Cardi B and the Blues
This post was written in response to a prompt from a Black Literary Traditions course; felt it was worth posting here, too.
On March 20th, 2021, Black conservative author Candace Owens penned an opinion article on The Daily Wire, the headline of which reads: “Cardi B is a Symptom of a Sickness in Our Society.” The article was preceded by an eighteen-hour Twitter debate between the two women, sparked by Owens’ on-screen criticism of award-winning hip-hop artist Cardi B for a recent, sexually charged Grammy performance, and perpetuated by each woman’s oppositional views on paradigms of feminine presentation, respectability, and sexuality. “We are celebrating perversity in America,” Owens is quoted as saying, telling Cardi B she must “do better” (Nolan).
The dichotomy of views presented here are not dissimilar from those expressed between the Black “intellectuals” of the North and the Black “blues women” of the South in Hazel V. Carby’s “It Jus Be’s Dat Way Sometime: The Sexual Politics of Women’s Blues.” The essential core of the argument remains the same, where one party argues that objective displays of Black feminine sexuality perpetuates the long-established racial fetishization and exoticism of Black women by the white majority, and threatens to debase the community as a whole through “improper” representation. In speaking of Nella Larsen’s Quicksand, Carby explains that the cultural backlash to racial objectification of Black women within certain communities, namely those in closest proximity to the hegemony, manifested as an avoidance of sexuality altogether: “The response of Larsen’s heroine to such objectification is also the response of many black women writers: the denial of desire and the repression of sexuality” (12). The other party accepts sexuality as an integral and important part of the lived experience of Black women, and likewise seeks to distance feminine sexuality from patriarchal dominance and reclaim the idea as an aspect of feminine liberation. Carby writes: “Their [blues women’s] physical presence was a crucial aspect of their power; the visual display of spangled dresses, of furs, of gold teeth, of diamonds, of all the sumptuous and desirable aspects of their body reclaimed female sexuality from being an objectification of male desire to a representation of female desire” (20). It is not difficult to see the strong resonance between the lyrical attitudes and visual presentation of historic feminine blues singers and the feminine leaders of contemporary hip-hop.
“Respectability politics” is a term used to describe a long-standing strategy adopted by African American women “to reject white stereotypes by promoting morality while de-emphasizing sexuality” (Pitcan, et al.). This entails behaviors such as code-switching, self-censure, curating a neutral image, and avoiding behavior or relationships which could be perceived by the ruling class as “lowly.” While the conservative side of the historic argument may appear on its surface to hold some validity—and often, at times, does offer avenues of upward mobility to subordinated groups—there is a dangerous precedent set in playing the respectability politics game, the most obvious problem being that appealing to Western culture as the governing authority perpetuates Western culture as the governing authority. Likewise, merely politely ignoring, rather than directly challenging, the stereotypes of Black women which are rife within white, Western culture allows these stereotypes to continue to be validated by white supremacy, as the cultural narrative is then primarily controlled by the oppressing class. This is an important stance that the blues-singing women of the Harlem Renaissance recognized: “The women blues singers occupied a privileged space; they had broken out of the boundaries of the home and taken their sexuality and sexuality out of the private and into the public sphere” (20). By leveraging their platform and refusing to adhere to the societal expectations of the governing authority, blues women allowed the narratives of large communities of Black women, specifically those further removed from the privileges of Western society, to be heard: “Many women heard the ‘we’ when Ida Cox said ‘I’,” explains Cardy (21). Hip-hop artists such as Cardi B, a single mother and former exotic dancer from a working-class background, likewise carry narratives and attitudes of feminine empowerment that do not pay heed to the arbitrary and racist constrictions of Western “propriety.”
Lastly, and most importantly, it’s easy to see that playing respectability game within an authority which economically and socially thrives on racism simply does not work. Former First Lady Michelle Obama is perceivably one of the most powerful Black women in American history; she is incredibly well-educated, articulate, economically viable, and has held one of the most highly respected positions in the United States government. This did not stop her from being openly criticized across mainstream media outlets for exposing her arms; for being too fit at times, and for also being too heavy at others; for being family-oriented; for not being “classy” enough; for wearing shorts; and even for placing her left elbow on a table (Kendall). These references don’t include the numerous hateful, stereotypical, and racially charged remarks regarding the former First Lady’s appearance and physical body by authoritative figures and prominent outlets (Kendall). If bourgeoisie oppressors cannot be bothered to buy into respectability politics even as Black individuals ascend to the very heights of the Western hierarchy, then what else could possibly compel them to? Nearly a hundred years ago, Bessie Smith recognized the futility of striving for approval, and her admonition in “Tain’t Nobody’s Business If I Do” still holds truth:
There ain’t nothing I can do or nothing I can say
That folks don’t criticize me
But I’m goin’ to do just as I want to anyway
And don’t care if they all despise me.
As always, thank you for reading.
Carby, Hazel V. “It Jus Be’s Dat Way Sometime: The Sexual Politics of Women’s Blues.” Radical Amerika, 1987, retrieved from https://library.brown.edu/pdfs/1142530423771460.pdf
Kendall, Mikki. “22 Times Michelle Obama Endured Rude, Racist, Sexist, or Plain Ridiculous Attacks.” Washington Post, November 2016, retrieved from https://washingtonpost.com/posteverything/wp/2016/11/16/22-times-michelle-obama-endured-rude-racist-sexist-or-plain-dumb-attacks/
Nolan, Emma. “What Cardi B Said About Candace Owens as Spat Escalates to Legal Threats.” Newsweek, March 2021, retrieved from https://newsweek.com/what-cardi-b-said-about-candace-owens-spat-legal-threats-1576771
Pitcan, Mikaela, Alice E. Marwick and Danah Boyd. “Performing a Vanilla Self: Respectability Politics, Social Class, and the Digital World.” Journal of Computer-Mediated Communication, vol 23, issue 3, May 2018, pp.163-79, retrieved from https://academic.oup.com/jcmc/article/23/3/163/4962541