wrobcover09 01 20From Jennifer Baumgardner:

In early 2018, Carmen Rios, then an editor at Ms. magazine, introduced me to three sociology PhD candidates: Chelsea Johnson, LaToya Council, and Carolyn Choi. Since that fortuitous first encounter, I’ve collaborated with the CLC Collective—as they call their public sociology organization—on two books that make the tools of intersectionality accessible to anyone, but especially children.

Amid their work to deconstruct the “imperialist white supremacist capitalist patriarchy,” as bell hooks calls it, Chelsea and LaToya agreed to guest-edit this back-to-school issue of the Women’s Review of Books (Carolyn wasn’t available). I’m grateful for their intellectual work and thrilled about the slate of writers in this issue. Here’s a bit more about these editors:

Chelsea Johnson: “As a kid, I was often the only Black girl in my classrooms. Growing up as an “outsider within” my mostly white schools shaped my critical interest in how race, class, and gender stratify social life. I gained the tools to understand my experiences as an undergraduate at Spelman College, where I was introduced to intersectional feminism. After graduating from Spelman summa cum laude, I began my doctoral program in Sociology at the University of Southern California as a Provost Fellow. I earned my MA in Sociology from USC in 2015, and completed my PhD in Sociology with a graduate certificate in Gender Studies in 2019. I am also an alumna of the Black European Summer School, the International Decolonial Black Feminism School, a UNCF/Mellon-Mays Fellow, and a member of Phi Beta Kappa.

Broadly, my academic research projects theorize bodies as mediums of culture, or the physical and symbolic form through which race, class, and gender hierarchies, social control, and social etiquette are played out. My past work on the sociology of sport and my dissertation project on Black beauty politics center the body to examine the complexity, multiplicity, and particularity of Black practices from an intersectional feminist perspective. I currently work as a User Experience (UX) Researcher at LinkedIn. My overarching goal is to inform the development of just, equitable, and human-centered political strategies, design, media, scholarship, and artwork that reflect the situated knowledges and needs of our society’s most vulnerable populations.

When I’m not researching or writing, I enjoy hiking, reading novels, exploring new art mediums, and eating my way through new cities.”

LaToya Council: “I was raised in a single-parent mother-headed home. I would often stare at my mother in awe of her super-shero abilities to manage so many family demands while holding multiple jobs to make ends meet. These memories inspired my vision for a more inclusive world and drove me toward studying sociology at Spelman College, where I first learned about the concept of intersectionality. After graduating from Spelman, I studied the inequalities in love and how race, gender, and class intersect to inform relationship experiences for my master’s at the University of Colorado, Colorado Springs. I am currently finishing my dissertation at the University of Southern California, which examines time use and self-care among Black middleclass couples. Intersectionality and the power of love frame how I do allyship and research. When not researching, I enjoy practicing meditation, cooking, and hanging with my cat Mimi.”

After reading this timely and important issue of Women’s Review of Books, you may wonder how you can contribute to centering Black women. You can start by purchasing books featured in the review, or other books written by Black cis and trans women. You can also donate books to the Free Black Women’s Library, an interactive Black Feminist mobile trading library. Created by OlaRonke Akinmowo in Brooklyn, New York, the Free Black Women’s Library is mobilizing in Atlanta, Brooklyn, Detroit, and Los Angeles.

From all of us at WRB, thank you for reading.

wrobcover09 01 20Dear Readers,

#SayHerName, #BreonnaTaylor, #AjaRaquellRoneSpears, #BlackTransWomenMatter

Summer 2020 has wreaked violence and emotional trauma on Black womanhood. In the wake of her making history as the first Black and South Asian woman Democratic Vice President candidate, Kamala Harris was described as “too ambitious.” Actor Jada Pinkett-Smith was deemed a horrible mother, wife, and woman when she confirmed a sexual relationship with a man with substance abuse challenges. Rapper Megan Thee Stallion was shot in the foot by a fellow hip hop star, and then slut shamed for her popular summer song with Cardi B., “W.A.P.” When Black trans sisters were killed by transphobic vigilantes, heteronormative Black community members and their white allies refused to say their names: Riah Milton in Ohio, Dominique “Rem’Mie” Fells in Pennsylvania, and Aja Raquell Rone-Spears in Oregon.

As the two of us marched through our neighborhoods on opposite sides of this country, an all too familiar pattern arose: those with relative power and privilege continued to take up disproportionate space in conversations about social justice. While society’s collective attention turned towards white fragility and violence against Black men, we found ourselves yearning for our stories to be heard. In 2015, critical race theorist, activist and law professor Dr. Kimberlé Crenshaw helped popularize the hashtag #SayHerName on social media to bring attention to the violence facing cis and trans Black women. Five years later, we’re still shouting her name, her name, her name. And yet, as our Instagram timelines transition from black squares back to millennial pink, we still wait for prosecutors to bring charges against Breonna Taylor’s murderers, who continue to work for the Louisville Metro Police Department. Do you hear us?

In June, when we were asked to guest co-edit the September/October issue of the Women’s Review of Books, we knew exactly what we wanted to do: center Black women, our creativity, our struggles, our triumphs, our heartache, and most of all our points of view. The result is this special issue, a conversation between (primarily) Black women writers, activists, and creators. We reviewed new fiction and scholarship, classics, and even television. As you’ll see, Black women don’t always agree. We have different ideas about the pathway to liberation, different journeys through life, and different reactions to social problems. But we also take inspiration from each other’s arguments and expertise. Great art begets more great art.

In the spirit of womanism, this issue became an opportunity for creating community something we think we’re all yearning for right now as we shelter in place. To source these reviews, the two of us got to reconnect with our Spelman sisters, our childhood friends, our fellow binders, our academic play cousins, and our broader Black girl community. Not only did these women show up, but they showed out. In these pages, you’ll read the words of students, educators, activists, artists, academics, journalists, and more.

Are you ready for some Black girl magic? We hope you hear us.

In sisterhood and solidarity,
LaToya Council and Chelsea Johnson
Washington D.C. and Oakland, CA

Transcendent Kingdom By Yaa Gyasi

Reviewed by Bridgett M. Davis

Transcendent Kingdom By Yaa Gyasi

How do you make meaning out of the life you find yourself living, with its random senselessness? Can religion help? Can science? Can both?

This is the question both philosophical and literal thrumming throughout Yaa Gyasi’s haunting new novel. Given our current lives amidst a pandemic with an unknowable and unforeseeable outcome, that question of what sustains us makes Gyasi’s novel astute and timely. The story, as taut and intimate as her debut multi-generational novel Homegoing was sprawling and expansive, focuses on one working-class, Ghanaian immigrant family living in Alabama: a mother abandoned by her husband, single-handedly raising her son and daughter. As the story opens, the mother leaves her southern home and comes to live with her adult daughter Gifty in California; once there, the mother lies in bed every day in a recurrence of crippling depression, which manifests as anhedonia, the feeling of nothing. Gifty, a dutiful daughter, tries to help her mother feel something again. This is the front edge of the story: Gifty’s mother’s depression and the question of whether she’ll rebound. Gifty must try to save her mother in between her own responsibilities as a sixth-year PhD candidate in neuroscience at Stanford University’s medical school, where she’s researching “the neural circuits of reward-seeking behavior.” On dates she jokes that her job is, “to get mice hooked on cocaine before taking it away from them.”

That is mostly true. Gifty is trying to understand addiction, and specifically, how the prefrontal cortex enables the brain to suppress addictive impulses. “The mice who can’t stop pushing the lever, even after being shocked dozens of times, are, neurologically, the ones who are most interesting to me,” Gifty tells us.

We understand why: Gifty lost her only sibling, her brother Nana, to an overdose from heroin, an addiction that grew out of a careless doctor’s overprescribing of Oxy-Contin for the teen’s relatively minor basketball injury. Here Gyasi provides a storyline that resonates, given the current epidemic of young Americans dope-sick or dead, thanks to pharmaceuticals and their pushers. Did science fail Nana? Could it have saved him? Can science provide Gifty the answers to understand his death?

Working for hours quietly in her lab, drilling into the heads of mice, Gifty tells us why she studies these lab animals’ brains:

To know that if I could only understand this little organ inside this one tiny mouse, that understanding still wouldn’t speak to the full intricacy of the comparable organ inside my own head. And yet I had to try to understand, to extrapolate from that limited understanding in order to apply it to those of us who made up the species Homo sapiens, the most complex animal, the only animal who believed he had transcended his Kingdom…

This is a novel for the moment in ways Gyasi couldn’t have possibly anticipated. Science is on our minds now, and for many people so is God and His grace. How else to process the massive losses, the many tens of thousands of loved ones in this country who have died alone from the coronavirus—as did Gifty’s brother Nana, helpless against a different yet equally virulent disease? Transcendent Kingdom interrogates the point at which religion and science meet. For Gifty, there is no gulf, as she believes the mice at the heart of her brain experiments nourish her in ways that a faith in God might. She readily admits she has traded the Pentecostalism of her childhood for this new religion, this new quest. Gyasi lays out, in eloquent prose, Gifty’s view on the matter:

The collaboration that the mice and I have going in this lab is, if not holy, then at least sacrosanct. I have never, will never, tell anyone that I sometimes think this way, because I’m aware that the Christians in my life would find it blasphemous and the scientists would find it embarrassing, but the more I do this work the more I believe in a kind of holiness in our connection to everything on Earth. Holy is the mouse. Holy is the grain the mouse eats. Holy is the seed. Holy are we.

Amidst a backdrop of the religion vs. science divide, Transcendent Kingdom is the story of loss. It’s about mourning over a sibling gone, and the ways a familial world shifts on its axis after someone who was once its center, its nucleus, is no more. And ultimately, this is the story of impenetrable grief, and the painstaking and poignant quest to outrun it, wrestle it, find relief from it.

Gyasi powerfully captures Nana’s slide into addiction, and the ways his loved ones grapple helplessly with that descent. Gifty and her mother do not know what to do about Nana’s drug abuse. Her mother screams at him, slaps him, and ultimately sends him to rehab. None of it works. Gyasi ties Nana’s descent to his feelings of abandonment by his and Gifty’s father, whom they call the Chin-Chin Man. Their West African father cannot take the slings and arrows of life as a Black man in this country, and one day leaves his family behind in Alabama, “a punishing state,” and returns to his homeland Ghana, never coming back.

Gyasi shows us how the toxicity of racism converges with personal demons and disappointments. In a scene so brutal in its familiarity it seems taken from one of today’s videos gone viral, a white soccer dad spews racist venom from the stands, directing it at Nana, a gifted athlete. As Nana’s soccer team scores, this angry father screams at his son, “don’t you let them niggers win. Don’t let them score another goal on you, you hear me?” In response, Nana plays the rest of the game “with pure fury. A fury that would come to define and consume him.” Nana’s team wins the game, and Gifty, still a young girl, wonders, “what was that man in danger of losing?” As she narrates the story, looking back, Gifty tells us that was the moment when Nana’s life became a reaction to rather than a free choice. Later, the brother’s rage at their father for abandoning him combusts when Nana realizes across the length of a two-hour bus ride to a soccer game that his father is never coming back to them; Nana stays on that bus, refuses to get off, and vows to never again play the game his father loved.

Racism is never far away from this story, even and perhaps especially where religion is concerned. With a surgeon’s precision, Gyasi slices open the ways racist attitudes overlay and complicate Gifty’s once fervent faith in God vis-à-vis evangelicalism. Gifty recalls how the youth pastor of their church, when pushed by Nana, concedes that even if people in Africa have never heard of Christianity, because they are not “saved,” they will go to Hell when they die. Gifty understands that white religious people equate the poverty of people in other countries with their lack of Christianity, hence white missionaries’ zeal to save them. She notes that these same people hypocritically never question the poverty of white American Christians, and she concludes that her youth pastor believed that the people who deserved Hell were “people who looked like Nana and me.”

Animal activists be warned: The detailed account of the narrator’s experiments on mice are unflinching. “I watched my mice groggily spring back to life, recovering from the anesthesia and woozy from the painkillers,” Gifty tells us matter-of-factly. “I’d injected a virus into the nucleus accumbens and implanted a lens in their brains so that I could see their neurons firing as I ran my experiments.” Of course, this is what medical science is all about, and if we are to have a vaccine for the coronavirus in a near future, it will be because of just such lab work. I admit, however, that my eyes sometimes glazed over the scientific terms that populate the text. As I read the line, “one of the exciting things about optogenetics is that it allows us to target particular neurons, allowing for a greater amount of specificity than DBS,” I didn’t share the narrator’s excitement.

Yet the novel beautifully examines the hardships created by abandonment and displacement, and the attendant shame that comes from both; this motif is conveyed via a vivid Ghanaian-immigrant world, steeped in its own stew of American promise and failure. And so, it’s okay that the novel conveniently gives Gifty a life partner in a courtship that happens off-camera as a tidy plot point. This slim book’s ambitious and compelling interest is in greater relationships than mere romantic ones. In fact, the novel itself is one long meditation on life’s big themes of love and loss, and one woman’s quest to understand the human condition as she grapples with both.

Gifty decides that ultimately both science and religion fail to “fully satisfy in their aim.” So, we go on, Gyasi suggests, understanding all too well that as humans we have not in fact transcended our kingdom. There are things we will never fully know. But we have these pesky, highly evolved brains that convince us we can know, and so we keep seeking answers.

Bridgett M. Davis is the author most recently of the memoir, The World According to Fannie Davis: My Mother’s Life in the Detroit Numbers, a New York Times Editors’ Choice, a 2020 Michigan Notable Book, and named a Best Book of 2019 by Kirkus Reviews, BuzzFeed, NBC News, and Parade Magazine. She is writing the screenplay for the film adaptation of the book, which will be produced by Plan B Entertainment and released by Searchlight Pictures. A Professor of Journalism and the Writing Professions at Baruch College, CUNY, she teaches creative, film, and narrative writing.

Commentary by Katha Pollitt

wrobcover09 01 20

It isn’t easy to write at history’s command, but in the immediate aftermath of 9/11 poets produced an extraordinary number of poems. A few were exceptional—Adam Zagajewski’s “Try to Praise the Mutilated World,” for example—and many were not, because it is hard not to fall into verbal and emotional clichés when writing so immediately about an event with such a defined, public meaning. We all saw the same news programs and the same photos—what could a poem say that added meaning rather than simply repeated in fancy language what we felt already?

Emily Gordon’s unrhymed sonnet “Tribute in Light” follows Emily Dickinson’s advice: tell all the truth but tell it slant. Instead of writing about the event directly, she writes about an art installation, two towers made out of searchlights, which appears in the night sky every year on the anniversary. It’s a poem about loss of people and of meaning, the mystery of death. What remains? As usual, God isn’t giving any answers.

By the way, this year’s occurrence was almost cancelled due to the coronavirus, resulting in much protest and political pressure. As of this writing, it looks like the towers of light will once again grace New York with their beautiful ghostly presence. —Katha Pollitt


Tribute in Light

They make the empty sky emptier,
pale blue columns on a cloudy night.
The amateur sleuth dusts for fingerprints,
flashes his beacon at nothing. Nothing

waits at the top of this rungless ladder,
too close to earth to be some simple heaven,
too close to the ground packed with bodies,
invisible, caught at that instant

of running or burning. Planes penetrate
the beams without breaking windows,
nobody steps from the bright elevator,
just light parading the still waterfront.

If these are the stilts of God then God
is stock-still, waiting for us to move.

—Emily Gordon


Emily Gordon’s poems have appeared in The Baffler, Painted Bride Quarterly, HIV Here and Now, Transition, and the Toronto Globe & Mail. She lives in New Haven, Connecticut.

An essay by Laurie Stone

wrobcover09 01 20

I saw the face of a friend at a Zoom event for the beloved feminist, Ann Snitow. She had died the year before, and people were gathering to think about her life and ways they missed her. I was happy to see the face of the friend on Zoom and wrote to tell her, and we exchanged a few remarks on Messenger, agreeing to speak on the phone sometime soon.

I wrote to the friend on Zoom I thought we’d first met at a party thrown in the giant apartment on West End Avenue where Nanette Rainone lived in a commune with Gwenda Blair, among others. At that time, Nanette was a radio producer and Gwenda a journalist. They were young women with power and energy. They were feminists, thinking about feminism in maybe similar ways or maybe not. The friend I saw on Zoom was younger than me, and I remembered thinking she was beautiful with slanted eyes and a face like some sort of slender animal. She was ambitious. Maybe she was already writing for the Village Voice, as I was. Maybe I had come to the party with Vivian Gornick, who knew all the feminists in the world then. I was in my early thirties. The friend I saw on Zoom recalled having interviewed Vivian on an occasion. She had an agenda to make the world more just and more free, not only for women, but for all people under some boot somewhere. She was fierce, and I was a little afraid of her, as I am by all women who seem to know where they are going and why.

Today in the bath I thought about abstract nouns such as conflict and abuse, and how much I dislike them, although I like the phrase coined by Sarah Schulman that is also the title of a book she wrote, “conflict is not abuse.” In the bath, I imagined Sarah Schulman addressing the millennials she teaches, and telling them to chill in the face of remarks they don’t like, not to see language as harming and not to shun things you feel as harms. Sarah Schulman could easily have meant something different from my interpretation because abstract language doesn’t mean anything concrete. The word conflict doesn’t mean anything concrete, and the word abuse doesn’t mean anything concrete. When words that are not concrete are used as if they are concrete and summon a world of assumed, shared understanding, I want to disagree with each example, and I don’t know why I can’t keep quiet when something bugs me. Why everyone has to know what I feel.

If you are part of a movement for social change, you are going to hear abstract language, and if you go around questioning it, people are going to hate you, and you will feel like the outsider you always make yourself into. You will ask yourself why you can’t go along, why you can’t get along, why you wind up being disloyal or being considered disloyal for slipping another wedge of thought onto the table, like a piece of cheese no one else is going to eat.

Recently I was a presenter at two other Zoom events, and at both events, women in the audience asked why women tear each other down rather than support each other. They contended that women were competitive, echoing a notion popular among people who hate feminism. I said at one of the Zoom events, “Women dislike women as much as everyone else.” I was thinking about something I didn’t say, which is that women find it easier to give themselves away to causes for the liberation of other people than to give themselves away to the liberation of women. It feels selfish. God forbid a woman should think about the interests of women. At the second Zoom event, another woman who is a feminist told the woman who asked about women fighting with each other that women were a million times nicer to women than men were to them, that women helped each other all the time, were supportive, looked out for each other. Which was also true.

How is it possible to be a human being and not feel competitive with others who have what you want, even if you also love them? Isn’t that what is meant by the term, “conflict is not abuse”? Why should women be weirded out by being thought competitive? This is a rhetorical question.

The words feminist and feminism are abstractions, in that there are no essential characteristics all feminists share and no essential understandings of what feminism is. There never were. In the 1960s, when I entered the women’s movement, everyone had her own private feminism, and some people, like Ann Snitow, were successful at working in worlds foreign to them. Ann forged alliances with women who considered themselves feminists and didn’t necessarily share her sense of what it means to be a feminist. A belief no matter what in abortion rights? Not everyone who calls themselves a feminist shares this view. As far as I’m concerned, anyone who doesn’t champion the right of women to abortion isn’t a feminist, but I’ve established I’m not the one you send out to make common cause amid a sea of conflict. It has come to my attention there are women who call themselves feminists who don’t concern themselves with issues of sexism and misogyny. Some of these women believe in God and in various religions, and to rummage around for even five minutes in sexism and misogyny and also hold onto the tenets of your religion will blow off the top of your head.

At the Zoom event for Ann, listening to students and friends and colleagues talk about her service to various causes for women’s liberation and to them personally, as I listened to how large a life in love and friendship she had made that was its own thing, not duplicable, how accepting and at the same time sharp-minded she was, as I listened and remembered, I felt alienated, as I always do in groups, comparing her accomplishments to my measly ones, comparing my knowledge of Ann, which wasn’t deep or probably very important to her, to her intimacy with others. One of those others was the friend I was happy to see, and I watched her face throughout the testimonies people shared, one by one, and thought she may have felt a bit out of it, too, because no one is interesting when they speak in abstractions, and most of the people used that language to describe what they did, what they loved, what they remembered, so the language was no easier to hold onto than air.

That’s when I slipped back to the party at the giant apartment of Nanette Rainone, how I had marveled at such a place with so many rooms, and women able to live together with lovers and children and conflict. How could there not be conflict, and how could they not want to help each other through this beautiful, awkward life. I missed the sense of being on the lip of everything, although I feel on the lip of things again, only this time standing on a virtual cliff in a virtual reality. The large and small details of female existence, how we talk to each other, how we can’t wait to tell each other stories, take each other’s faces in our hands when the face of a friend appears. That is one place— perhaps the deepest place—where feminism resides. Nothing is more interesting, not really, if you wake us suddenly in the middle of the night and say, “What are you? What happened to you along the way?”

Laurie Stone is a frequent essayist for Women’s Review of Books and author most recently of Everything is Personal, Notes on Now, about which Masha Gessen recently wrote in The New Yorker, “The title of the book references one of the central arguments of 1960s feminism, from which Stone hails intellectually: “The personal is political.” It also describes our current predicament—everything that is not personal has vanished—and suggests a way of thinking sharply, imaginatively, beautifully, from right here.” Her 2019 WRB essays about the #MeToo movement and Valerie Solanas feature prominently in the collection

Black Diamond Queens by Maureen Mahon

Reviewed by Briana N. Spivey

Black Diamond Queens by Maureen Mahon

When Santi “Santigold” White’s self-titled debut album was released in 2008, the record melded rock, reggae, and ska. Critics loved it—and they also classified it as R&B. White was outraged. She didn’t even like R&B and it most certainly did not describe her music—but reassignment to racially familiar spaces is a common experience for African American women. Cultural anthropologist Maureen Mahon opens her riveting Black Diamond Queens by framing this incident for our understanding of the impact race, gender, and “genre” have on the story of African American women in rock. An eclectic and passionate music fan herself, Mahon describes how “race music” became rhythm and blues and then “rock,” a genre most identified with white men. She quotes, among others, pop music critic and professor Jack Hamilton to assert that “no black-derived musical form in American history has more assiduously moved to erase and blockade black participation than rock music” and then makes a strong case that Black women were expunged most thoroughly.

The general outlines of the story will feel familiar to many, as it did to me. As a Black woman navigating a white and patriarchal society, I know I have to work twice as hard to receive recognition; I feel my responsibility to carry the weight of history and community on my back. Likewise, the Black women musicians Maureen Mahon profiles find their intersectional identities differentially impacted their success in the world of rock and roll. As Mahon writes: “Gendered and racialized assumptions about genre have profound impact on African American women working in rock and roll; they experience a kind of double jeopardy as they navigate terrain in which the body presumed to be appropriate to the genre is white and male.”

Using interviews, recordings, and archival sources, Mahon examines the experiences of artists Willie Mae “Big Mama” Thornton, LaVern Baker, Betty Davis, Tina Turner, The Shirelles, Labelle, and background vocalists such as Merry Clayton, Venetta Fields, Cissy Houston, Gloria Jones, Claudia Lennear, and Darlene Love. There are, of course, other women who have made an impact on rock music, but Mahon chose to focus on a select group whose stories support Black women’s foundational role. Centering these specific experiences also recognizes how rock and roll functions as a mechanism for policing race, gender, and sexuality in the production and circulation—marketing—of popular music.

Mahon sets the stage for our understanding of each of these women by placing them in the time period in which their influence began, beginning with Willie Mae “Big Mama” Thornton. Thornton recorded the original version of “Hound Dog”— her classic dressing down of a no-good man by his exasperated lover. Written for Thornton by Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller, “Hound Dog” was a hit, raising her profile but yielding no royalties to her. A few years later, Elvis Presley made millions of dollars from his cover. (This, despite the fact that singing it as a man made the cheeky song literally about a dog and his disappointed owner.) Presley never acknowledged Thornton as the originator. In the 1970s, Janis Joplin recorded Thornton’s song “Ball and Chain,” making it a hit. Joplin always credited Thornton as the song writer and for influencing her own unique vocal approach, but while Joplin became a huge star, Thornton struggled for work.

As the discussion of Presley and Joplin’s cooptation make clear, Thornton’s influence wasn’t just through two famous songs; she was responsible for the energy, feel, sound, and attitude that characterized rock music. Mahon’s skill in capturing Thornton’s truth also illuminates the longstanding legacy of Black women’s impact on, and removal from, American music’s origin story. Whether you’re in the Ivory Tower of academia, like myself, or in the arts, as Black women, our contributions are often erased and diminished.

Black Diamond Queens transitions readers forward through time to meet other women, thus ensuring that their stories are portrayed in rock and roll history. A constant theme in Black Diamond Queens is the manner through which genre acts as a barrier for African American women’s success in rock and roll. Some early women in rock chose to incorporate gospel music as the background sound to their vocals, which allowed them to be marginalized as “gospel” rather than rock innovators. Betty Davis, for instance, another woefully overlooked artist, created guitar-heavy, genre-bending rock records in the late 1960s and 1970s. She played amid “giants” like Jimi Hendrix and Carlos Santana, and was a profound influence on her then-husband, Miles, when he was creating Bitches Brew. Despite this, Betty Davis is obscure; the men are household names, recognized as geniuses.

Mahon’s chapter about Tina Turner deviates from the theme of obscurity, as Turner is acknowledged as one of the most important rock vocalists of all time. Turner’s early career in the duo Ike and Tina was a classic rhythm and blues revue, but Mahon writes that her desire to align herself with rock in her post-Ike career was connected to her belief that “maintaining ties to rhythm and blues made neither emotional nor aesthetic sense.

She heard significant differences between the two forms.” As Turner left the abusive husband Ike, she shed other burdens, too. Mahon quotes Turner from a 1984 Rolling Stone feature: “Rhythm and blues is rhythm and it’s blues. And blues is blues—people kinda crooning about the hardships of life. Rock and roll is very up music.” She riffs further on what she sees as the racial caste of rock in a 1991 BBC documentary:

Can you imagine me standing out and singing about cheating on your wife or your husband to those kids? Those kids can’t relate to that. They’re naughty. They want to hear some fun things. Rock and roll is fun. It’s full of energy, it’s laughter. It’s naughty. To me, a lot of rhythm and blues songs are depressing. They are, because it’s a culture you’re writing about and a way of life. Rock and roll is white, basically, ‘cause white people haven’t had that much of a problem so they write about much lighter things and funnier things.

Turner is one of a few of the Black women represented in the book who saw their impact on future generations and who made a lot of money; most did not. Therefore, I would recommend this book as a correction to the record, so to speak. If you are curious about music and its development across genres or would like more examples of Black women’s exquisite impact on every aspect of life, Black Diamond Queens is for you. You won’t find many of these queens on the walls of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame or in canonical texts discussing the origins of rock and roll. Still, crucially and inspiringly, you might see yourself in this group of Black women whose manicured fingers are all over rock and roll. At the very least, you will be exposed to some incredible new songs.

Briana Spivey is a graduate student in the clinical psychology doctoral program at the University of Georgia. Briana’s research interests are focused on understanding the implications of cultural coping constructs, such as the Strong Black Womanhood (SBW) schema, on the mental health of African American women. Along with this research, Briana is also interested in the development and implementation of culturally adapted psychological interventions for African Americans. Check out Briana's "Black Diamond Queens" playlist on the WRB website.

by Charis Caputo 


Black women's contribution to American music deserves to be recognized and celebrated. To that end, we offer a playlist based on contributor Briana N. Spivey’s (available in full on Apple Music). Inspired by Maureen Mahon’s Black Diamond Queens: African American Women and Rock and Roll, this list explores the immense musical diversity of the Black female vocalists who helped to create the genre of rock and roll even as they were marginalized and excluded from it. 

Some of these songs and singers are more widely familiar than others. Hearing them all together, one is struck by the richness and variety of these artist’s sonic styles. There are the barnstorming blues vocals of Big Mama Thornton on these under-recognized recordings of songs that became rock hits for white artists. There is that nostalgic, melancholy girl-group sound of The Shirelles on classics like “Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow?” From the artfully abrasive funk of Betty Davis’ Nasty Gal to the code-switching skill of Darlene Love and The Blossoms’ backup vocals, to the familiar anthems of Tina Turner’s genre-bending career, it’s evident that Black women’s complex voices and aesthetics have shaped American music as we know it. 

  1. “L.E.S. Artistes,” Santigold
  2. “Lady Marmalade,” Patti LaBelle
  3. “Tonight’s the Night,” The Shirelles
  4. “Isn’t It a Shame,” Labelle
  5. “Hound Dog,” Big Mama Thornton
  6. “Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow,” the Shirelles
  7. “Proud Mary,” Tina Turner
  8. “What’s Love Got to Do With It,” Tina Turner
  9. “Ball N’ Chain,” Big Mama Thornton
  10. “Dedicated to the Press,” Betty Davis
  11. “Don’t Call Her No Tramp,” Betty Davis
  12. “Anti Love Song,” Betty Davis
  13. “Nasty Gal,” Betty Davis
  14. “Nothing Can Stop Me,” Cissy Houston
  15. “Morning Much Better,” Cissy Houston
  16. “Unchained Melody,” Patti LaBelle & The Bluebells
  17. “See See Rider,” LaVern Baker
  18. “Love Me Right,” LaVern Baker
  19. “The Shoop Shoop Song (It’s in His Kiss),” Betty Everett (The Blossoms on backup vocals)
  20. “Monster Mash,” Bobby “Boris” Pickett and the Crypt Kickers (The Blossoms on backup vocals)
  21. “Good, Good Lovin’,” The Blossoms
  22. “Tainted Love,” Gloria Jones

Women's Review of Books

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