In response to a letter of protest signed by more than 1,000 women of color, Joshua DuBois penned a thoughtful defense at The Daily Beast of President Obama and My Brother’s Keeper, the $200 million public-private initiative to improve life outcomes and address opportunity gaps for men and boys of color. Inspired by Audra McDonald’s Tony Award–winning stage portrayal of jazz legend Billie Holiday, DuBois argues that the signatories of the letter failed to grasp the president’s sensitivity, devotion, and dare I say, even love for black women. We can recognize this love and devotion in part, DuBois tells us, in the president’s special fondness for Lady Day, her music and the pain and resilience expressed by her artistry.
I too have been moved by the biography and the artistry of Billie Holiday. My father, my first teacher and a jazz lover who always sought to share his interest with his younger daughter, introduced me to Lady Day and her music. I went on to devote a book to exploring her personal significance to me and to larger questions about gender, race and class. Like DuBois, I also sat awestruck at McDonald’s performance: one great artist paying homage to another. And, although I am one of the many women who signed the letter pressing the administration to include women and girls in this program, that does not mean I, or any of us, question the president’s respect for black women.
DuBois mentions the president’s love for his wife and his two beautiful daughters. As so many of us do, I find that heartwarming. And it was with a sense of gratitude and pride that I watched him honor the two literary lions, Maya Angelou and Toni Morrison with the Medal of Freedom, the nation’s highest civilian honor. Nor do I doubt that black women will benefit from major Obama administration achievements, such as the Affordable Care Act, and the other projects including the STEM initiatives, which will support women students and researchers in science, technology, engineering and mathematics.
And like DuBois, my husband and I also left the theater following McDonald’s performance in a pensive state. I thought about the way she expressed herself with such beauty and dignity in the face of unspeakable insults to her person: a gifted black woman born in a nation that did more to thwart her promise than it did to nurture it. But here my ruminations on Lady Day depart from DuBois’. I couldn’t help but focus on how many of the problems that plagued Holiday continue to confront young, poor women of color today. Her girlhood difficulties were largely invisible to those in power; all too often the same is true for contemporary girls left to struggle alone in violent communities, failing schools, and institutions that do more harm than good.
Holiday was born in poverty to teenage parents. As with far too many girls, she was a victim of childhood sexual abuse. Rather than being recognized as a victim, she was sent to a home for wayward girls. Faced with little opportunity for education and employment, she first turned to prostitution, for which she served time in prison. Fortunately, she was talented and those who could present her with opportunities soon recognized her musical gifts. While many young black women face the constraints that beset Holiday before she turned 21, few can rely on musical talent or the opportunity to perform as a way out of poverty. As an adult, Holiday began to use heroin, and her drug addiction was criminalized rather than treated. Similarly, contemporary black women who experience sexual abuse, domestic violence and drug addiction make up the fastest-growing prison population. Perhaps the greatest irony of DuBois’ discussion of Billie Holiday is that in the programs supported by My Brother’s Keeper, her suffering would still be ignored.