Songs in Black and Lavender: Race, Sexual Politics, and Women's Music.
Eileen Hayes' new monograph, Songs in Black and Lavender: Race, Sexual Politics, and Women's Music, is a multi-faceted study of race, gender, sexuality, and feminist politics within the context of Women's Music Festivals. These festivals, many of which are held annually, have blossomed around the country since the first festival was inaugurated in 1974. Each festival operates within self-contained rules. Some allow anyone to attend; others admit only women. Some are adult-only spaces; others allow both male and female children to attend with parents but separate the children by gender at a certain age. Some require festival attendees ("festigoers") to sign up for work shifts; other hire paid staff to attend to manual labor. Taken together, these festival sites--linked primarily by a common interest in "Women's Music"--offer Hayes a rich but shifting terrain of gender and identity politics to explore.
Prospective readers should be forewarned: Hayes is clearly unconcerned with constructing a chronological narrative here. In fact, Songs in Black and Lavender is not much of a narrative at all. It is an experiment in form, one that may either delight or baffle readers. As I read, I had the impression that the book unfolds in outwardly expanding concentric circles; tree rings, marking the age, survival, and impact of the Women's music festival scene. Hayes' most tightly controlled investigations come near the front of the book. By the final chapter, I found myself wondering about how "Drag Kings" were connected to what I perceived to be her point(s). I would have done well to remember her words as I read the later chapters: "the book's organization underscores that this is not a study of women's music but ... is one that has been done in that context" (p. 28). (For those readers waiting for the Drag King punch line, here's the point: MtF transgender performers are often excluded from the festivals Hayes chronicles because they are not "womyn-born-womyn." "Drag Kings"--women performing as men--are more acceptable because the performers are "womyn-born-womyn." These are separate issues, as Hayes admits, yet she tackles them in a single chapter because together they reveal contested, unstable notions of gender identity within the Women's Music scene.)
This is (Not?) a Story my People Tell
In retrospect, her non-narrative strategy makes sense. Narratives need a protagonist, a clear sense of self, a fixed subject position. But Hayes allows her own subject position (and I would argue that she is one of the main subjects of her study) great fluidity. In chapter 1 she "defines" her own position in the study: "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 ... that markers of identity ought not necessarily to be deemed sufficient grounds upon which to grant one authority to speak the cultural truths" (p. 4). Yet, Hayes does identify with aspects of the women she studies: she is black, and a self-described lesbian feminist in terms of her activist agenda. For Hayes, subject positions are malleable but worth naming out loud. Take for example, her conversation with Cal Mitchell about whether or not Mitchell identifies as an activist. After extended reflection, Mitchell finally concedes: "Yeah, okay. So I'm an activist, maybe. (laughs)." To which Hayes responds: "I think it's more than an activist, maybe! (laughs)" (p. 138). Hayes not only asks her respondents for their insight, but challenges them to greater insight and self-reflection and then writes of their process. In this particular interactive interview, Hayes inhabits one subject position: she is the researcher; she asks the questions. Yet her perspective shifts throughout the study. She experiments with an introspective investigation in chapter 1 with a diary of her own experiences as a festigoer. She camps with the other festigoers, takes on work duties, attends workshops, and enjoys musical performances at various festivals, talking with the other women as she inhabits these worlds, reveling in the role of participant observer. But she is also the omniscient narrator at times, filling the reader in on the history of the Women's music festival movement, providing the connective tissue for a rich exploration of a particular locus of feminist activity that we rarely see. And she chronicles all of these experiences with a deep sense of humor.
Fade to Black (and Lavender)
In fact, her entire study embodies play: gender play, role play, metaphoric play; plays on words, plays on ideas, and plays on tropes. Hayes defaults to seeing the humor in her role as a participant-observer ethnomusicologist, and her consultants typically respond in kind. Take, for example, Hayes' recollection of a visit to a fortune teller, Lady Abundantia, to inquire "if I would finish this book or not." Her reasoning: "Everyone knows that African American women comprise the highest percentage of American consumers who purchase the services of psychics, fortune tellers, tarot card readers, and crystal-ball seers" (p. 20). Holding the book in my hand, I, the reader, know the eventual answer to her inquiry. But the query itself is of secondary importance. Hayes here illustrates an approach maintained throughout her study: hold an assumption (or stereotype) up to the light, act on the assumption, and then examine processes and results alike through the lenses of many and diverse theoretical approaches. The end result is a study well situated in multiple disciplines (but also somewhat fractured by this prismatic approach), told with a serious wink and a wry smile.
Hayes' sense of play manifests in yet another way through her many nods to popular culture and African-American literary and musical tropes. On the very first page of chapter 1, she grounds her diary in the aesthetics of Tyler Perry as Madea (!). She crafts section headings that rely on clever, twisted references to major films and musicals: "Sister (Mammy) Act," for example, or "The (Drag) King and I." Signifying on Nina Simone's song "To Be Young, Gifted, and Black," Hayes titles one of chapter 9's sections "To Be Young, Aggressive, and Black," as a way to introduce an extended discussion of David Peddle's film The Aggressives. And in the same chapter she harnesses Langston Hughes' poem "Dream Variations," and in particular the final line "black like me" which serves, as she puts it, as "a heuristic device to examine the extent to which transgender-specific issues are included in the constellation of topics of concern to the black family or body politic" (p. 164). These are wide-ranging references: nothing is too sacred, high-minded, or obscure as a possible reference point. The variety here could seem unsettling, groundless. But this tack, too, seems an embodiment of her subject and approach: first, the heterogeneity of her cultural references mirrors the heterogeneity of her subjects, assumed by outsiders (whatever that means) to be a monolithic group; and second: this is a serious subject, but let's not take ourselves too seriously.
Nevertheless, there are weighty issues to be considered here. Chief among them is the ever-daunting issue of the construction and labeling of difference. The nature of Hayes' study takes us into multiple levels of Otherness: women musicians in a career path largely dominated by men, carving out a protected space for themselves; black women in the land of music festivals primarily peopled by white women, jockeying for space and representation; black lesbians operating within a lesbian political worldview that privileges whiteness, seeking a brand of activism that does not automatically preclude their involvement; older festigoers mingling with the next generation of women's music devotees, wanting to be remembered but recognizing that their proteges need to grow; transgender (male-to-female, or MtF) musicians and music lovers who want to be part of the festival scene but are excluded because they are not "womyn-born-womyn." This terrain is sticky, but as she points out: "critical scholarship should attend to doubly and triply minoritarian groups precisely because in doing so the interconstitutive nature of difference is revealed" (p. 4).
Indeed as she reveals image by image, lesbian by lesbian, activist by activist, and festival by festival, her "research site" is chock full of the complications that make questions of difference complicated and delicious. Simply defining what the book is about presents riddles. In her words, Songs in Black and Lavender is about "manifestations of black feminist consciousness in 'women's music'" which she characterizes as "less a type of music than it is a site of women's thinking about music, a context for the enactment of lesbian feminist politics and notions of community" (p. 1). She spends the rest of the book unpacking the complex, interwoven strands of this opening statement. "Lesbian feminist politics," for example, is hardly a stable ideological platform. And although "Black Feminist consciousness" has risen from the ashes of being virtually ignored during second-wave feminism to a powerful, we-count-too, multivalent, interdisciplinary, frontal and interstitial assault on hegemony, it remains ill defined. But therein lies the play, the wiggle room within which Hayes can juxtapose theoretical frameworks suggested by a constellation of theoretical stars, including Patricia Hill Collins, Joy James, Michael Awkward, Homi Bhabha, Judith Butler, Hazel Carby, Judith Halberstam, bell hooks, Kate Bornstein, and many others. I, for one, will mine her bibliography (and the rest of her study) for years to come.