The essay explores how the invisibility and trauma of Black women are negotiated in Black sonic culture, utilizing Ricardo Cortez Cruz's experimental novel Five Days of Bleeding (1995), in which the primary female character, Zu‐Zu, speaks (and sings) primarily using obscure song lyrics and titles, largely drawn from an archive of Black women's performance.
Five Days of Bleeding (1995) was Ricardo Cortez Cruz's follow-up to his award-winning debut, Straight Outta Compton, which was described by Kirkus Reviews as “a rap, jive, and video-inflected hallucination of the L.A. black ghetto.”1Five Days of Bleeding, like Straight Outta Compton, traffics in rap lyrics, Black vernacular, and Black popular culture references, creating a dense, insular archival project. Much of the action in the novel, the title of which is a reference to a woman's menstrual cycle, centers on the experiences of a young homeless Black woman named Zu-Zu who is pursued by a group of presumably young Black men, led by a nefarious character named Chops. Zu-Zu makes plain—often in song—the violence and trauma that she experiences throughout the novel, but she also labors on behalf of a sonic archive of Black women performers and as a caretaker of the legacies of some of those women. Zu-Zu's technology—decidedly analog—is the Black women's songbook. The Black women's songbook might be viewed as an alternative to the so-called Great American Songbook, the canon of Tin Pan Alley songs, largely written and composed by white men in the mid-twentieth century and thought to represent the apex of American songwriting. In this context songwriters and composers wield more cultural privilege than the artists who interpreted their songs.
Throughout Five Days of Bleeding, Zu-Zu deploys the Black women's songbook—drawing from a range of Black women songwriters and performers from the 1920s through the late 1970s—as a sonic shield against the physical and emotional terror she experiences at the hands of most of the men in the novel. In one example early in the book, as Zu-Zu navigates the competing attentions of a group of homeless males, she utters, “What did I do to be so black and blue?” As the novel's narrative explains, in response, “She was as timid and tender as the still of the night, dark bruises rearing their ugly head on the blackest parts of her.”2 Zu-Zu's words are a riff from Fats Waller's “(What Did I Do to Be So) Black and Blue,” featured in the Broadway musical Hot Chocolates (1929). Though the song was originally performed in the musical by Edith Wilson and was a hit record for Ethel Waters in 1930, it is largely remembered for Louis Armstrong's rendition, which notably deletes the gendered first verse. Zu-Zu's citation of the song recovers the Black women's voices that initially performed the song. This essay specifically explores Zu-Zu's role as a portal into the sonic archive of Black women, who have largely been obscured in remembrances of Black music writ large, or even the Black women's blues tradition, and particularly in the context of the so-called American songbook, which functions as a clearinghouse for national perceptions of great songwriting.
As the creator of Zu-Zu and the world she inhabits, Cruz represents the ambivalent role of a male writer and archivist as well as of the unnamed male narrator of the story, who in his chaste romantic desire for Zu-Zu also seems oblivious to the complexities of Black women's experiences with trauma, violence, and other emotional dynamics—like joy, pleasure, and desirability. In a videotaped interview with Deborah Brothers at Lincoln Land Community College, Cruz admits that he works as a speculative thinker who, in his practice, views himself as functioning much like a turntablist or DJ, sampling not only the sonic but also language, gestures, emotions, and other ephemera to achieve some semblance of intertextuality.3 It is through this process of analog sampling that Cruz allows Zu-Zu to author her own story and, by extension, to illuminate voices of Black women in the musical archive.
Comprising a scant 129 pages, Cruz's experimental novel is less interested in storytelling than it is in providing a structure to allow narrative interventions in the form of analog samples. Five Days of Bleeding was published before the internet, web browsers, and hyperlinks were widely available, and as such the lyrical references throughout the novel function as analog-era hypertext; the storytelling is embedded in those “links,” and I am interested in how Cruz's use of hypertext illuminates the musical archives of Black women. Cruz's gesture here anticipates the work of Saidiya Hartman, who in writing about off-the-grid subjects highlights the lives of young Black women, who “struggled to create autonomous and beautiful lives to escape the new forms of servitude awaiting them” in the early twentieth century. Hartman notes, “In writing this account of the wayward, I have made use of a vast range of archival materials to represent the everyday experience and restless character of life in the city. . . . The aim is to convert the sensory experience of the city and to capture the rich landscape of Black social life.”4 Hartman's theoretical contribution, what she terms “critical fabulation,” fleshes out a world that Cruz only hints at. I am particularly struck by Hartman's focus on the “sensory” aspects of the archive.5
In her book Dispossessed Lives: Enslaved Women, Violence, and the Archive, Marisa J. Fuentes takes up this sensory dynamic: “Perhaps resistance to the violence of slavery is survival . . . the sound of someone wanting to be heard, wanting to live, or wanting to die. But the struggle against dehumanization is in the wanting. And sometimes we can hear it.”6 It is this idea of Zu-Zu's wanting to be heard that animates my interest in her use of the sonic archive of Black women. What is to be heard in the music, lyrics, and voices of women like Clara Smith, Victoria Spivey, Sippie Wallace, and Edith Wilson—all early Black blueswomen—and how do the archives of those women inform the life of a late twentieth-century character, navigating much of the same terrain?
In Zu-Zu's male tormentors, Cruz references the so-called phenomenon of wilding, which was attributed to the falsely and unjustly accused “Central Park Five” and became a public lexicon to describe unruly and dangerous Black youth, particularly Black male youth. It goes without saying that in the public imagination, Black women and girls were naturalized within the context of this violence and thought to be largely complicit. Stephen J. Mexal troubles the term wilding, suggesting that its usage can be traced to Black literary naturalism in the early twentieth century: “Properly understood, wilding acts as a site of hermeneutic confluence, illuminating the degree to which both the historical language of wilderness and the contemporary cultural construction of postindustrial urban spaces inform American racialist discourse.”7 I cite Mexal to make the point of the ways in which Cruz utilizes the rap lyrics of characters in “the wild” of Central Park—a space thought to possess a “genteel, civilizing function,” Mexall writes—to provide obvious commentary on forms of toxic masculinity that circulate within the genre, as well as the coming surge of gentrification in New York City and the erosion of social and cultural space available to Black and Brown youth that led them into the park in the first place.8
With her ability to traffic in the discourses of late 1980s and early 1990s hip-hop, Zu-Zu might be viewed as dismissive of the rhetorical, emotional, and physical violence directed toward her—there are elements of performativity and play that she exhibits throughout the novel—yet her resistance is best read in her deployment of the archive. Zu-Zu uses her desirability as a sexual object as a means to negotiate the threats posed by the young men in the novel—as modes of survival and pleasure. In the words of Aimee Meredith Cox, Zu-Zu might be read as a shape-shifter who reveals the “destructive nature of normative ways of life that valorize white supremacy, patriarchy, and modes of production that render young Black women at best superfluous and at worst valueless” in ways that mirror the lyrics of early twentieth-century blueswomen.9
In contrast to many of the male characters in the novel, Zu-Zu references lyrics and prose associated with Black women blues artists, many of whom were obscure.10 Specifically Cruz utilizes Zu-Zu to allude to artists outside of the canon of Black women performers, particularly in the aftermath of the publication of Angela Davis's critical intervention Blues Legacies and Black Feminism, which appeared three years after Cruz's novel. One such example is Zu-Zu's citing of the title of Sippie Wallace's “I'm a Mighty Tight Woman” (1929), a song in which Wallace sings, “I got all of them sayin’ that I'm tight in everything I do / I got all the men cryin’, I'm a broad that will never be blue.” Indeed Zu-Zu's own use of the archive of Black women's song and prose suggests that the archive was both a fictive and literal shield against the violence presented by some of the men in the novel. In an interview late in her life, Wallace told People Magazine, “There isn't anything I sing about that hasn't happened to me.”11 Zu-Zu's use of the Wallace archive in this case allows the character to tell her story, arguably in ways that Cruz himself might not have had the language to more fully explore.
In other cases Zu-Zu's use of the lyrics of Black blueswomen does the additional work of recovery. Wallace, for instance, who died in 1986, has largely been overshadowed by her one-time mentee Bonnie Raitt, who covered Wallace's “Woman Be Wise” and “Mighty Tight Woman” on her self-titled debut in 1971 and a year later began a friendship with Wallace that lasted until her death. According to Raitt, she discovered Wallace after being drawn to a photo of her on an album cover she saw in a London record store in 1966. To Raitt's credit, her interest in recording songs from Wallace's catalog and willingness to share the stage and recording booth with her helped Wallace live off of her art in her later years.
Ironically, when Raitt achieved her biggest success, winning four Grammy Awards, including Record of the Year, with Nick of Time (1989), her triumph could have been read through the prism of the very generation of Black women blues singers that Wallace embodied. As one critic opined about Raitt's comeback, “Three years ago, I would have gone on to lament the injustice of the fact that Ms. Raitt, a first-rate folk-blues singer who exudes a special sort of true grit, never got the commercial recognition she deserved.”12 The writer's sentiment could have been arguably applied to virtually every Black women blues singer from the 1920s, save Bessie Smith and Ma Rainey. Zu-Zu, in her way, enacts a recovery of Wallace and many others.
Yet another example is Victoria Spivey, a longtime peer and collaborator of Wallace's. Spivey is perhaps most remembered for her role as Missy Rose in the 1929 film musical Hallelujah!, which was directed by King Vidor as his first “talkie.” With its Black cast, led by Daniel L. Haynes and Nina Mae McKinney, “King Vidor's Hallelujah! of 1929 gave the folk musical genre its first masterpiece and major impetus.”13 Spivey's “Black Snake Blues” is another of Zu-Zu's citations in Five Days of Bleeding, and though it is Spivey's most well-known song in the 1920s, it is also ground zero for the kinds of erasure that Black women performers from that era and later had to struggle against.
After “Black Snake Blues” was recorded in 1926, a version of the song performed by Blind Lemon Jefferson was released by Paramount Records months later under the title “That Black Snake Moan” and a year later by Okeh Records as “Black Snake Moan” (audio 1). The song became Jefferson's signature tune and one of the iconic recordings from that era. Eighty years after “That Black Snake Moan” was recorded, it served as the title of a film starring Samuel L. Jackson and Christina Ricci and directed by Craig Brewer, bringing new attention to Jefferson. In a 1966 interview with Record Research Magazine, Spivey recalled, “We were buddies and everything went along swell until I heard his recording of ‘Black Snake Moan’ on Paramount which came out some months after my original ‘Black Snake Blues’ on Okeh. It was so much like my ‘Black Snake Blues’ including the moan. I was really angry for a while knowing that Lemon and myself were like brother and sister in our jobs.”14 Robert Springer notes that it was “natural that reciprocal borrowings between traditional and ‘classic blues’ should occur,” adding, “both artists were in a position to claim as their own their respective versions of a song whose words and music were part of folklore.”15
Spivey made a finer point with regard to “reciprocal borrowings” when she remembered confronting Jefferson over the use of her song: “Lemon had made me recall one night at a party before he recorded ‘Black Snake Moan’ that he asked my permission, ‘Hey, Vickie (that is what he used to call me!), I want to ask you something. Do you mind me using those snakes? I won't do it like you do. I mean the moan.’ I said, ‘help yourself’ not taking him seriously and not believing that he would or could do it.”16 Spivey's recollection highlights that there was something in the exchange that was hers—Jefferson couldn't sonically reproduce her signature moan (audio 2)—but she also makes clear the commercial and artistic stakes: “‘Black Snake Moan’ not only made Blind Lemon Jefferson but pulled him out of the sticks.”17
After a successful career, Spivey settled into semiretirement in Brooklyn in the early 1950s and began to act as a caretaker of the blues legacy of the 1920s. Notably she was among a group of musicians and journalists who helped raise money for a headstone for Mamie Smith, whose “That Thing Called Love” and “You Can't Keep a Good Man Down” are recordings that helped launch the recorded blues era of the 1920s. Smith was buried in an unmarked grave in Staten Island in 1946.18 Additionally Spivey was proactive in protecting both her legacy and that of the blues tradition that produced her, founding Queen Vee Spivey Records in 1962 and also her own publishing company, notable in an era when few Black artists owned the publishing rights to their songs. It was with Spivey's encouragement that Sippie Wallace agreed to tour Europe in the 1970s, after the two recorded the album Sippie Wallace and Victoria Spivey in 1970 on Spivey's label.
In Zu-Zu's citation of figures such as Wallace, Spivey, Clara Smith (“Livin’ Humble”), and Edith Wilson (“Vampin’ Liza Jane”), as well as songs like “I'm Going Back to My Used to Be” by Bessie Smith—who is perhaps more well-known than her actual catalog of recordings—and the poetry of Angelina Weld Grimké (“I am the laughing woman with the black black face”), she not only utilizes their archive of cultural production to negotiate her own social condition, but she also renders this archive visible as a counter to a broader erasure of the Black women's blues archive. In a larger context, Cruz makes a claim on the significance and centrality of the Black women's songbook, in contrast to the so-called Great American Songbook, privileging the lives and experiences of the Black women who wrote, composed, and interpreted these songs.
Fuentes, Dispossessed Lives, 143 (emphasis added).