4. The Devil’s Gonna Get You: Blues Romance and the Paradoxes of Black Freedom
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154 4 The Devil’s Gonna Get You Blues Romance and the Paradoxes of Black Freedom My gal made me a devil, just as cruel as I can be Now my gal made me a devil, just as cruel as I can be Lord I let her run around . . . and then she made a chump of me —Robert Peeples, “Wicked Devil’s Blues” (1929) There’s the Devil In Blues Legacies and Black Feminism (1998), a groundbreaking study of women’s blues, Angela Y. Davis justifies the music’s frank preoccupation with sexual love—desired and desiring bodies and souls—by reading it as a register of the transformed experiential horizons enjoyed by African Americans in the post-­ Emancipation period. Although the former slaves’ economic status was only slightly less dismal than before, she argues, the “status of their personal relationships,” which is to say their romantic relationships , was revolutionized: For the first time in the history of the African presence in North America, masses of black women and men were in a position to make autonomous decisions regarding the sexual partnerships into which they entered. Sexuality thus was one of the most tangible domains in which emancipation was acted upon and through which its meanings were expressed. Sovereignty in sexual matters marked an important divide between life during slavery and life after emancipation.1 To be a slave was to be chattel property, bound by law and by customary practice to the whims of a master and/or slave trader: bound spatially to the plantation, the coffle, the slave pen; bound to submit sexually to the master’s (or trader’s) advances or to the master’s edicts about which other slaves one should breed with. Sexual violence against slave women was, as Saidiya Hartman notes, airbrushed out of juridical existence, and thus implicitly Blues Romance and the Paradoxes of Black Freedom 155 endorsed, “by virtue of the law’s calculation of negligible injury” to the black female slave in question.2 Although white men, especially employers of black female domestics, continued to assert their right of unfettered sexual access after Emancipation—which is why concerned black parents sought to keep their daughters out of domestic service—Davis’s­central claim is sound. To grow up in the post-­Reconstruction South, the freeborn child or grandchild of slaves, was to possess a significantly broadened, if unevenly distributed, freedom of choice over whom one slept with, cohabited with, and perchance married. Blues song vividly registers this hard-­ won sovereignty. Precisely because the working-­ class creators and consumers of the blues were relatively impoverished and had few worldly possessions, the bodies that individual sexual subjects did possess took on a range of new and exciting meanings in a self-­ determined sexual economy where one could sell it, trade it, shake it, make somebody go wild about it, take it down the block, give it away. New freedoms in the matter of sexual partner-­selection were abetted, as Davis notes, by a second significant transformation, the removal of restrictions on “free individual travel,” and this new freedom, too, registers in the blues as a familiar set of restless motifs: I’m going (to New York, Chicago, Louisiana), baby take a walk with me, don’t you wanna go, been there and gone. “In both male and female blues,” Davis argues, “travel and sexuality are ubiquitous themes, handled both separately and together. But what finally is most striking,” she reiterates, “is the way blues registered sexuality as a tangible expression of freedom.”3 This is all true. But the opposite is also true, at least where sexuality is concerned. What is finally most striking about blues song is the way it registers sexuality as unfreedom—or more precisely, as an unstable, antagonistic relationship between two freely choosing sexual subjects, a zero-­sum game in which one or the other participants, often as not, ends up in thrall to insatiable desire, murderous jealousy, an aching sense of loss, or ontological confusion about the maddeningly fickle “devil or angel” who has cast the singer into a hell on earth. “It ain’t very many blues that ain’t made up about a woman,” insisted Delta bluesman James “Son” Thomas, and although some of those blues were cock-­ of-­ the-­ walk brags or adulatory odes to a particular woman’s attractions, most were testimonials to men in pain.4 “What you love best is what can hurt you the most” is how pianist Henry Townsend put...