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Black Resonance: Iconic Women Singers and African American Literature

Emily Lordi
Rutgers University Press
304 pages
Reviewed by Rashena Wilson

TAGS: Emily Lordi, Rutgers University Press, African American female singers, African American literature, Black Arts Movement

From the moment of its eloquent introduction, Black Resonance: Iconic Women Singers and African American Literature glides onto the stage and transforms the page by sangin’ an innovative testimony – to creative power, and the spiritual succor drawn from literary and musical harmony – as vibrant as the iconic, soulful performers who are placed at the center of this rapturous inquiry into the ties that bind them. It riffs on and refashions those threads into a magnificent new mosaic of African American culture and its seductive delivery situates the singers at the center of the conversation, giving these women agency as artists and musicians where they had either often been ignored in the academy or constructed as muses and as cultural agents instead of creators.  Emily Lordi’s examination of this synergy between iconic artists and equally iconic male writers results in a new sonic paradigm whose aim and meticulous achievement is resonance: “it names a ‘sympathetic response’ or vibration between things, an elusive relationship that averts narratives of cause-and-effect but may be more diffuse and wide-ranging.”

In this study of two generations of African American singers and writers from the 1920s – 1970s, Lordi’s intent is to give Bessie Smith, Mahalia Jackson, Billie Holiday, Aretha Franklin and Etta James the R-E-S-P-E-C-T their formalistic and performative choices the intellectual authority they deserve. She takes her interpretive cues from the pioneering black feminist critics Hazel Carby, Valerie Smith, Cheryl Wall, and Deborah McDowell, whose practices insisted on the new modes of reading that black women’s contributions to male-dominated expressive traditions require. Black Resonance is a reminder that listening, too, is an act of performance. In order to avoid enforcing the masculinist trope of the muse where the singer’s worth rests in her ability to inspire, her approach begins with this bold assertion: “the writers in this study invoke specific singers not because black writers consistently inherit an elusive connection with the muse of black music but because these singers are masterful artists with whom writers choose to align themselves.”

By going back to the history of the Black Arts Movement, Lordi points out the binary fault line in music and literary analysis that erupted by necessity, but does contemporary criticism a great disservice in continuing to construct meaning on an outdated, unstable interpretive foundation. At a time of political and social tumult, theorists like Steven Henderson were able to point to the ways in which print had always been one of the prime means of African American oppression: a way to erase and rewrite the history to Eurocentric ideals or exclude the humanity of African Americans altogether; and  maintain domination over the publishing marketplace.  But now that this creative and critical juggernaut has been established, the methods of interpretation must be as fluid as its source. Here is where Emily Lordi truly shines clearing a modern route of analysis while building a bigger monument to and ways of describing this fountain of truth.

In each of the chapters that follow (“Vivid Lyricism: Richard Wright and Bessie Smith’s Blues”; “The Timbre of Sincerity: Mahalia Jackson’s Gospel Sound and Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man”; “Understatement: James Baldwin, Bessie Smith, and Billie Holiday”; “Haunting: Gayl Jones’s Corregidora and Billie Holiday’s “Strange Fruit”; and “Signature Voices: Nikki Giovanni, Aretha Franklin, and the Black Arts Movement”, concluding with an epilogue that rocks the modern belles of Etta James, poetry and hip hop), Lordi composes a rhetorical symphony of rhythm, reason and resonance.By the time the reader arrives at the epilogue, he or she is left with a new vision of and appreciation for the works created and how they can now be engaged, understanding that just like human relationships, they are vociferously, boisterously interdependent. The illumination and navigation of this Great Black Way is at once resplendent and transcendent.


Rashena Wilson is a bibliophile, writer and rogue scholar living in the NYC Metropolitan area.

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