Elevate Difference

Songs in Black and Lavender: Race, Sexual Politics, and Women’s Music

In her critical study of later twentieth century women’s music festivals, Eileen Hayes sets the tone and identifies her intended audience in a trenchant dedication, which really serves as an effective epigraph for her book:

_Some say feminism is dead. Others say black feminism stopped by but left in a hurry. A few claim that “women’s music” is dull; “Besides,” they say, “Bessie Smith is so last century.” Others don’t know any lesbians and would rather watch them on TV. It was chic to be lesbian—last year. They say you can’t be black, lesbian, and musical at the same time. Maybe you can be black, lesbian, and love music—but if so, you probably can’t dance, and if you can, you don’t care about social change.

Lots of folks say all these things. This book is not dedicated to them._

Songs in Black and Lavender is a book for those wanting a firsthand account of one of the most famous of these festivals, the Michigan Womyn’s Music Festival (August 1995), which the author attended and for which she provides the “Diary of a Mad Black Woman Festigoer.” It is a book for those wanting to discover the music of Mary Watkins, the group Sweet Honey in the Rock, and the “Dreamgirls” who provided part of the raison d'être for the festivals. It is also for those studying the history of American feminism—and the women who lyricized the experience of radical separatist feminism in the later part of the twentieth century, and the complicated intersection of gender, race, class, and culture.

There is little treatment here of the well-known festival Lilith Fair, which has an inclusive admissions policy, but has been criticized for its lack of diversity. The festivals written about were deliberately exclusive, a feature that allowed for relatively sharp delineation of gendered and racial identity in the study. Famously, the Michigan Festival did not allow men and welcomed “women-born women of all ages and ethnicities”—the latter restriction a source of considerable protest. One of the products of this policy was an encouragement to freedom of expression and action and, as the author puts it, a “what happens in Vegas stays in Vegas” attitude. While the author celebrates this liberating experience, she maintains distance—as an ethnographic researcher and interviewer, as a woman of color at festivals attended mostly by white women—and later as a straight woman at festivals designedly for lesbians.

Most of the musicians featured in Songs in Black and Lavender are not well known, and many musicians, such as Nedra Johnson and Pamela Means, are represented online only by a couple of amateur video clips. Festival enthusiasts lament that early participants such as Melissa Etheridge, Michelle Shocked, and Tracy Chapman, who achieved mainstream stardom, “did not credit the community that gave them their start.” Another barrier to more widespread recognition of the artists associated with womyn’s music and the festival scene is an aesthetic that rejected the hype and glitz associated with popular music. As a result, the music—as well as the cultural experience of these festivals generally—has remained mostly outside of the public gaze.

Poignantly, the author describes how a flag that combined triangles of black and lavender resonated with some lesbian women of color more than the rainbow flag, a widely adopted symbol of the gay and lesbian nation. One of the author’s interviewees asked, “How come there is no black in the rainbow flag?” In terms of the unity of feminist activism, the old questions about class and racial awareness remain, and the Sweet Honey in the Rock song “Are We a Nation?” still has no clear answer.

Hayes makes a noteworthy semantic decision in the book by largely avoiding the term queer, which as she admits would have suggested commonality with the scholars and activists engaged in queer theory. She writes that the majority of women she interviewed for her study preferred the term lesbian and did not see the terms as interchangeable.

Songs in Black and Lavender asks powerful and often painful questions about the meaning of diversity, multiculturalism, and identity. The author chronicles a radically destabilized historical moment through the lens of these music festivals, one that is ignored in mainstream music history and is unreported in the “narratives of rich white feminists,” as the author puts it. Hayes’ study is provocative, but always respectful of its subject. She is positioned largely as an outsider at these exclusive events, giving her readers not a voyeuristic backstage pass but rather a kind of access to the power and meanings of these festivals that loomed large in the lives of the participants.

Written by: Rick Taylor, September 7th 2010