As a person who fancies himself a historian, my life is built around celebrating people in our culture who paved the way for us all, so it’s hard to focus on any one person.
But in “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom,” we tell the story of this singular icon, Ma Rainey.
She was a giant in her field and her time. What a lot of people don’t understand about the 1920s is that there were at least 100 blues women recording records — from Paramount to Columbia and with the smaller record labels.
Great women like Ida Cox, Clara Smith and Victoria Spivey were recording. In their own right, they were giants. In the ’20s, Black people were being celebrated all over the world, both artistically and intellectually, because we are talking about the Harlem Renaissance. And there was a celebration of Black culture in many of the urban centers of the United States where our people had migrated.
At the time, there was also a sexual revolution. You see evidence of that in “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom,” and you see evidence of that in Dussie Mae, Ma’s lover. Men were also very open about sexuality to a certain degree, yet none was as visible as Ma.
It was a time when, in a sense, Black people were free to do what they wanted, particularly if they had status. Ma Rainey was undaunted in flaunting her sexuality. More importantly, she made her own rules.
What defines her and many artists of the time is freedom. It’s wonderful to celebrate a human being who is the same color as I am. As the author Zora Neale Hurston said [in “Their Eyes Were Watching God”]: “To gleam it around, to show my shine.” And Ma Rainey
did just that.
I not only honored Ma when I was writing the movie — I honored all of the women I named and all of the women I haven’t named because those Black women were revolutionary.
They were revolutionary in civil rights, in religion, in education, and it’s a tremendous pleasure when I can sing their glory.
For us to have to depend on other people to teach us our history means we will never know our history. Not only will we not know our history, but we will also become strangers to ourselves. It’s up to us to develop these stories, this history and the glory and brilliance and beauty of the blue-collar people of color who faced a tumultuous journey in this country and rose to extraordinary levels.
We will always take it to another level because it gives us that sense of freedom and expression that has been held back, ripped away and distorted.
When Ma gets to sing, belt and moan and says, “Here I am” — you can feel the tremendous legacy of strong Black women who have always been the rock and foundation of our communities. Women like Fannie Lou Hamer, Coretta Scott King, Maya Angelou, Ruby Dee, Betty Shabazz, Angela Davis, Shirley Chisholm and Sonia Sanchez, and an infinite list of incredible women of color. You can keep going back and further back. If we keep going back, we end up in Africa where there were Queens, and they make themselves Queens again because no one else is going to do it.
Ruben Santiago-Hudson is an actor, playwright and director. He wrote “Lackawanna Blues” and adapted August Wilson’s “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom” for the screen.