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Frontiers: A Journal of Women Studies 25.1 (2004) 93-110

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Pouring Out the Blues

Gwen "Sugar Mama" Avery's Song of Freedom

I can remember... [seeing] Gwen perform—just herself at the piano with a microphone. She would just pour out The Blues.... I can remember feeling the hair on the back of my neck stand on end, because it was the real thing.
Linda Tillery
If I could write a-one song to sing to you
It would be a song of freedom for you and me.
Gwen Avery, "Sad Song"

While preparing the introduction to my third submission of this article for publication, I was reading through Evelynn Hammonds's essay, "Black (W)holes and the Geometry of Black Female Sexuality," and I was struck by her illustrations of how black female sexuality is still so thoroughly invisible, unimagined, and unimaginable. I thought about how this article had been deemed inappropriate for a gay/lesbian issue of one journal because it "fell between two thematic stools—the 'ethnic' and the 'gay/lesbian'" and rejected by a second journal because its interest was thought to be too narrow. Black women in general have tended to disappear into the cracks, effectively erased by the "either/or" thinking so pervasive in Western culture. What this type of thinking fails to account for is that black women are not either black or female; they are both black and female. The situation is compounded further for black lesbians who are black and female and gay. As Gwen Avery says on her 1993 recording Live at IMA: "You can't be a black lesbian woman! Yeah, it's bad enough, you know.... Geez! Let's really get these mixed up and then be crazy on top of that.... And you want somebody to understand you [laughs]. What won't they understand?"1

Historically, owing to the legacy of minstrel stereotypes that distorted their experiences and image, African American women have been used and abused [End Page 93] for the dominant society's own purposes. If black female sexuality in general has been, as Hammonds writes, "absent yet-ever-present [and] pathologized," shaped by silence, erasure, and invisibility, it stands to reason that black lesbian sexuality has been doubly erased, and that black lesbians have been cast out as "traitors to the race." At the same time, black lesbians have been at the forefront of efforts to transform black women's relationships with the erotic. The writings of Audre Lorde and other black lesbian writers have been critical because they celebrate women's erotic power and foreground aspects of black female sexuality that have been suppressed.2

Long before writers like Lorde began theorizing black female sexuality, however, blues women were celebrating it on stage. From the beginning, blues performance has been a powerful vehicle for "theorizing" black female sexuality. In the 1920s when vaudeville blues women stood in the public limelight, African American women have used music as a way to assert a presence that has largely been absent from the dominant discourse. As Hazel Carby notes, blues women reclaimed black female sexuality and the black female body through song. Inspired by their vaudeville blues foremothers, many of whom had sexual relationships with women, contemporary black lesbian performers such as Gwen Avery, Gaye Adegbalola, and Faith Nolan continue the bold and impassioned expression of their pain and pleasure in the language and structures of the blues.3

This essay focuses on the work of Gwen Avery, a contemporary California Bay Area singer-pianist-songwriter who was active in the Women's Music Movement of the 1970s. Avery's music, included on the live compilation, Any Woman's Blues, was first recorded at a women's prison on December 31, 1975, produced by the Women's Prison Concert Collective, and on the bold, outspoken compilation Lesbian Concentrate, released in 1977. More recently, June Millington, founder of the Institute for Musical Arts, an organization educating and promoting women in the music business, produced Live at...