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Eileen M. Hayes argues that the women's music festival, with its foundation in lesbian feminism, is a significant institutional site for the emergence of black feminist consciousness in the contemporary period. She offers sage perspectives on black women's involvement in the women's music festival scene, the ramifications of their performances as drag kings in those environments, and the challenges and joys of a black lesbian retreat based on the feminist festival model. With acuity and candor, Hayes elucidates why this music scene matters. Veteran vocalist, percussionist, and producer Linda Tillery provides a foreword.
In the typical arrival story, a familiar aspect of traditional ethnography, the anthropologist acquaints herself with persons unknown and prepares to settle in so that she can begin her "real work." Although technically this diary does not do precisely that, my intent is that readers will find it a useful introduction to themes raised in this book. This includes, but is not limited to, the experience of festivals from the perspectives of black women.
Although some readers will be familiar with the women's music festival scene, most will probably not. Therefore, I sought a vehicle through which I could both describe and signify on women's music festivals from the perspective of a black attendee. This diary is the result. With an attitude reminiscent of Tyler Perry's Diary of a Mad Black Woman, the narrative genre of the travel diary provides me entrée to the representation of this different world. At six feet, six inches tall, Perry, an Atlanta-based thespian, has made a career of portraying the African American wise-woman-cum-superhero Madea in the plays upon which his films are based, and some of her comedic spirit influences the diary I offer. That many white readers are unfamiliar with Perry's work neither detracts from nor influences its success. African Americans who comprise Perry's target audience for live performances may experience a reality that differs dramatically, in their time away from integrated work sites, from the lived experience of whites.
A parallel sensibility might be acknowledged in regard to African Americans and the consumer base for women's music festivals. African American male friends and acquaintances with whom I discussed this book frequently posed the question "What about the [soul] brothers?" Therefore, I emphasize that these festivals are women-centered events-indeed, in the case of Michigan, women-born women events. It would not be far off the mark to say that black male-bodied persons identifying as men don't count in these environments except as infrequent audience members. And as a comedian as sharp as the late Bernie Mac might say, "The brothers don't get to many lesbian events."
Within these pages, I do not presume to inhabit a black lesbian subject position. I say this not to disavow associations between myself and members of the community in which I conducted research, but rather to underscore, as Michael Awkward relates, that markers of identity ought not necessarily to be deemed sufficient grounds upon which to grant one authority to speak the cultural truths. This idea undergirds my attempts to intervene in representations of blackness, black femaleness, black lesbianness, and black feminism, but it echoes a formulation put forth earlier by Valerie Smith and Hazel Carby. I raise my own identities as a straight, black, and, arguably, old-school feminist activist precisely to question what these inflections mean, singly and in combination. Still, it is telling, as anthropologist Ellen Lewin and linguist William Leap suggest, that gay or lesbian identity is almost always attributed to scholars conducting research in lesbian and gay communities. The diary entries, or field notes, that follow are a reminder that work in the field of identity politics requires care. The post-Stuart Hall generation has come to expect that positionalities align unevenly, and in unexpected ways. This is as true in relation to race identity as it is for gender, sexual identity, class, politics, and so on. In none of these areas does this book assume a unitary subject.
My use of the first-person narrative in the diary that follows (and, indeed, throughout this book) is a mode of representation so fundamental to anthropological practice that it requires no justification. And while a number of influences are felt in these pages, that of John Gwaltney's Drylongso: A Self-Portrait of Black America (1981) must be credited at the outset. Gwaltney's recorded conversations with blacks living in a dozen black communities in the northeastern U.S. in the early 1970s reveal not only their perspectives about their own lives but also their perceptions of blacks as a people and of whites both individually and collectively. Drylongso was just one of Gwaltney's prescient studies in which he argued for a "native anthropology," an intellectual cause that was taken up by successive generations of anthropologists of color, women, and, later, scholars conducting ethnography in lesbian and gay communities. In his comments for the dust jacket for Drylongso, the writer Ralph Ellison maintained that Gwaltney painted a portrait of "core Black America" (Gwaltney's phrase) that was designed to instruct and entertain. I have tried to infuse some of those qualities into this essay, nodding toward the African American tradition of indirect social criticism through humor.
For reasons that will become clear, some readers may never have the opportunity to attend a women's music festival. I offer the following polyglot (mis)adventures in feminism, lesbian identity, race matters, and music-replete with its reverberations of African American autoethnographical and oral traditions-in the hope that you, too, can experience a real vacation in lesbian utopia.
In August 1995 my friend Cindy Spillane and I drove from Maryland to the twentieth anniversary of the Michigan Womyn's Music Festival. In previous years I had attended the festival alone; now I was glad to have Spillane's company. She and I had met as members of the DC Area Feminist Chorus (Washington, DC), now called the Bread and Roses Feminist Singers. Both of us dropped out eventually, for different reasons. I grew weary of being "the only one"-the sistahs know what I mean. Spillane felt strongly that the chorus's engagement with feminist praxis and music had, in her words, "petrified at about 1975." "How much Holly Near arranged for four-part women's voices can one take?" she would ask. I didn't begrudge the second-wave radical feminism sound track that the chorus's Near-Williamson-Christian repertoire evoked. Indeed, my own feminist resolve had been fortified by the music of women's music founders during the years of my young adulthood, and though those years were decidedly over, women's music was my music, too. Yet despite attempts to "multiculturalize" (is that a word?) the chorus' repertoire with the occasional song by Sweet Honey in the Rock, Spillane and I concluded independently that the group's raison d'etre was better fulfilled as a voluntary association for social networking than as a choir.
Our bond with each other was as feminist activists in the Washington, DC, area. Spillane, a white lesbian, frequently led workshops in the women's community on antiracism; she was also a fat women's activist-that is, a fat, fat-issues activist. My feminist organizing had been predominantly with other black women and women of color in reproductive rights advocacy and anti-sterilization abuse. I had been trained by lesbian feminists in the early 1980s and in part was still working out the repayment of a symbolic debt owed to the women from whom I learned feminist engagement. For the most part, Spillane "got it" about racism; I won't make it sound as though she didn't. I was a veteran feminist activist and didn't buy into narratives about black women not identifying with the f-word (feminism). It didn't take an Angela Davis to know that advocating on behalf of oneself as a black and as a woman was part and parcel of black women's activist heritage (although I'm glad Davis pointed that out).
GENDER, PLAY, AND TRANSGRESSION
A source of our amusement during the road trip involved our speculating about how festigoers might assume we were girlfriends in the romantic rather than the platonic sense. There would be many couples at this festival, because for many lesbian and bisexual women this particular festival was a favorite place to vacation. Part of the pleasure participants derive from a large festival such as Michigan comes from attendees' opportunities to be both actors and audience members in the larger social drama that is the festival. In the festival arena, participants enact numerous social performances that contest, combine, and turn identity categories held by many to be fixed-particularly those of gender and sexuality-on their heads. These acts take place onstage, but even more often offstage, as festigoers, "virgin" (first-time attendees) and otherwise, conduct everyday life at the festival. I looked forward to highlighting in my study what was happening at the ground level in the lives of black women performers and festival attendees.
We were going to have a long ride. To pass the time in the car, Spillane and I constructed butch and femme personas for ourselves. Thwarting expectations about what some observers consider markers of butch and femme identities, Spillane and I adopted the aliases of "Bunnie" and "Lambert" respectively. Spillane performed "Bunnie" as overtly femme; I enacted "Lambert" as decisively butch. We were playing with stereotypes, but at the same time we understood that we would be subjected to an essentializing gaze while at the festival. Given the recurring trope of the "big, black butch," it struck us as clever that I, five feet tall and slightly built at one hundred pounds, would play that role, while "built for comfort" Spillane would occupy the femme space. We took delight in our theatrics and enacted these personas privately throughout the festival for our own amusement.
We listened to the radio and to CDs we had brought along. Since we knew that Michigan, like some other women's music festivals, strongly encouraged women not to play men's voices over sound systems, we wanted to get in all the Mick Jagger, Elton John, Michael Jackson, Prince, and Luther Vandross we could. A self-conscious awareness accompanied our creation of the list. Every performer mentioned occupied, if not a gay positionality, an "in-betweenness" with regard to gender, sexual identity, race, or some combination of these. We also listened to Tracy Chapman, Joan Armatrading, Melissa Etheridge, and k. d. lang during our trip. They were our "girls," and we wished they were coming to Michigan, too.
BLACK AND LAVENDER
About halfway into our road trip, Spillane, who was driving, glanced in my direction: "How is our flag coming?" she asked. Before we left Maryland, I had described how women personalize their tents, recreational vehicles, and grounds in the immediate vicinity of their camps. Festigoers tack clotheslines in the woods so that they might hang beautiful/outrageous quilts, banners, and posters, many of which pay homage to women's history, lesbian/bisexual/ transgender pride, and other politics. I had heard via the rumor mill that the Michigan festival would be conferring an award for the "best home exterior design" that year. I suggested we enter the contest. Spillane asked what we could do, since neither of us had talents in the domestic arts. I suggested that we take a flag and post it outside the tent. Spillane replied, "You mean a rainbow flag?" I shrugged. "Child, we need something black and lesbian," I said. "Where will you get that type of flag?" Spillane asked. Reversing herself suddenly, she exclaimed, "You're a het [heterosexual]; you can sew!" Little did we know it then, but our hand-sewn nylon flag, the design of which was a black triangle against a background of deep lavender, would become an object of admiration in our campsite neighborhood.
CITY ON A HILL
Though I had attended several women's music festivals previously, including Michigan, Spillane looked forward to her first one. She had wanted to be prepared, so before the trip she talked with me and her other friends about what she could expect. I am not sure if, once we arrived, she got what she came for or not. The Michigan ideal is that women will replicate an entire outdoor city-less Athens and more a poor people's tent city à la 1960s Washington, DC-into which some semipermanent structures, such as stages and commissaries, are introduced. Michigan is about long queues for food, open-air showers, ice cream, infrequent portions of meat, and a public transportation system comprised of flatbed trucks. These vehicles take festigoers from the registration site to camping areas, from the main stage concert area to the special constituency tents at which workshops are held. Each August, those who are familiar with the experience harbor a hope that is familiar to attendees at all residential music festivals, if not participants in utopian projects. "If we build it, they will come," the saying goes, and come they do: some alone, others towing babies and small children, male and female. There are a fair number of two-mom families, crones, teens and young adults, and others in recreational vehicles, differently bodied women, interracial couples, dyed blondes and towheads, women with dreads and those with weaves, transgenders, femmes, straight women who remember what women-identified means, butches, wannabe butches, sexy women and others looking for sex or for Mr. Goodbar (the candy), and-I swear-several hundred men. A few "hopelessly straight" women come, too-some of whom have been lied to about what to expect. After a flash thunderstorm, probably hundreds from each identity group wonder why the hell they're there.
There is no "hill" as the word is used in military parlance, but if there were, we could take it. This is part of the Michigan experience, too: big talk, big Windy City, four-star-general talk by women who are fixed (as my grandmother would have put it) on doing big things. We had heard through the grapevine that more than nine thousand women (predominantly white lesbians) were expected for this outdoor, five- to seven-day event, billed as the largest women's music festival in the world. What was it about this festival that made it occupy a central place in the women's music festival imaginary?
In contrast to other women's (lesbian-oriented) music festivals, Michigan is a women-only gathering; men are not allowed. Indeed, at other festivals, men are now invited to participate both as audience members and sometimes as sidemen, though not as instrumental or vocal leads during performances. Addressing, in the course of Spillane's preparation for the festival, the various inconsistencies in festival inclusion policies that have arisen over time and location would have been too complicated.
Michigan welcomes women-born women of all ages and ethnicities and male children under the age of eleven. During the day, male youngsters go to the Brother Sun Boys Camp; the counterpart to the festival's day programming for girls is the Gaia Girls Camp. The camps are age- and sex-specific. Brother Sun is for young boys ages five through ten; additionally, families with boys agree to reside in the Brother Sun camp for the entire week. The girls camp provides a range of activities and oversight for young females five and older. These accommodations for children are a festival offering that has evolved over the years-and not without debate by festival planners and attendees. Michigan also offers the Sprouts Family Campground for mothers and all children four years of age and under. I am afraid that given my "single woman with no children or nieces or nephews" centricity, I never sought to visit the boys or girls camp and don't know if it is possible for nonparents to do so.
Excerpted from Songs in Black and Lavender by EILEEN M. HAYES Copyright © 2010 by Board of Trustees of the University of Illinois. Excerpted by permission.
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Foreword Linda Tillery ix
1 Diary of a Mad Black Woman Festigoer 9
2 Reconnaissance: Entering a Music Festival Scene 32
3 After the Golden Age: Negotiating Perspective 46
4 Nappy (and Deep) Roots: Streams of Musical and Political Influence 64
5 "Ideal Relationships": Women's Music Audiences 78
6 Redistricting: Gay and Black Outdoors 89
7 Legacy: Musicians of the Next Generation 114
8 Working for the Weekend: Festival Organizers and Workers 131
9 Guys like Us: Community Membership Revisited 148
Dreamgirls: A Star-Gazer's Guide to Musicians 179
Discography of Black Musicians in Women's Music 213