Blue notes

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That the struggle for equality requires a willingness to confront the many meanings of liberty is the theme at the heart of Farah Jasmine Griffin’s In Search of a Beautiful Freedom, a retrospective of essays by this important critic written over the course of thirty years.

The book ranges widely – from a discussion of Black women’s singing voices (When “Malindy Sings”) to a consideration of slave women’s bodies in the fiction of Michelle Cliff and Sherley Anne Williams (“Textual Healing”) – but is unified by its concern with “Black people’s historic quest for political freedom”, the idea that has “most engaged African American essayists for at least four centuries”. With a title that evokes Alice Walker’s groundbreaking essay collectionIn Search of our Mothers’ Gardens (1983), Griffin’s book testifies to the enduring significance of the Black feminist intellectual tradition.

Such themes are expressed throughout the collection, beginning with “Ladies Sing Miles”, an examination of the appeal of Miles Davis to Black women audiences and the sense of betrayal that resulted from “his admission of emotional, verbal and physical violence against women” in his personal life. Efforts to reconcile the discrepancy are connected to the broader quest for Black freedom via a comparison made between Davis and Thomas Jefferson:

From the beginning, struggles for Black American freedom have been built upon the tenets of freedom and equality … espoused in Jefferson’s Declaration of Independence. Much of that struggle has focused on pointing out the failure of the nation to live up to its promise of democracy, insisting upon the hypocrisy of a government that claims to be founded upon such principles and yet denies them to a significant portion of its population. The contradictions of the nation are the flaws at the core of its being; bringing attention to these flaws … makes for a better nation.

The essay concludes with a discussion of the jazz singers Shirley Horn and Cassandra Wilson, two artists influenced by Davis whom Griffin sees as being able to pay tribute to his legacy while remaining critical of it. “As a result, “Miles Davis’ legacy is not one that binds, but one that allows [them] to explore their own individuality”. This is encapsulated by Griffin’s account of an event that took place in 1999 when “the two women played on a double bill at Carnegie Hall”:

Both performed from their Miles tributes. The presentations and styles could not have been more different … Davis’s music gives Cassandra Wilson and Shirley Horn space to explore their own creative visions. Their voices render the exquisite feminine quality at the core of his own distinct sound.

The ability both to acknowledge and to transcend a legacy is also the subject of “Conflict and Chorus: Reconsidering Toni Cade’s The Black Woman”. This 1970 anthology of essays, poems and stories is described as “one of the first major texts to lay out the terrain of Black women’s thought that emerged from the civil rights, black power and women’s liberation movements”, and commended for its diversity of perspectives. Acknowledging the subsequent divide between Black feminists and Black nationalists – as well as emerging tensions in the Black community along class lines – Griffin urges scholars to maintain dialogue with Black women whose views and experiences may differ from their own. “[The] anthology … reminds us of the extra-academic origins of Black women’s intellectual work”, she writes, “and of its concerns with something other than curriculum, canons, fields, careers and … publication.”

In Search of a Beautiful Freedom is a powerful meditation on the continuing battle for civil rights and the various ways that has manifested itself in Black art and thought. Its relevance to American culture and society is abundantly clear. As Farah Jasmine Griffin puts it in “Banning Toni Morrison’s Books Doesn’t Protect Kids. It Just Sanitizes Racism”:

[W]e are in desperate need of a generation that has been … guided through our history, both the difficult past and the extraordinary wisdom and beauty offered to us by our great artists. Only then will they be able, intellectually, politically, and morally, to move all of us into a more just and democratic future.

Ladee Hubbard’s most recent book is The Last Suspicious Holdout: Stories, 2022

Browse the books from this week’s edition of the TLS here

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