Monday, September 7, 2009

All the Things You Could Be by Now, If Tyler Perry's Wife was Your Mother

(gender pop music pop religion pop sexuality)

This title is a riff, of course. A riff on Charles Mingus's song with similar title, a song he dedicated to mothers (“All the Things You Could Be By Now, If Sigmund Freud’s Wife was Your Mother”). Mingus said “if Sigmund Freud’s wife was your mother” that “Nothing. It means nothing.” In comes the song, 8 minutes, 43 seconds long. Beat drop. Pop snare.

Freud, of course, was the founder of modern-day psychoanalysis and focused much of his attention on sex and sexuality. But for Mingus to take up Freud was to racialize his work, to complicate Freud’s writing and theorizing by way of black folks. But what of black women, women who were and are constantly thought as nothing, no thing with which to contend, what of women who are constantly thought as essentially no thing? Hortense Spillers writes what she thinks Mingus’s song means: “…what he proceeds to perform on the cut is certainly no thing we know. But that really is the point – to extend the realm of possibility for what might be known…”[1] What follows in the song are bass drums and hi hats, saxophones and bass violin, speed ups and slow downs. Rhythm is constantly on the run in the song and, sometimes, in the crawl. This is nothing other than the condition of black women who are conceived as no thing, indeed…but who we must “learn to hear well.”

Few pieces that I had seen as an undergraduate at University of Pennsylvania performed by students have stayed with me, have haunted me. Save (and, admit) one: For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide When the Rainbow is Enuf by Ntozake Shange. The line “i found god in myself & i loved her / i loved her fiercely” swelled from one voice to all voices, to “a song of joy” that ends with the ladies (brown, yellow, purple, red, green, blue, orange). Nothing can really express how I felt when I first heard those words, those reiterated, repeated, refrained words. My skin still stands when I recall the memory of that sound, the sound is the memory itself. But to begin with that line is to begin at the end. And the opening of For Colored Girls is as important.

Of course, a riff is nothing but a violence to a proposed melody, an agitation of the note to go both above and below it, to reach through the note towards height and depth. Riffs mean something...they mean that the single “straight note” cannot possibly contain the voice's intention, its energy. And if anyone knew about violence, Mingus did. He was known for violent fits as well as bouts of depression. And if anyone knows about violence, about agitation, black women do. The Lady in Brown lets us know this through song, through melody-less music:

lady in brown

dark phrases of womanhood
of never havin been a girl
half-notes scattered
without rhythm/ no tune
distraught laughter fallin
over a black girl’s shoulder
it’s funny/ it’s hysterical
the melody-less-ness of her dance
don’t tell nobody don’t tell a soul
she’s dancing on beer cans & shingles

this must be the spook house
another song with no singers
lyrics/ no voices
& interrupted solos
unseen performances

are we ghouls?
children of horror?
the joke?

don’t tell nobody don’t tell a soul
are we animals? have we gone crazy?

i can’t hear anything
but maddening screams
& the soft strains of death
& you promised me
you promised me…
somebody/ anybody
sing a black girl’s song
bring her out
to know herself
to know you
but sing her rhythms
carin/ struggle/ hard times
sing her song of life
she’s been dead so long
closed in silence so long
she doesn’t know the sound
of her own voice
her infinite beauty

she’s half-notes scattered
without rhythm/ no tune
sing her sighs
sing the song of her possibilities
sing a righteous gospel
let her be born
let her be born
& handled warmly.

In this opening, lady in brown introduces listeners/viewers/readers to the aches of black womanhood in a world that seeks to continually quiet their voices. Her focus on musicology, on the “half-notes” and on the rhythm is, to me, about a particular perception of music as linear, as always moving forward, as progressive. Anyone that does not “theorize” music similarly to Western musicology (e.g., the pentatonic , 7-note scale, the treble and bass clefs, major and minor scales, rhythms of whole, half, quarter, etc) is marginalized because they perform music differently, because their structure of musical thought diverges from that which is normative. How else could someone dance “melody-less” or have “half-notes scatted” about, not cohering to any scale or rhythm? These are performances by ghosts, by those who cannot be seen, those who are, literally, no thing. But as Spillers argues, we need to learn how to hear differently, we need to be atuned to those voices that we refuse to hear…those voices that continue to “sing her sighs” and “sing the song of her possibilities.” Indeed, we just gotta change our habits of hearing.

Which is why Tyler Perry is so problematic for me. I could point to his gross sexism and homophobia in his plays and movies as an injustice against black women and femininity. He, of course, does violence to black women’s lives by his one-dimensional portrayals of them: always in need of rescue from Jesus and a man in order to be saved from herself. Madea, of course, is no exception, though she acts more as a (self-)righteous grandma with a gun. I am very bothered by the fact that Perry will be writing the adaptation of the choreopoem For Colored Girls for film because I really don’t think he has the depth of analysis with regard to the lives and silencing of black women.

Indeed, lady in brown’s words anticipated Perry’s (re)writing of the choreopoem. Noted that because of Perry, Shange’s words will now be available to a “wide audience,” I have to wonder, in lady in brown’s words, are black women “ghouls? children of horror? the joke?” When lady in brown asks for someone to "sing a black girl's song," at the end of the choreopoem, in the chorus of voices we find who should be singing: black women, together, dancing, loving each "a closed tight circle." That is how they will get to their rainbows, not by some anti-feminist, politics-of-respectability dude.

Perry will write the voices of black women and I gotta problem with that. I don’t care about essentialism arguments right now. I care about how a black dude that has shown no depth of relationality for black women’s lives will represent a decidedly black feminist choreopoem. And why is it that this dude has to be the one to resurrect the dead? Black women certainly will not hear their voices represented in any real way through Perry. Rather, he will ventriloquize in much the same way as he does for Madea, but (hopefully) this time, with his body off stage/set. This is not a resuscitation of black women's voices, but this is a nail in the coffin, their voices so marginal that any (famous, rich) black guy could (re)write their stories. But even if he could, should he? I'm just not convinced.

How can we “learn to hear well” when what we will hear and see will be filtered through a pro-Christian, anti-feminist lens? Of course, he could do a great adaptation but I doubt it. And as much as I love “The Color Purple” in movie form, one should note how very divergent the movie is from Walker’s novel, how the movie is much more reliant on gender division (rather than Walker’s Womanist vision) and Christian, moral uplift. “Waiting to Exhale” is another prime example of what happens from “real to reel”: in the movie depiction, Bernie’s affair with the married black man (married to the white wife) ends with him writing her to tell her how much he is in love with his wife and would never leave her. The book version of “Exhale” has the affair lead to a new relationship for Bernie.[2] Some liberties from book to play to film make sense…some only function to reiterate certain normative ideas and I can’t help but think Perry’s depiction of the ladies will do injustice.

What type of riff will Perry perform on the choreopoem? We have yet to see. But if his corpus of work already available is any indication, I wouldn’t get too excited.

“i found god in myself & i loved her / i loved her fiercely” is not simply a line in a choreopoem, it is literally experience that is lived, that is breathed, that has a corporality, that is embodied, that is enfleshed. it cannot simply be “written” or “performed” but is the result of contending with one’s position in the world, with inhabiting society from a peculiar matrix of race, gender, class, sexuality and ability. If Tyler Perry’s wife was your mother, and I do realize the joke inherent in the idea, she might need this choreopoem more than anyone else because she would be framed in his patriarchal and parochial vision for black family, for black womanhood and black manhood.

[1] Hortense J. Spillers, ""All the Things You Could Be by Now, If Sigmund Freud's Wife Was Your Mother": Psychoanalysis and Race," in Black, White, and in Color : Essays on American Literature and Culture (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2003).

[2] Bell Hooks, Reel to Real : Race, Sex, and Class at the Movies (New York: Routledge, 1996).


  1. Damn...well written indeed. I feel your concerns.

  2. Who vamped on ego more than Freud? Mingus knew what ego and superego and id and an Iliad, Ilid et al.
    He also knew what it wasn't.

    Essentially, the act of the music where you explain "bass drums and hi hats, saxophones and bass violin, speed ups and slow downs. Rhythm is constantly on the run in the song and, sometimes, in the crawl…" does not seem to fully support your argument. Notes that could be consonant to a young student without ever knowing the definition of the word does not mean she is unable to hear it. Learning to hear well, musically, can evolve with complete omission of vocabulary and syntax.

    Music composition and song say what jazz is, what folk is, what any genre of music is: a form of communication that most hear but don't understand.

    Stating "This is nothing other than the condition of black women who are conceived as no thing" is as paradoxical as describing a musical instrument's sound or tone in jazz improvisation with a thesaurus, or defining the meaning of the song by a title. Its premise is to entertain an idea of Freud's (not to mention even more of a paradox than the hypothesis' of Freud's jazz.)

    Still, Mingus understands that it's a riff or idea just as random or as chromatic or syncopated or as comedic as any song and/or act of composition or performance.

    The trumpet elevates the mood; the music forces the listener to decide if its excitement or anxiety making their heart beat. The drums get louder. What to decide when there is nothing to know: respond or reject, and the existentialists all want to be poets but have nothing to say.

    But I believe the word your searching for is verve. Charles Mingus has verve.

    I'm not sure if Freud does so much these days...

    But that brings me to my point that I decided to riff around: I can't find sheet music for “All the Things You Could Be By Now, If Sigmund Freud’s Wife was Your Mother". Any suggestions? jk

    I enjoyed this blog. looking for the song and felt compelled to type.