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Netflix’s Ma Rainey, the Blues, and the Wonderfulness of Our Composite Country

Walter G. Moss: The first bit of gratitude that Wilson’s Ma Rainey makes me feel is for the gift of the blues and music generally.

Hcaving just seen the adaptation of playwright August Wilson’s Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom on Netflix, I once again thought how wonderful it is that we are a “composite nation.” A nation not only of Whites, but also of Browns, Blacks, Yellows, and Reds--i.e., to put it simplistically in order of population totals, of Caucasians, Hispanic/Latinos, African Americans, Asian Americans, and Native Americans. Also an LGBTQ (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer) nation--the Ma Rainey of the film was not only Black, but also gay.

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Early praise of our country’s composite nature came a century and a half ago from the former slave Frederick Douglass, whom President Obama identified as one of America’s “great reformers.” In a Boston speech Douglass insisted that “our greatness and grandeur will be found in the faithful application of the principle of perfect civil equality to the people of all races and of all creeds, and to men of no creeds.” Douglass advocated a “composite nation.” Historian Jill Lepore calls the concept “a strikingly original and generative idea, about a citizenry made better, and stronger, not in spite of its many elements, but because of them.”

In his speech Douglass recalled the U. S. mistreatment of both Native Americans and African Americans, but he also praised the contributions of the latter, as well as of various immigrant nationalities like the Irish and the German. In his day, there were great fears regarding Chinese immigrants, but he also thought that they could enrich our nation. “Do you ask, if I favor such immigration, I answer I would. Would you have them naturalized, and have them invested with all the rights of American citizenship? I would. Would you allow them to vote? I would. Would you allow them to hold office? I would.”

Contrast this approach to that of Whites who in our history have feared native people, slaves and their descendants, and immigrants they thought of as less than lily white (like the nativists did the Italians). In the half century between the Civil War and WWI, as darker skinned peoples from southern and eastern Europe began arriving in greater numbers, nativist sentiments against them increased.

In the 1920s, such attitudes were strong in the quickly-increasing Ku Klux Klan. In 1924, Congress passed the Immigration Act, containing an Asian Exclusion Act, almost banning Asian immigrants, and a National Origins Act, limiting European immigrants but favoring those from northern Europe. As Jill Lepore has written, the purpose of the new law “was to end immigration from Asia and to curb the admission of southern and eastern Europeans, deemed less worthy than immigrants from other parts of Europe.” As Robert Dallek tells us, in the early 1930s, there was still strong prejudice against southern and eastern European immigrants: “The belief that these groups could never be turned into citizens who fully accepted Anglo-Saxon economic and political traditions” was widespread.

 Viola Davis as Ma Rainey

Viola Davis as Ma Rainey

Now, nearing the end of our age of toxic Trumpism, we have fresh memories of our inglorious president saying things like “Why do we want these people from all these shithole countries [like Haiti and African countries] here? We should have more people from places like Norway.”

With his encouragement, many of his followers share his fear of any immigrants that are not lily white. (See here for a good description of the immigration fears of Trump supporters as far back as 2016).

The first bit of gratitude that Wilson’s Ma Rainey makes me feel is for the gift of the blues and music generally. Our music has been improved immeasurably by the contributions of African Americans in blues, jazz, and other types of music, both directly and indirectly via genres like folk and rock and roll.

In the play, Ma Rainey says,

White folks don’t understand about the blues. They hear it come out, but they don’t know how it got there. They don’t understand that’s life’s way of talking. You don’t sing to feel better. You sing ’cause that’s a way of understanding life. . . . The blues help you get out of bed in the morning. You get up knowing you ain’t alone. There’s something else in the world. Something’s been added by that song. This be an empty world without the blues. I take that emptiness and try to fill it up with something. . . . I ain’t started the blues way of singing. The blues always been here. . . . They say I started it . . . but I didn’t. I just helped it out. Filled up that empty space a little bit. That’s all. But if they wanna call me the Mother of the Blues, that’s all right with me. It don’t hurt none.” (Although the above quote is taken from the play, Ma Rainey’s words in the Netflix film are essentially the same. The main difference between the play and the film is that the latter somewhat condenses the former and also adds a final short scene that hints at exploitation of Black artists which sometimes occurred.)

A PBS essay on the blues, to accompany it’s seven-film TV series, describes the beginnings of the blues.

At the turn of the century, the blues was still slowly emerging from Texas, Louisiana, the Piedmont region, and the Mississippi Delta; its roots were in various forms of African American slave songs such as field hollers, work songs, spirituals, and country string ballads. Rural music that captured the suffering, anguish-and hopes-of 300 years of slavery and tenant farming, the blues was typically played by roaming solo musicians on acoustic guitar, piano, or harmonica at weekend parties, picnics, and juke joints. Their audience was primarily made up of agricultural laborers, who danced to the propulsive rhythms, moans, and slide guitar.

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In 1912, [African American W. C.] Handy helped raise the public profile of the blues when he became one of the first people to transcribe and publish sheet music for a blues song—”Memphis Blues.” Eight years later, listeners snapped up more than a million copies of “Crazy Blues” by Mamie Smith, the first black female to record a blues vocal. This unexpected success alerted record labels to the potential profit of “race records,” and singers such as Ma Rainey and Bessie Smith began to introduce the blues to an even wider audience through their recordings.

Most of the Netflix film, as well as the Wilson play, is set in 1927 in a recording studio in Chicago. Coincidentally, that same year a popular book appeared calledThe American Songbag. It was by the Chicago newspaperman (for the Chicago Daily News), poet, folk song collector/singer, and Lincoln biographer, Carl Sandburg. Its 500 plus pages contained a section labeled “Blues, Mellows, Ballets” and acknowledged the pioneering-blues contributions of W. C. Handy and others. Sandburg wrote a friend, “It is not so much my book as that of a thousand other people who have made its 260 colonial, pioneer, railroad, work-gang, hobo, Irish, Negro, Mexican, gutter, Gossamer songs, chants and ditties.”

(For his many contributions to civil rights Sandburg was later declared a lifetime member of the NAACP. During World War II, he hired two Japanese-Americans to work for him during the same period that over 100,000 other such Americans were being uprooted and sent to internment camps. His friend Governor Adlai Stevenson said that he “is the one living man whose work and whose life epitomize the American dream.” A son of Swedish immigrants himself, it is hard to think of a prominent white American of Sanderburg’s generation who better exemplified an appropriate appreciation of our nation’s composite composition.)

Netflix’s film not only gives us some of Ma Rainey’s blues songs--although Viola Davis is terrific in the role, it is not usually her voice we hear in the songs--it also gives us a slightly condensed drama by one of our country’s best twentieth-century dramatists. In an earlier Hollywood Progressive essay I asked if Wilson’s playFences [was] the Best Filmed Play sinceDeath of a Salesman?” And I suggested, yes, it was--it also stars Davis and even more centrally Denzel Washington. In 1999, six years before his death, Wilson was awarded a National Humanities Medal, which “honors individuals or groups whose work has deepened the nation’s understanding of the humanities and broadened our citizens’ engagement with history, literature, languages, philosophy, and other humanities subjects.”

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Besides dramatists, other African American writers, like those of the 1920s Harlem Renaissance (e.g., Langston Hughes), W.E. B. Du Bois, Ralph Ellison, Richard Wright, James Baldwin, Toni Morrison, Alice Walker, and Maya Angelou, have greatly enriched our culture.

As Ma Rainy and her trumpet player Levee, Viola Davis and the now sadly deceased Chadwick Boseman (star of Black Panther and 42, about Jackie Robinson) remind us of another African American contribution to American culture--all of the excellent actors who have contributed to the American stage and film. Although they are far too many to mention, a few that come to mind are Paul Robeson (also an athlete, activist, and singer who was incredibly multi-talented and stared in the 1933 film Emperor Jones), the spouses Ruby Dee and Ossie Davis, Sidney Poitier, James Earl Jones, Alfre Woodward, and Denzel Washington. (Two New York Times film critics recently listed Washington as the best actor of the 21st century; Alfre Woodward was listed 17th and Viola Davis, 9th .)

Washington, by the way, was one of the producers of the Netflix film and speaks briefly at the end of Ma Rainey. In addition to being the central character in Fences,he also directed it, and has been entrusted with bringing additional Wilson plays to the screen.

Ma Rainey herself

Ma Rainey herself

In Fences, Washington plays a former baseball player who remains bitter because he was never, because of his color, allowed to play Major League baseball (MLB). But prior to Jackie Robinson’s breaking the color barrier in 1947, that’s the way it was. All the Black professional athletes since then in basketball, football, baseball, and other sports (e.g., Arthur Ashe and Serena Williams in tennis, Tiger Woods in golf) remind us of what a great loss such pre-1947 discrimination was.

And, of course, Black contributions have extended far beyond the entertainment world and sports. One thinks, for example of Martin Luther King, Jr. and Barack Obama--and about Obama, one should note that like August Wilson one of his parents was white. (As with MLB’s pre-1947 exclusion of Black players, so with state laws prior to 1967 banning interracial marriages, before the Supreme Court struck them down in Loving v. Virginia, we can only shake our heads and think how foolish we were for so long.)

Although the stage and screen production of Ma Rainey reminds us of all the Black contributions to American life, this fact should not lessen our appreciation of all the contributions of other ethnic groups. None of us should be so hyper sensitive to the praise of other ethnicities that we think it somehow diminishes us or our ethnic group. As Douglass said in his Boston speech, “It is no disparagement to Americans of English descent, to affirm that much of the wealth, leisure, culture, refinement and civilization of the country are due to the arm of the negro and the muscle of the Irishman.” And just as this present article focuses on Black contributions, so too other articles could highlight what other racial or ethnic groups have given us. To mention just a few brief examples in regard to Hispanic/Latinos, one thinks of their contribution to MLB--“In 2017, 27.4 percent of MLB players were Latinos”--or of the amazing success of the Broadway play Hamilton by Lin-Manuel Miranda, who is of Puerto Rican descent.

What can be said of ethnic groups can also be said of genders. Gays, for example, have long contributed to the stage and dance--one thinks, for example, of Tony Kushner’s play Angels in America: A Gay. Fantasia on National Themes. At present, TV, including streaming services, features numerous films dealing with gay themes, for example, Uncle Frank (Amazon Prime), Prom (Netflix), Happiest Season (Hulu). In addition, the final season of the popular TV series Schitt’s Creek (available on Netflix) increasingly dealt with the gayness of one of its main characters (son David), and the season “swept all seven major comedy awards (the first time for a comedy or drama series)” at the 72nd Emmy Awards (for 2019-20).

walter moss

In his Boston speech, Douglass suggested that the USA as “the most conspicuous example of composite nationality in the world,” could set an example for the rest of the world. Today, when so much hostility is directed against immigrants or believers of other faiths (like Muslims), his words are more appropriate than others. And now that a Biden administration is about to replace the toxic Trumpian one, perhaps the USA can resume the task of showing other nations that a land of many ethnic groups and various believers and non-believers can live harmoniously together, can become “stronger, not in spite of its many elements, but because of them.”

Walter G. Moss