Earlier this week, I got a chance to see Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom on Netflix. Before starting it, I had no idea that it was Chadwick Boseman’s last role; or that the story took place in 1927. The latter especially piqued my interest because my late Grandfather was born in 1927.
It was interesting being raised by my Grandparents, in that there is that generation jump between when they were youngsters vs. when the parents of my peers were youngsters. So while my friends’ parents may have grew up with Earth, Wind & Fire and the Jackson 5; my grandparents grew up with Nat King Cole and Duke Ellington. But even more striking is the difference that existed between when my grandparents were young children — vs. when my friends’ parents were young children.
My Grandfather was the first child in his family to be born ‘up North’. His parents were already in their late 30s and had married and established their family in North Carolina before deciding to come to Pennsylvania. The story has it that my Great-Grandfather was recruited to the Pittsburgh, PA area to work in the steel mills. He lived up here for a year or so as a boarder while he saved money for his wife and children to join him. My Grandfather’s older sister, Mary, was born in North Carolina in 1924. And he was born in Pennsylvania in 1927.
Both of my maternal grandparents came from very religious families. So for this time period, they themselves we not so into blues music. So what struck me from the film was not so much the musical element, but the social one. You could see how precariously, and how differently, these various Black people negotiated life in the North. From my Grandfather’s perspective, Pennsylvania was the promised land. Now he had no delusions about the existence of racism and class. But he honestly believe that whatever we had to deal with in the North, was better than a Black person’s option in the South.
From my vantage point, I could never quite understand that. From what I saw, Black people could make it wherever there were other communities of Black people. The south had better weather, a more modern economy, a low cost of living. So he wasn’t so much a fan when I opted to relocate to Florida. It wasn’t until I lived in the South for a decade or so — that I realized that a lot of the Black success we see in the South is a pretty recent phenomenon. Even in cases where you had rich and powerful Blacks early in the 20th century in the south, their legacy was still modest compared to their White peers. Or, their legacy only exists as a ghost of a memory today.
Not knowing too much about Ma Rainey, about 30 minutes into the film, I got the impression that she was a villain. She was crotchety, her makeup was unrefined, and her mouth was full of crude gold teeth. But I am ashamed to admit that there was more to it than that. She was dark skinned, over-weight and old-fashioned. The large and loud kind of Black woman whose look has been co-opted by comedians in Black comedy even until this day (ehem – Tyler Perry, ehem, ehem). What’s interesting that even though we may wince at the appearance of these women, these are the women who will tell you the truth in regards to what it is like to be Black in America. Yes – the dark skinned, ugly Black women. Why is that? Sure, light-skinned Black women with fine features and long hair can make inroads. Be accepted within higher social and economic circles with not too much fanfare. But big, dark, ugly, Black women. The one type of American that no one wants to love; that when they are love, it is with hints of fetishism and narcissism that you are doing them a favor by even tolerating them. That’s what these black women had to overcome. Whether it be Ma Rainey, or Harriet Tubman, or Dr. Mary McLeod Bethune.
You could tell that my Grandfather came of age during this time and the Depression that followed soon after. For him, the ‘Promised Land’ idealized version of the North was almost as good as having it in real life. You had just enough Black people in the community that you could point to that ‘made it’ — to keep that hope alive. Yes, my Grandfather had peers that went on to become doctors, attorneys and scientists. He even had a brother and many cousins who went on to earn college degrees. But still, I could see, my Grandfather abided by a framework of expectations and confinements that Black people did not venture past. Even if the banks approved you for a mortgage with a crappy interest rate, you were thankful simply because they approved you in the first place. Even though Black Americans from this generation were proud, they still gushed over Blacks who had light skin and ‘pretty’ hair. You always had to be better behaved, more patient, try harder, etc. – lest you be an embarrassment to the race. It’s like you could not live without constantly justifying your worth and your rights.
And that’s why I loved this. Because in just about every moment of Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, this concept was expressed. And I understood it. I understood it all to well!