The Blacks And Blues: Songs Of Poetry

1089 words - 5 pages

With this essay, I intend to argue that folklore writer Sterling A. Brown’s (1901-1989) most renowned poem, “Ma Rainey,” uses the music of the blues, specifically the bridged version of “Backwater Blues” found in-text, for two purposes: first, to validate a number of hardships seen in African-American daily life, from problems of poverty and segregation to issues of identity formation, and second, to unify African Americans with the validation of their shared sadness. The wider implication being made by Brown’s 1932 “Ma Rainey” is that Rainey’s music, after fulfilling its two purposes, both immerses and implicates the audience so that they become active participants. This, in turn, allows ...view middle of the document...

“Picknickin’ fools” alludes to ‘pickaninny,’ a derogatory term for black children (12). Furthermore, Brown illustrates the diverse groups of people (coming from all over to witness Ma Rainey perform) as riding mules instead of horses or as “packed in trains;” they cannot afford horses, nor can they ride in the white railroad cars (11). When Brown penned “Ma Rainey,” no matter how packed the black railroad cars got, and they were notorious for always being packed, they were kept segregated from the white ones. With lines 10-11, Brown juxtaposes the African-American minority against a white majority that subjects them to lower-class treatment, poverty, and segregation.
Additionally, “Ma Rainey” may deal with issues of African-American identity formation. When the lyric – “look[ing]… on the place where I used to live” – is translocated from “Backwater Blues,” a song composed about the 1926 Cumberland River flooding that struck Nashville, into Brown’s poem, it takes on a new meaning (47). Flooding, and the consequent displacement of people, could refer to how the transatlantic slave trade moved African-Americans out of Africa and into America. Then, similar to the flood of 1926 that displaced thousands from their homes, a metaphorical flood has displaced the speaker from his home. He is left “upon some… lonesome hill,” situated as neither an American nor African but a chimera, an African-American (48). The inherent difficulty with migration is this resulting divided self and trying to come to terms with identity formation; this is heightened for African Americans, who also face extreme racism and double-consciousness. With regard to this interpretation, the “thousan’ of people ain’t got no place to go” refers to the African-Americans unable to construct a dual-identity for themselves (46).
Regardless of the specific hardships Brown touches upon in “Ma Rainey,” it can be inferred that the mere existence of the hardships hints at an even greater hardship: white negligence, them turning a blind eye to an entire race of people. The inclusion of Rainey’s “Backwater Blues,” backwater being defined as a part of a river not reached by the main current, alludes to this point (“Backwater”). African-American problems are outright...

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