Written By Myles E. Johnson
“I wanna pigfoot and a bottle of beer. Send me 'cause I don't care, blame me 'cause I don't care.” - Bessie Smith
“I don't think you ready for this 'cause my body too bootylicious for you, babe.” - Destiny’s Child
My body has never been still. It has had its ebbs and flows. My relationship with my body has had similar ups and downs. Some of my deepest moments of self-hatred has happened at my thinnest physical moments. And, moments where I’ve felt the most divine and delicious have also been when I’ve been at my fattest. The relationship with the body, like any relationship, is not static and comfortable.
The cultures I have found myself in have had more fixed positions on my body. From the media and from desirability politics expressed in the black gay world, I always knew I was too big. And, if I was not fat, I could always be thinner. I could be better. Usually, there was a monetary or emotional price tag attached to this cultural push towards my betterment. I swam in that despair, but I could never let myself drown. There was something I clung to that stopped me from completely surrendering to the master narrative around my big body.
I was still changed. Nobody can be told to shrink themselves and not be psychologically shifted. Often for the big black body the bigger you are, the more subservient, docile, and useful you should be in order to compensate for your belly and thighs. We see this in the jolly black Sambo and the loyal and helpful Mammy. To be big and black is to be a sentient apology. I felt the gravity of this truth but did not completely fall victim to it. I often wonder where did the muscle come from to resist the pressure to shrink in all the ways society wanted me to. Where did I get such nerve?
My father was a blues fan and jazz expert. I fell in love with these black musical traditions through his love and as I matured, I was able to locate my own meaning and place in the music. Blues singer Ma Rainey would sing about the deep moaning blues. She allowed herself to be upset and put sounds to the dismal. In 1926, Ma Rainey sang about her disillusionment with patriarchal forces in her tune “Trust No Man”. Later, Ma Rainey’s mentee, Bessie Smith, would sing “Need A Little Sugar in my Bowl”; expressing her desire for the erotic and deeply sensual moments. Both of these iconoclastic black female blues singers had big bodies and bigger voices. They refused to shrink or mute themselves when shrinking on a visceral level meant their survival. Yet, their blackness, queerness, womanhood, and fatness were not only exposed but often used as the spectacle of their art. Where did they get such nerve?
Decades later in 2015, a biopic called Bessie about the life of blues singer Bessie Smith was released starring Queen Latifah as Smith and Mo’Nique as Ma Rainey. The film did not shy away from the queer dimensions of their lives or the ways their lives were influenced by being women in a deeply patriarchal society. The topic of their blackness was always bubbling underneath each moment in the film. To my surprise, fatness was also addressed.
In one scene Queen Latifah as Bessie Smith undressed in front of the mirror and examines her own naked fat body. She did not look at her body as if it was an enemy. She did not look at her body as if it was wet clay, something that needed to be manipulated and changed. She did not view her body as simply a vehicle of pleasure and practicality for herself and others. She looked at her body as if it was a historical monument that she passes by every day before work, so she underappreciated its magnitude. However, for whatever reason at that moment, gratitude caught up with her in that mirror and she marveled at this living, breathing thing. It was queer. It was black. It was female. It was fat. And, it was hers and she didn’t just love it, she respected it in that scene. The nerve.
For me, this is where the muscle and nerve many people with big black bodies are located. It is in the fact that many of us have to find a self-respect in the idea that we are being told to shrink and disappear by domination, but our bodies just get bigger. And, our voices followed. And, our politics followed. And, our presence followed. Being forced to form a self that transgressed the master narrative around beauty and performance can break some, but often as we see today and in the golden era of the blues, it can make esteemed monuments of others.
The blues classic “Wild Women Don’t Have The Blues” sung by many blues legends reflect on how women not attached to societal norms and patriarchs live better, more fulfilling, and less oppressive lives. It is a sultry and sassy number that encompasses the politics around fatness and how one often has to create self-esteem internally that may never be offered externally. The nerve and the muscle around being big and unapologetically present is birthed from survival and need. It is wild to love the big black body in the imperialist white supremacist capitalist patriarchy, yet we somehow know that this wildness is the only way we’ll survive. In the lyrics of “Wild Women Don’t Have The Blues” she coos, “Wild women are the only kind that ever gets by.” It seems that the only way to locate the wild place we refer to warmly as self-love and respect is to wholeheartedly reject the normalcy that we were born into that requests our disappearance. This is the only way to get by.
(Cover Photo: Ajani Nafula from the collection "Birth of a Black Gay King")
Myles E. Johnson is a black, queer writer and editor existing at the nexus of race, sexual identity, gender, feminism, and justice through content creation and cultural critique.