Guadalajara, México. Intentionally secluded, I was doing my best to escape from the tyranny of writing my book on the African-American aesthetic. I had dreams that the resort’s 10 day spa-package of vegetarian food, yoga, meditation, and hiking, along with the alkaline pools, mud treatments, massages, facials, pedicures, and no phone or internet service would undo the trillion hours hunkered over my keyboard unconsciously praying to the wisdom goddesses Sophia, Saraswati, Chamundiya, and of course Yemaya.
I had also begged at the feet of the Greek muses Calliope, Clio, Euterpe, and Polyhymnia for inspiration and to seal the deal, several Hail Marys’.
As I hiked along the steaming river on my first morning on the property I was sure those divine forces were relieved that I had taken a break and turned my focus onto the indigenous equivalent of The Virgin Mary and Erzulie, Chalchiuhtlicue – the Aztec Goddess of the river with her compassion and unconditional love.
The guests at the resort were intriguing and most had made this pilgrimage many, many times. There were engineers, magazine publishers, a few CEOs, a college president, ESL teachers, several entrepreneurs, a clothing designer, and a Russian interpreter for NASA who had journeyed from Moscow to experience the rejuvenating power of Chalchiuhtlicue’s waters.
Most people had come for the volcanic waters; I came because there wasn’t anything Africanist on the 36 acres of crimson and magenta birds, bougainvillea, pine, oak, eucalyptus, palm, cactus, and orchids – all situated in the middle of a national park in Jalisco, Mexico. African-American history was not likely to be strolling with the free-range horses, nor basking in the too-hot-to-bath-in Rio Caliente River. I was relieved for the first time in years, no work I promised … none.
As entertainment, during the long and dark January evenings, I brought a few movies to watch on my computer, The Mexican Revolution, The Life and Times of Frida Kahlo, and Harry Potter and The Half-Blood Prince. I never made it to Harry, and, I broke my promise.
The historical account of the Mexican Revolution both pained and inspired me. But Frida Kahlo’s story touched my Africanist-soul. In the documentary, writer and art historian Carlos Fuentes, spoke of Frida’s painting after the death of her unborn child, one of the many tragedies in her brief life.
Frida Kahlo found a way of painting pain, of giving her pain through her painting, of seeing, permitting us to see pain and in so doing reflecting the pain of the world; of those who could not speak their pain… all those marginals, the mutes of the world, in this glossy world we live in… there is this woman who is so broken inside herself, who is so infirm that she has no other beauty to look at except the beauty within herself. Can she find that beauty and bring her out. That is the voyage of the artistic, and psychological voyage of Frida through pain.
Frida’s intimate and painful paintings were not the shadows, innuendos, abbreviated symbology, or clipped dialogue of the tragedies of a film noir. Her colors were vibrant and rich, the images explicit, the pain obvious, and the beauty and strength undeniable. The other profound truth staring me in the face was that she was the art … her personal image was the art image, the same is true for African-American traditional, vernacular, modern and postmodern artists, we reference self as art.
I saw and felt Frida’s poetry of life with its misery and resurrection. It resounded in me because she painted the Blues of my own people as they embraced grief, embraced conflict, and took the medium of instrument … and song … and self to fragmented peripheries and lived there, knowing this discordant edge to be the reality of healing.
A decade ago I heard the men and women of the Mississippi Delta sing the Blues. Only then did I realize that I hadn’t really heard the Blues before. Sometimes you have to go to the source to hear the grist that remains in the developed. I had heard Gertrude “Ma” Rainey, W.C. Handy, and Bessie Smith’s classic blues, but I did not know how to register the grist until I went closer to the source, the traditional blues. It’s not just the words, the 12-bar chord progressions, the AAB structure, the minor third or the flatted fifth, the harp accompaniment, the Call and Response, the guitar, the bottleneck slide, diddley bow or banjo.
It’s the democracy of performance, the emotionality, the look in the eyes, the timber of the voice, the weathered skin, the turn of the head, the balance between the silence and the piercing of the poetry, the sweat of centuries and the spiritual weight of living as flesh and blood and bone and blackness. It’s about a blackness that is tragically equated to criminality. It’s about a “Joe Turner’s Done Come and Gone” blues of penitentiary, convict leasing, chain gang, and broken promises of freedom blues. And, it’s about love – a specific lost love, a fortnight purchased love, coerced sex non-love, tell your lover a lie or truth love, or flaunting sexual ability love.
The Blues speaks undisclosed and agonizing truth of the individual, and, of the world. Unlike the ballad that speaks of history, the blues is personal … a response of social and psychological grist. Uninhibited truth becomes expressed truth as repressed anger, frustration and pain digests into protest, catharsis, ferocity and celebration.
My friend Wolf has an expression he picked up in Thailand, “Same same, but different”. The surrealism of Frida Kahlo, as she painted her pain, and the blues of the Mississippi Delta are “Different, but same same.” Reconfigured pain was the journey of the blues men after 1890s as they transformed field hollers, work songs, chants, rhymed ballads, and spirituals. It was the same voyage of the Chicago, Memphis, Detroit, and St Louis Urban Blues and continued in the stagecraft of B.B. King during the 1960s-70s. The Blues men and women used dissonance and juxtaposition as a force in their psychological voyage toward healing. The Blues is not just a structure, it is a function – it serves, just as Frida’s paintings served her.
After watching the documentary I spent the next afternoon writing and ended just as my appointment for a deep-tissue massage rolled around. As I strolled past a horse grazing outside my casita I thought of the Blues of Fleetwood Mack, The Animals, and the Rolling Stones and how they adopted this form for their own – they too, like Frida Kahlo and the Blues men and women of the Mississippi Delta speak for the mute of the world.