Strong, silent and suffering types?

Our discussion of the empowering effect of the blues focused mostly on the working class. We even mentioned how we tend to lionize the working class, from where the blues originated, when talking about struggles against injustices. Female blues singers such as Ma Rainey and Bessie Smith were heroic in the way they spoke out against domestic abuse. On the other hand, the African-American middle class acted downright cowardly in shunning the artists. It’s pretty easy to see, right?

I couldn’t help but think of this dichotomy as an issue of private versus public expression rather than one of right and wrong. Of course, women in both classes were subjected to domestic abuse. While working-class blues fans could publically identify with the hardships the faced, the suffering of the middle-class women was probably a deeply private affair. Being respectable could have trapped middle-class black women in an isolated word where the fear scorn from their peers outweighed their ability to speak out. Letting it be known that there were problems at home could cast doubt on how middle class black people handled themselves in the eyes of their peers and of whites.  A distinct public appearance could be starkly different to the realities of home life.

Raucous nightclubs of ill-repute were not the place for upstanding middle class ladies to vocally express their pain. In that sense, the split between working class and middle class was one of private and public space as well. When Sara Smolinsky woefully exclaims that “Only millionaires can be alone in America,” in the Bread Givers, she was referring to the lack of private space for the poor.[1] On the other hand, that private space must have felt like a prison at times for middle-class women.  How could they ever have the courage to speak out like the working-class women when so much was riding on their public appearance?

Maybe it is my suburban upbringing that makes me want to believe that the hardships of the middle class can stand alongside similar issues of the working class. The silence of the middle-class women who must have suffered is both frustrating and also heartbreaking, but I would not want to go to the lengths of calling it any better or any worse than the mechanisms used by working-class women.

[1] Anzia Yezierska, Bread Givers (New York: Persea Books, 1975), 13.

One thought on “Strong, silent and suffering types?

  1. I, too, agree that just because women of the middle class weren’t as commercially outspoken doesn’t mean that their suffering was any less dignified or heartbreaking. There seems to be an unspoken condemnation of those African Americans who strove to become part of middle-class culture and to “act right.” Although I think this is unintended by many, there remains this stigmata that if you don’t go against the norms and break from mass culture, then you’re just “giving in” and feeding into the system that helped create the situation these women found themselves in.

    Thank you for pointing out that just because many of these women didn’t take their suffering public, doesn’t mean they weren’t strong, principled, and defiant in their own ways. I think you’re right to point out the double standard in achieving the right to have “private” space in accepted society. For these women, the hard struggle for dignified privacy could backfire into a world of private pain. And, it’s still a concept that I think we, as a society, struggle with today. Even well into the late seventies and eighties, the women of my family counseled my mother to accept the actions of her husbands, reiterating that her place was to suffer silently.

    I wonder what outlets existed for these African American, middle-class women. I would imagine that the Church, as both falling within the realm of acceptableness and desirableness, was a considerable outlet for these women.

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