“Scarred old slaver knows he’s doing all right
Hear him whip the women just around midnight”
– lyrics from “Brown Sugar” by The Rolling Stones
Radio of my youth felt as segregated as Metro Detroit. Berry Gordy may have long decamped to Los Angeles, but Motown hits spun in heavy rotation, as did dance, R&B, gospel. Black brilliance slipped from open car windows across Detroit proper, but also from the U-Haul vans that moved whites far from the city.
Then we, too, moved north to Madison Heights. We lived with neighbors who pushed themselves away from blackness. I heard this in slurs against Detroit, against black people called by other names. Rock & Roll ruled this suburb of small houses and light industrial plants. Did so with an ethos that did not embrace black roots or contribution. Carried on as if rock began with Elvis.
I’m not saying neighbors burned disco albums. But I’m sure there’s holdouts still mad the Rolling Stones released a four on the floor like “Miss You,” a song whose bass line was created by black savant Billy Preston–AKA the Fifth Beatle, or, the only musician besides the Fab Four ever credited on a Beatles’s recording for “Get Back”.
We lived so long in anxiously white towns that when I heard a man declare the Rolling Stones’ hit “Brown Sugar” just an ode to heroin, I believed him. Given Keith Richard’s infamous drug use, that explanation made sense. Rang truer than a powerful white man calling after a black girl in lust. I never heard that as a child. Not on TV, not in the mall, not anywhere north of 8 Mile.
In those days, I lived with two teams: Team White and Team Black. And no matter how much the Stones professed their love for black music, or black women, in Detroit 1982 they stood for Team White. So much went unheard every time “Brown Sugar” played on the radio.
Thank God for the radio dial. Formats stayed frozen but it only took a dial twist to get you elsewhere. Some bands stuck to the horizon no matter where I turned.
Like the Stones. I couldn’t get away from those Englishmen who emulated Mississippi blues greats and became international superstars. Maybe the best rock band ever, depending on your criteria. I spent whole minutes of my life turning over the query: Beatles or Stones?
The Beatles sounded fed to me, while the Stones, hungry.
I may have been fed, but I always felt hungry. The Stones won. But not long. These were The Beatles we were talking about. I remember the reverence of radio DJs with any recorded Beatle interview. As if every utterance should be printed in red.
Red like the mouth used for the Rolling Stones logo. With lips like Jagger. Full enough to be African.
Legend has it that Claudia Lennear, famed black backup singer and one-time “Ikette” served as inspiration for “Brown Sugar”. In the documentary 20 Feet From Stardom Lennear recounted, with a warm wistfulness, that she and Mick used to have “a lot of fun” together, including trying on each other’s clothes. But rival legend claims “Brown Sugar” is an ode to Mick’s lover Marsha Hunt, a star of the original cast of Hair, who’d also become the mother of Karis, a daughter Mick Jagger spent ten years denying.
Let that sink in. Mick Jagger turned all of that sex inspiration into a cash-generating megahit while being linked to Marianne Faithfull, the iconic English singer who’d miscarry her own daughter with Jagger and attempt suicide while on tour with him.
That’s one version of history. Maybe it is all true.
I Google Mick and Karis Jagger and find pictures of a father to a beautiful and sensitive-looking daughter born in 1970, four years before me. The UK’s Independent claims that Karis was Mick’s “rock” after the suicide of his girlfriend, L’Wren Scott. Mick was 71 years old. He had since been knighted. You could call this once threat to British public morality Sir. In an interview shortly after Scott’s suicide, Faithfull said she understood Scott’s motivation to destroy herself. That it was a hard life with Mick, being his girl.
Let’s talk about girls. Girls dancing, girls dancing so good. Girls that inspire hit songs. Girls scrambling on stage. Girls getting in the way. Girls only good for a night, maybe longer. Girls yearning hard for you, when you want it, when you don’t. So much sex-drenched promise when you’re the rock star, even when you’re the girl, touching God. Talking about the time you touched God. And yes, the imagery of trashed hotel rooms, incinerated guitars. Wreckage. Lots of wreckage when the band comes through town. I listen to David Lee Roth growl “not talking about love” and I sing along, always the fucker, not the fucked. Singing with a rock God who is upfront, tells you his love is “rotten to the core” and I don’t want to believe it, I don’t want to think the God, the man, could hurt me, even when he tells me exactly what he will do. When someone shows you who they are, believe them says Maya Angelou but my God that’s hard when it hurts. How I know that if someone came to murder me I would ask that most useless question: why? How I’m sure I’d say you don’t have to do this as he keeps doing it. Try to use my words, all of these words, to tell him no, I matter, love me instead.
“Brown Sugar” played and no one talked about the sex content, not around me. The race meaning slipped past me, too. My family moved from Madison Heights, to Grand Blanc, to Royal Oak, then Troy. All predominantly white Michigan towns. In “Brown Sugar”, Jagger loved to watch black girls dance. No white boy I knew even admitted to watching Soul Train!
In eighth grade, when I lived in more affluent Troy, I met a white boy my age while on a school trip. He told me he had a poster of Apollonia, the female lead in Purple Rain, on his bedroom wall. He lived in Roseville. That was a county over. Any Troy snob could tell you that was a different world. He also came out as gay. So no straight Oakland County white boy I knew proclaimed beauty of color as something above all. Or even par.
Distances held. White kids handled rap music with jokes or contempt. Popular culture marginalized interracial sex. So did our history books. I remember “miscegenation” as a vocab word that was never a thematic place to linger. Growing up, I would never have guessed the American centuries of black women loved and abused by white men, be it in back bedrooms, workplaces, or the streets. So much stays hidden until you look. Even if it’s looking you in your lightskinned face.
Draw a map of the United States. Note where black people live. Note where black people live closely with white people. Note where white people once enslaved black people. Now, go and ask all of those people what they think of when they hear the song “Brown Sugar.”
Graph your findings.
So many “white ethnics” lived in my suburban Detroit. Many of them recent immigrants. A Polish immigrant would not have the same historical memory, associations, as a man of Polish descent who migrated north from Mississippi. If the immigrant’s son goes to school with mostly white girls, does he have the capacity to feel much of anything when “Brown Sugar” plays, anything beyond the energy and musicality captured in that song? Now, pose that question to the son with generations of southern ancestors. Or to someone who grew up around black people and saw them near when they first awakened sexually.
Proximity matters. As does the memory, the history in our genes.
Later, I’d hear teen girls in Detroit tell of cars filled with white boys calling out to them as they sped off. No Jagger admiration in their words. Just ugly. Those girls lived near 8 Mile, the border that separates Detroit from the suburbs.
In Thomas Jefferson: The Art of Power, historian John Meacham shares an excerpt from a letter a young Thomas wrote while recovering from romantic rejection. While Thomas’s heart ached he said he found comfort in what “providence” supplied in abundance in the colonies. Meacham generously speculates Jefferson could have referred to paid servants or prostitutes as well as enslaved women. Regardless, we can assume that whomever Jefferson messed around with didn’t have much of a choice. I think of this while driving the interstate through Columbia, South Carolina, and passing the exit for Strom Thurmond Blvd named for the Dixiecrat states’ rights hero who at age 22 fathered a daughter with a black girl, 16 years old, working as a maid in their home. How in 2015, I have all kinds of choices. How I feel as free as fire when I drive through the South. How anyone who expects subservience, or more, from me, will be understood to be out of their mind. At least in a court of law.
A belief I must hold onto if I want to keep flying.
Oh, brown sugar, how come you dance so good yeah?
That part feels nice. My kind is being appreciated for moving our bodies so well. And I want to move listening to Keith’s guitar, Charlie’s drums. Dance like Tina Turner in the Ike & Tina Turner Review.
But I listen and I’m in England again. Not older than 22. English boyfriend. Pangs of terror at times that he doesn’t love me. Just the pull of what used to be for Englishmen in Kenya, in India, in America. He told me his first memory of being aroused came while watching a music video of shimmery Amii Stewart singing “Knock on Wood”. Shaking, shaking, dancing. His first arousal from the TV, in a seaside town so many million miles away from the colonies.
I believe he loved me. But I really got scared.
Maybe a song is like a bog. For years you’ll walk buy it, notice nothing peculiar. Then it offers up a whole body when you least expect.
I focus on the “whip the women” line. But Mick also sang “tent show queen”.
As in, I bet your mama was a tent show queen.
This Englishman carved in lyrical stone his assessment of what he deemed the black mother’s experience. A blues great like Ma Rainey indeed began her career like this, working the Tent Show circuit. But many considered the black women actresses and singers to be prostitutes. You can’t assume that if you tell a young woman that her mother shined in this business, she’d take this as a compliment. As with the rest of the song, Mick didn’t care what he wrote in those lyrics. He said, and did, whatever he wanted. The picture of American freedom at its most free. The gift of the colonies.
Did I mention that multiple histories claim that the first title for “Brown Sugar” was “Black Pussy”?
I bet your mama was the hottest ho.
The next line is about her boyfriends being “sweet sixteen” as in, she had to entertain every boy who wanted carnal knowledge, who wanted black sex, or, just the sex he could get.
This is the moment I admit that all my life, I didn’t know what kind of queen Mick was talking about. “Tent show” slurred in my ears, went unrecognized. I thought he meant something refined. Like cotillion. Like debutante ball.
No. That’s not what he meant at all.
Zora Neale Hurston said that if we are silent about our pain, they will kill us and say we enjoyed it.
Enjoy it like a good song.
“Brown Sugar” plays and I hear a chorus ask: can’t licks just be licks? I mean, I even ask this question. Is Keith Richards’s guitar magic forever sullied by the words sung over it?
Stories of Tina Turner stay with me. Tina’s life as biopic. Tina slaving to Ike. Tina named by Ike. Tina saying in the 80s that she loved singing songs like “Hot Legs”—that she didn’t want to perform pain every night. Tina dogged by mega-producer Phil Spector at Ike’s funeral. Phil saying Tina wasn’t sufficiently grateful. That there were so many Tinas. That the others could have been Tina and she should have undying gratitude. She should be dying of gratitude. Maybe already dead.
In the Maysles Brothers’s 1970 documentary Gimme Shelter the scene of Tina and Ike performing. The camera tight on Tina. The way her hands tremble up and down the microphone stick. The way her hands tremble over the shaft and head of the mic. Sock it to me. With Ike watching. Sock it to me. With Ike directing the scene.
Back then, who knew the dynamic? Maybe you just saw a hot black vocalist acting hot for the audience. It’s just music, right?
Watch Tina and the Ikettes touch their toes.
Watch Ike never give Tina money of her own.
Watch Ike run his women.
Watch Ike run his women.
They call it the pimp hand. I call it the whip.
If you like whips—if you like a light, or a rough lash across your thigh, your ass, if you like restraints, if you like your hair held in one fist and gripped until you feel secured, until you’re compelled to comply to whatever’s demanded I imagine you like this in part because you know that if you say no you’ll be obeyed.
In Pink Floyd’s The Great Gig in the Sky, the female vocalist gives her wordless performance and it sounds as if a tormenter is gripping her, relenting, then gripping her harder. The pain culminates in a break, soft sounds of pleasure that is relief.
You could say she sounds whipped. I’d heard the song again after many years and wondered if Pink Floyd had sadism on their minds. For 20 years I’d had Kate Rushin’s poem “The Black Backups” in my head and thought about the way black women were pushed into supporting roles—on the stage as well as the household. I was primed for the worst case scenario, the sonic equivalent of Dr. James Marion Sims getting another enslaved woman on his operating table.
I Googled the album looking for credits.
Her name is Clare Torry. She’s British. She’s not black. She is white. And what I can tell from interviews, she directed herself. No one pushed her to bleed.
My righteous indignation slipped away.
I still don’t want to listen to the song.
Then I watched a Gloria Jones interview in 20 Feet from Stardom. A singer-songwriter who did her share of backup work, Jones described the way the English rockers “saved” the backups’ lives. How before, the black singers were told to tamp it down, make themselves smaller. But the English, they wanted it all. And cut to film of Claudia Lennear backing Joe Cocker, such joy of creation on her face.
I think again on Brown Sugar. The Rolling Stones were willing to celebrate sexuality in a way that was subversive, that made many black women seen and adored no matter the baggage. And we weren’t the only transgression on that album. Hell, every time I play Brown Sugar I have to see Sticky Fingers’s crotch shot cover art. Imagine bringing that album home in 1970 with song titles like “Bitch” and “Sister Morphine”. They played like happy pigs in mud with all kinds of American roots music and gave us brilliance that could veer into mimicry but kept giving excellence. They reveled in all of their biggest cock, biggest stones glory and gave the joy of sexed-up, testosteroned music to all, sneering at any protectors of morals who got in their way. A lot of wreckage you could say. But so much gift, too.
I type gift and remember that auf Deutsch the word “gift” means poison. The Germans take it back to the fairy tales. The apple that appears shiny and good but is tainted.
In English, we kept the shiny and good.
“Brown Sugar” is one of the few rock odes we have to black women’s sex appeal, and the only anthem we have that celebrates, if for a verse, the total legal control that slave owners had over enslaved women, allowing white men the freest rein to fuck, adore, coerce, deplete, and destroy, without little, or any, judicial consequence. If only for a verse, but a verse of a song recorded in Muscle Shoals Alabama (oh, sweet home).
I read Frederick Douglass’s accounts of lashings and imagine Jagger knows what it’s like for a man to tie up a black woman by her hands and whip her so that each lash ridges the skin. So each lash makes the blood run. I imagine that after 72 years of this life, he can discern somewhat between fantasy and reality.
In a 1995 Rolling Stone interview, Jagger called the Brown Sugar lyrics a “mishmash” of the “raw,” the kind of lyrics he would not write again.
That freedom they had achieved—that freedom that allowed them to create this masterpiece album, to pull from any source and speak whatever they wanted to speak, well, this is what freedom looks like. This is their brand of doing whatever they wanted.
Despite everything, I remain awed. My anger tempered by the music, and still, the shock one feels when affronted by boldness.
In 1970, no one sang about rape and sadism with enslaved women. White boys weren’t writing odes to the black mothers of their children for radio airplay.
They still don’t.
September 2005 and my first husband and I drove northbound Hwy 59, among tens of thousands fleeing Houston, Texas before Hurricane Rita. They say evacuation compliance has everything to do with the hurricane prior, and the hurricane prior was Katrina. Bumper kissing traffic didn’t break for hours. Everyone risked running out of gas. Despite swampy daytime heat, drivers around us kept their windows open, ACs off, believing they’d conserve gas. By the time we hit Texarkana, so north as to be at the Arkansas border, we felt that expansiveness of driving high speeds with no other cars hemming us in, AC blowing cool.
We needed gas and stopped off the highway. We weren’t far away from Jasper, and the recent dragging death of James Byrd Jr. I could have felt alarmed.
I felt relief. We’d just slipped free from a dangerous mass evacuation. I didn’t fear Texarkana, or East Texas, or Arkansas. I was with my husband. Also, I worked years for President Clinton’s administration, which meant I had several years practice defending his home state. If someone said “Texarkana” I heard Jerry Reed singing “Eastbound and Down” and thought of Cannonball Run. That made me smile. No bad assumptions here.
I was bright eyed walking in the gas station store in my cowboy boots, long hair down, full of that flash sensation of entering a waystation. I could be all friendliness and smiles. I was about to leave.
The men stared. Every man. In every aisle. Maybe three or four guys but it’s a blur of sweaty caps and panting looks like they’d never seen an unaccompanied woman before. Who were these guys? Just out of jail? Worse than any city guy aggression. I felt like I’d walked into a trap that was still deciding if it was a trap.
I paid for what I wanted, smiled, always nice, always avoiding conflict, and slipped out of the shop. No one followed. End of story.
Except it wasn’t the end of story. These memories stay with us.
Come on, Texarkana. What year was this supposed to be? Treated as if hot-to-trot, like so many black women before me. I can’t assume they knew I was black, but I was in a part of the country that had all kinds of mixing. Black, white, Hispanic, Native American. I was of color, that’s for sure. They could see that. Though, in fairness, those guys may treat every woman that way. And in that case my fairness gets me nowhere. I’m still a woman.
I’m telling you: hearing “Brown Sugar” all of those years I did not hear whips. I did not hear anything about black women. You say it’s about heroin? OK, that’s much easier. Now we can forget those troublesome lyrics. Those guys don’t mean what they’re saying.
I heard guitar and drums. Mick’s voice. That was it.
Now, ask a bunch of other people what they hear. How much passes by them like so much laden air. Especially when it’s about black women. How even now we fight to get people to say our names when we’ve been wronged. How even now we fight just to be heard. Noticed.
Music creates space, marks territory. Says me not you. Says us not them. This was my experience as soon as I knew what I loved, but also as soon as I knew I didn’t fit in with my suburban neighbors, that I resisted their values. Part of why I despised the Top 40 for years. If you loved this music, you loved the status quo, and I refused to identify with those who accepted the injustices I saw when I traveled back and forth between Detroit city and her suburbs.
I saw music mark territory all over school—and beyond. The AC/DC of the high school weight room. The NWA bumping from a passing car. How I now notice that in every 5 Guys hamburger restaurant I enter, no matter the clientele or staff, classic rock plays overhead. Always. Unless the staff turns it off.
And how it takes years for the territorial piss to dry off music. My brother-in-law, a music aficionado of color, maintains complicated feelings towards rock bands like Led Zeppelin. He’d rather listen to a black American blues great like Howlin’ Wolf. He’d rather listen to the homegrown geniuses that created the music so many outsiders homaged, mined, and outright looted. He holds special disdain for Zeppelin’s “Stairway to Heaven.” He boarded at prep school in the late 70s, and the unlikable white boys of his class played Zeppelin insistently and every Saturday night, one guy blared “Stairway” from his dorm room. Only now, my brother-in-law tells me, can he listen to Zeppelin. Only now can he appreciate their musicianship.
I find I want to claim what I want to claim. I hit play. I stop whenever I want. With my American freedom, I know no purity, don’t even seek it. I just seek nourishment. Protect others from raids when I can. Then ask why. Then I keep asking why.
Stacy Parker Le Melle is the author of Government Girl: Young and Female in the White House (Ecco/HarperCollins) and was the primary contributor to two projects on New Orleans: The Katrina Experience: An Oral History Project and McSweeney’s Voices from the Storm: The People of New Orleans on Hurricane Katrina and Its Aftermath. Her recent narrative nonfiction has appeared in Callaloo, Cura, Apogee Journal, The Butter, and The Florida Review, where she was a finalist for the 2014 Editor’s Prize in Nonfiction.