quiet

In The Sovereignty of Quiet, Kevin Quashie postulates that many of the dominating theories around Blackness pose it as being central or equivalent to resistance– resistance towards hegemonic system of power that threaten Black life: “Resistance is, in fact, the dominant expectation we have of black culture. Indeed, this expectation is so widely familiar that it does not require explanation or qualification; it is practically unconscious,” (Quashie, page 3).

While Quashie admits that this is not inherently negative, he argues that this equating Blackness with resistance also equates Blackness with public displays of loudness, and outward-ness, and that these understandings of Blackness limit our understandings of a Black emotional, personal or interior life; what he describes as quiet.

However, to trouble or perhaps to build off of Quashie’s assertion: are there not moments of Black expression that are reflective of the complexity of a Black interiority, but that are also geared towards Black survival? Quashie describes the quiet as an interiority that is not necessarily tame, or controllable, but that contains all of the depth, complexity and reflection that so often leads to the production of Black artistry.

Taking into consideration Quashie’s understanding of a Black interior, as metaphorically being in terms of properties of sound or lack thereof: What are modes of Black expression that are reflective of and are able to convey all of the complexity of the sonic registers of a Black interiority? In the introduction and Chapter 1 of Sovereignty of Quiet, Quashie focuses his analysis towards close readings of literature and images. However, Black music is a mode of expression that could be thought of as reflecting a true black interiority, or quiet, while also being geared towards what he describes as Black resistance.

In Phonographies, Alexander Weheliye explains that because systems of racial domination were so largely formed around notions of sight, as I described in my last blog post, that sound provides grounds for Black subjects to create embodiments of resistance that exist outside of these hegemonic hierarchies:

“Sound occupies a privileged place precisely because it manages to augment and inferior black subjectivity—a subjectivity created by racist ideologies and practices in the field of vision—establishing venues for the constitution of new modes of existence,” (Weheliye, page 50).

Thus, Wheheliye wages that Black music, perhaps what Quashie would describe as an outward mode of expression, is a mode of Black expression that particularly lends itself towards resistance. Weheliye’s study is focused on modes of Black sonic expression specifically as they relate to technology, such as the development of Jamaican sound systems; however, there are a number of examples in which the Black voice, is utilized as a tool to first and foremost, express an interior life and intimacy, while also waging a position of resistance. The Blues is one such example, but specifically the Blues pioneered by the queer Blues women of the 1930’s and 40’s.

            Many are unaware to the fact that the Blues, as a genre, was pioneered predominantly by Black queer woman. Ma Rainey, Bessie Smith and Gladys Bentley, are some of the first individuals to begin to sing in the style that we understand as the Blues today. And they used their music as a vehicle to clandestinely express their sexuality, in a hetero-patriarchal society.

            For example, Ma Rainey, who was born into an impoverished family in the Deep South in 1886, was a performer whose music was thought to express the struggle and woes of living in the decades following emancipation. She utilizes her voice, in song, to convey a certain emotionality. However, if one is to look closer at her lyrics, such as in the song Prove It On Me Blues, her songs also act as a way to express her queer sexuality: “Went out last night, with a pack of my friends, must have been women because I don’t like no men.”

            Here, Rainey is expressing her inherently sexual interest in women, while also claiming a sexual disinterest towards men, in an era when doing so could have threatened her life and safety. She is conveying a certain intimacy and expressing details from her interior life, while also waging her position as a Black queer woman, what could be read as an act of resistance.

However, it’s true that utilizing Black musical expression as a mode of resistance requires more than simply employing one own’s interior life, but requires that one do so strategically. In Shout It Out: Patrice Rushen as polyphonist and the sounding of black women’s affectability and genius, Brittany Proctor describes Black woman’s virtuosic singing is typically credited to an essentialized womanhood and emotionality, rather than to their practiced genius:

“Conflating black women’s use of voice in performance with black women’s natural performance of emotions, black women musicians have been trapped the liminal understandings of what constitutes authentic black performance,” (Proctor, page 4).

Black women musicians such as, Ma Rainey are able to sing music that garners an emotional response from an audience or listener. It’s true that this requires a certain mastery or control of one’s interior life, or quiet. However, it is this mastery of her own performance, in combination, with her expression of her interior life as a Black queer woman, that renders Ma Rainey’s music an expression of her emotionality and interiority, while also being understood as an act of resistance.

While Quashie’s conception of quiet, and Black outward musical expressions may be seen as in oppositional to one another; however, it is possible for both of these understandings of a Black identity to co-exist. Understanding Black music as an expression of quiet, doesn’t limit or flatten understandings of a Black interiority, simply because Black sonic expression has historically acted as a site of resistance. Understanding Black sonic expression as a site of both Black resistance as well as expressions of Black interiority demonstrate the ways that Black individuals have a certain mastery over their own, intimacies and interiorities, in the ways they are able to maintain their interior lives as well as employ them towards their own survival.

Works Cited

QUASHIE, KEVIN. The Sovereignty of Quiet: Beyond Resistance in Black Culture. Rutgers University Press, 2012. JSTOR,

Brittnay Proctor, “‘Shout It Out’: Patrice Rushen as Polyphonist and the Sounding of Black Women’s Affectability and Genius.” Journal of Popular Music Studies 29:4, 2017.

Weheliye, Alexander G. Phonographies: Grooves in Sonic Afro-Modernity. Duke University Press, 2005.

A Black Gaze: An Oppositional Gaze or In Opposition to the Gaze?

Babette Thomas

To be a problem, and more specifically to be a Black problem, means to be a Black person who resists ideologies perpetuated by white-supremacist hetero-patriarchy; to be an inconsistency in structures of power and domination and therefore to be seen as an “other.” These hegemonic notions of “otherness,” were formed largely through sight and more specifically through the exertion of a White male gaze. As white male Europeans colonized the Americas, they utilized their gaze to establish Brown and indigenous people as the “other,” ideas which were cemented during the Enlightenment: those that were able to look upon and exert their gaze became subjects, and those who were racialized and looked upon became objects.

However, Black individuals whom, through enslavement, have been deemed voiceless objects, have always looked and spoke back; have found modes of subjectivity formation that move in and out of Western paradigms that prioritize the “eye” and the “I”. Black poet Phyllis Wheatley is one such individual or problem. Although the authenticity of her work has been brought into question, in “The Politics of Classicism in the Poetry of Phyllis Wheatley”, Emily Greenwood analyzes Phyllis Wheatley’s poetry not only in terms of how it speaks to a classicist tradition, but also how it acts as a site of resistance, or what she coins as “a poetics of liberation.”

Thus, as Black intellectuals produce work for themselves and in the field of Africana –a field that could be understood as being oppositional to classicist modes of knowledge production according to bell hooks’ definition–the question then becomes: Are Black intellectuals, such as Phyllis Wheatley, to take this “oppositional gaze” to look upon and engage with the very classicist fields that have oppressed them, or is a Black gaze that is truly oppositional, one that set’s it’s sights elsewhere (Citation 1)?  

In ““The Oppositional Gaze: Black Female Spectators.” bell hooks defines an “oppositional gaze” in the context of cinematic understandings of the gaze, specifically in mainstream Hollywood cinema. While the pleasure and delight of Hollywood cinema is considered to be being able to personally relate with the gaze of the camera and of characters within the film, bell hooks explains that this assumes the presence of a white male spectators The gaze of American Hollywood cinema, thus, according to hooks, serves as a tool to perpetuate hegemonic ideology. However, as hooks describes, she as well as the other Black women in her life are not able to relate such a gaze; a white male gaze that is not only fixated upon the sexualized figure of white women, but the Blackened figures of racialized “others” as well (Citation 1).

Thus, hooks defines a “resisting” gaze as the ability on the part of Black spectators to dis-identify with representations of Black figures in film that attempt to interpolate an audience into a hegemonic ideology of anti-Blackness and white supremacy. An “oppositional” gaze is one that individuals employ to produce film that challenges these systemics hierarchies. Thus, according to hooks, it is Black women who are perhaps most inclined and best suited to procure a gaze that is truly “oppositional” because of their ability to challenge not only hierarchies of gender, but also hegemonic hierarchies of race, as well as the intersection of the two (Citation 1).

Although Phyllis Wheatley, was certainly not a filmmaker, and lived and wrote poetry long before the invention of moving image, there are ways of understanding her poetry as acting within an “oppositional gaze,” in which she looks back at the field of classicism, but also navigates it as a site of resistance. As Emily Greenwood describes, Phyllis Wheatley’s white audience understood her as a contradiction or a problem in their understandings of Black intellectual inferiority. She was either viewed as a prodigy and an exception among Black people, who couldn’t possibly be intellectual, or her poetry was viewed as a simple “mimicry” of traditional Greek and roman classic poems. However, while a surface-level reading of her poems might lead one to believe that she simply emulated white European poets, Emily Greenwood demonstrates the complexity in the ways that Wheatley used her poetry to exert her freedom as an enslaved Black woman (Citation 2).

For example, Wheatley distances herself from the self-deprecating nature and tone of classical poems by utilizing verb tense to put herself on the same grounds as the poets she supposedly emulates. As a black enslaved woman, because society already diminishes the power of her voice, she finds no need to do that for herself (Citation 2). In this way, one could understand how Wheatley is strategically engaging with the classicist field, but also finds subtle yet ingenious ways to act in opposition to it—in opposition to a tradition that would look upon her and her voice as lesser.

However, after Phillis Wheatley gained her freedom, her work became a lot less popular amongst her White Northeastern audience, speaking to the ways that her audience was interested in her work as a mode of spectacle, and Black exceptionalism (Citation 2). In this way, Phillis Wheatley’s work, is in certain ways, oppositional in the context of the conditions under which she wrote, as an enslaved woman who had to utilize existing systems as a way to exert her own freedom. However, at the same time, Wheatley’s hinges upon the very structures it seeks to resist, and therefor does not constitute a truly oppositional gaze against classical modes of poetry, that she herself read and looked upon.

 A gaze that is oppositional as well as Black is therefor, one that does not look to hegemonic structures that it seeks to distance itself away from, but one that turns it’s back on such structures, to go produce work that exists outside of them. An oppositional gaze is therefore one that also requires a critical imaginative practice, to orient one’s self towards new ways of looking and seeing that don’t perpetuate the same violence that the classical gaze historically has.  

Works Cited

  1. Bell Hooks, “The Oppositional Gaze: Black Female Spectators.” Black Looks: Race and Representation. Boston: South End Press, 115-132, 1992.
  2. Emily Greenwood, “The Politics of Classicism in the Poetry of Phillis Wheatley” in Ancient Slavery and Abolition: from Hobbes to Hollywood edited by Richard Alston, Edith Hall, and Justine McConnell (Oxford University Press: 2011)