What Billie and Phyllis Sang About

Community is important. So are loved ones, compatible partners, and jobs or careers to feel appreciated for beyond what you can do for them. For black women, all this is much more important.

Black women and suicide has been a frequent but hidden and hushed event since slavery days in America, when we slipped away in the early mornings or carried out plans in the dark. We sought relief from confusing existences as essential and valued workers, however only rewarded with unannounced inflictions of pain and sexual abuse. Along with normal feminine obligations to balance hormonal fluctuations, tend to the body, birth children, raise children, and earn income all while keeping a home, black women added obligations to live through physical torture and emotional abuse on their mental to-do lists. The National Humanities Center archives oral histories, letters and newspaper reports documenting witness statements and even victims’ last words from a period of slavery in America, when the event of suicide was an achievable solution to separating from unbearable circumstances (Suicide among Slaves: A Very Last Resort).

From this history and legacy emerged a stock of colored women in America and throughout the world who could be said to embody mental acuity, emotional strength, and psychological toughness the same way we inherited rhythm and coarse hair. This unrequested tapestry in our DNA has given rise to such supposed compliments as “Strong Black Woman,” “Shero” and my least favorite: “Proud Sister”- which makes black women sound like painted warriors charging on horseback in a Western. Last year, Ebony Magazine asked “Is ‘Strong Black Womanhood’ Killing Our Sisters?” when an up-and-coming activist became the latest in a recent stream of black women taken at their own hands.

In these #BlackLivesMatter days, we still just expect Oprah to uplift us with a Life Class and Beyoncé to inspire us to get drunk in love and Serena or Venus to empower us without looking at what these women have been through, what average black women go through every day, and how little black women’s lives matter outside of nurturing or pleasuring those outside themselves. We celebrate those women but brush the realities of everyday geniuses like Billie Holiday and Phyllis Hyman under the rug- while we glorify our most iconic spirits, play cool by playing their music, and fawn over their natural beauty by today’s airbrushed standards. If you can set aside just who and what you are really listening to, you might even fall in love to them.

America’s most important jazz singer, Billie Holiday (1915-1949), technically ended her own life by slipping into multiple drug dependencies over and over until her body could not take another dose. She was 44. One of her potential predecessors, Phyllis Hyman (1949-1995), actually ended her own life after she turned to various dependencies over and over. She was 45. They did not only think about love and jazz and heartbreak. They sang about history, and Phyllis Hyman was a frequent mentor to young people in the arts. She remained outspoken about the necessity of professional development. The story of the rock star or beautiful starlet’s demise in similar fashions is not unique. What is unique is how what these women actually sang about was truly real, but dismissed and disguised as entertainment and talent. Nobody heard their cries.

Lady Day
Billie Holiday, 1949 (Carl Van Vechten)


Prime of My Life
buy Prime of My Life

How many black women sing this tune but are not heard? When all other women cry and stomp and yell “Fire!” most hear and take them seriously and rush to their aides. Black women might be too often seen as powerful and passionate by default. No. Signs of and reactions to danger remain consistent throughout all life forms. But, this world is so prone to lump black women with black men as its targets of pent-up aggression and superiority. So our femininity is restricted to the most private spaces, equally aggressed friends and our art.

“You’ll be aight.” “State your name.” “Miss…miss? I need to see some ID.” “Girl, let go and let God.” None of this makes sense to me anymore.

While most ancient religious texts do not contain stories of people in profound circumstances of suffering and fear who end their lives (as the stories mean to show the power of religion or spirituality to endure suffering and fear), ancient and classical theatre birthed a model of suicide as not only an entertaining ending to life but an heroic one. The events of suicide and self-poisoning are presented as inspired by outside events and people rather than a deep horror of oneself. However on the whole, black women’s backgrounds, if not entire lives are steeped, in divine worship and religious beliefs.

Why then do we never explore how much less strong and much less tough black women really must be if many are unable to endure suffering and fear like Daniel in the Lions Den or Jonah in the belly of a whale? Or rather, how much more traumatic and dangerous must the outside world and people in it be if black women are taking their lives whilst in freedom today?

What is this music beyond cool jazz and black history and late night BET trivia, as angelic spirituals showing how the love song is made so much more urgent in a world projecting your kind is not to be loved anyway? So, then, who can you sing your love song to? Who hears the screams buried in the pillow in middle of the night or echoed in the shower at break of day? How come the minute brown and black women and girls walk into a room not laughing or “strong”, we are reduced to mad and dangerous, rather than possibly serious or normal or in danger? How do overlooked but overly scrutinized black women and girls go to work with stress pains in their chests, like senior corporate millionaires having heart attacks on Monday mornings? How in the world did two of the most popular singers of their times die young while announcing it ahead of time in song?

One of my favorite go-to modern singers, Adele, both creatively and personally reinstated the classic lonelyheart love song to what it should be: an indictment of a bad man who stomped all over a good woman’s heart and soul, a public shaming of his actions and effects, and a right and good promise to shut him away for something so much better. Her gifted emotional and artistic cries netted her (rightfully) Grammy history, the path to a real man, an adorable child, and an adoring public thirsting for her next record. Adele is British and blonde.

Billie and Phyllis, African-American and brown, sang many many more songs for a much longer time than Adele has up until that point of consecration and victory. But Billie and Phyllis passed on broke or at least unwealthy, alone, and childless. This speaks to the exploitation of black women’s unparalleled enterprise and tireless labor within a capitalist structure which caps their lives and worth down, to levels hinted at in Ms. Holiday’s lifelong money troubles and Ms. Hyman’s incessant record company battles and even unpaid black women background singers who never earned these songtresses’ famous names or centers of the stage.

I want to listen to Billie and Phyllis’s music forever, but I pray I hear no more of their stories.

Read my story “What Billie and Phyllis Sang About”, about an abandoned black woman left to survive alone in Harlem, in the new issue of Atticus Review. My favorite Billie Holiday and Phyllis Hyman music is on the story’s companion soundtrack Here. #BillieandPhyllis


Photo by: Gabro

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