After a sad spell, I return with good news, energy, and curiosity alight, thanks to the fabulous new book by art historian Samantha Noël which just arrived today. I made Respect quilt no. 7 for her, in fact, in memory of our time together during the years at Notre Dame and in admiration for her work. She works on Black artists and culture-creators of the Caribbean and the USA, and shows how their creations are interwoven with real aesthetic merit and political intention, despite being misunderstood or written off by the authorities. I’ve been waiting for my copy of the book so that I could pose the quilt with it, and the combination is even better than I imagined. I love the way the quilt’s vibe matches the message of the book! dancing people, tropical landscapes, a jaunty air of subversion–they are soulmates. Knowing it was destined to Samantha, I made this quilt particularly bright and cheerful. Do you see the visual reminder of the year it was made?*
A couple passages will show you why I’m such a fan of the book. It’s Samantha Noël’s ability to bring you right into the scene, to take the reader on a sensory journey to Trinidad or Cuba, to jangling cities and noisy jungles, where a luscious tropical heat shields a whole different world of smells, sights, and sounds and people with deep customs and histories linking them to Africa and the islands. Or to the glamorous world of Josephine Baker in the 1920s, when she took Paris by storm. (It is still sickening to remember that despite amazing talent, Baker was rebuffed at home in the USA, and that some part of her success was due to her concession to perform in the nude, with a male partner, a titillating danse des sauvages for white audiences). Noël’s focus on Black culture, island diasporas, and Southern histories is also a breath of new air into my Northwestern life, and one I’m eager to take in. Plus there’s a very intriguing photo of Maya Angelou on an album cover, as “Miss Calypso,” that I’m dying to explore!
Samantha Noël paints a complicated picture of the jamettes, or women who belonged to the poor of urban Trinidad, whose male counterparts were called badjohns. Instead of consigning them to the toxic influences that dominated their daily lives (abuse, sex work, poverty), she also notes the feisty, flamboyant style they embraced and the important role they played in the neighborhood. Famous jamettes–Yvonne “Bubulups” Smith and Gateway Elaine, for example–could be seen during street happenings of all kinds, from political protests to Carnival carousing. The consequences were sometimes dire, as the author notes:
“When Bubulups initiated a battle with her opponents, policemen arrested a naked and wounded Bubulups. … The difficulty of a jamette’s life is best summed up in Jean’s words: ‘Listen to me Dinah. … The road I walk had nothing. It didn’t have no money, no food. I didn’t have no mother. I didn’t have no father. All I ever wanted in my life was money and that is the only way I know how to do it. And that is how I am going down.’ … society branded them vulgar. As uncouth spectacles, their physiques gestured indiscretion against the repressive colonial order. Vulgar now became the pejorative agent in the sociocultural framing of these Black working-class women.
… she captures the attention of onlookers. Her monumental presence captured in the photograph also highlights her explicit control of the domain around her as she literally makes space, transforming the tropical, colonial territory as she traverses it.
Their movements were akin to the steel bands, whose rhythmic and melodic sound also emitted an unruly flair as the steel pan voiced the Black masses’ desire for acknowledgment of their political, social, and creative presence. The jamettes thus reveled in the music in their costumes, oscillating their hips with their arms akimbo, some waving the flags of their affiliated steel bands and others simply moving to the music while singing refrains from popular calypsos. If the jamettes were indeed primitive, it is because they were appropriating primitivity in their performance as a means of challenging the colonial order.” (pp. 133-135 in Tropical Aesthetics of Black Modernism, Duke University Press, 2021).
Select Honey Girl quilts will be on sale for one day only, March 10, 2021. Check it out!
photo of Maya Angelou album cover courtesy of: By Source (WP:NFCC#4), Fair use, https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?curid=36595496
*the ox on the green & yellow square is a symbol of 2021: Year of the Ox according to the Chinese zodiac.
On left above, an oil painting by Aaron Douglas, Aspects of Negro Life: From Slavery to Reconstruction, 1934, courtesy of the Center for Research in Black Culture, New York Public Library.