They called her “Empress of The Blues.”

I’ve been fascinated by the life story of Bessie Smith for years, ever since I had to summarize her journey for an edition of the African-American Historical Calendar. I’d heard Bessie’s music, but didn’t know about her extensive connection to Philadelphia, or the tumultuous life she’d led that gave her a deep, down understanding of the blues. The line between trauma and artistic genius is often very porous.

How many of us wallow in suffering because we believe that it serves some kind of higher purpose? We may not consciously process this decision, but we certainly operate within the space of: happiness denied today equals greater reward in the indeterminate future. And frankly, friends, that’s BS (no pun intended). Bessie Smith, from what I’ve studied and the way she’s portrayed in this new film, lived every moment of every day actively searching for her bliss. More of us should do the same.

Please understand: I am not advocating that we all go jumping into the volatile relationship and soul searching pool, indulging domestic violence, alcoholism, profound racism and society’s intolerance toward sexual fluidity in order to get to our personal epiphanies on life and how we prefer to live it. But most of us could certainly take a page from the Bessie Handbook about being your full, flawed self and bearing very few regrets about expressing that self as openly as possible.

There was a big discussion happening sometime during my dating heyday in the 90s that was about developing a relationship with the real person instead of the “representative” who shows up without all of the annoyances, bad manners and other turn-offs that many people offer you until things get far more serious. I understand the pressures that make people act on their best behavior to make you desire them, but frankly that mess is exhausting. The excessive energy expenditure is largely wrapped up in humanity’s desire to script out each interaction to match some sick fairy tale we’ve got playing in our heads. And when the one we want deviates from the script in our heads, we have the nerve to get upset about it. Break up with them, often, for daring to be less than perfect. At least the perfect we’ve imagined. It’s all so ridiculous.

Bessie Smith’s life was often sad, violent, impoverished, full of skepticism and anguish, along with moments of astounding strength and fearlessness. And, according to legend, she rarely let anyone play her or her talents cheap. If you must live the blues to deliver them to people so effectively, then let that life be a fitting testimony to the overcoming as well as the trials. More of us need to celebrate the victory of waking up another day and breathing. What we do from there is nothing short of miraculous. I plan on trying harder to bear witness to more of those daily victories, and calling people on more of their foolishness, from here on out. With a look, a verbal barb, or a lyrical sting riding on top of a good melody to make it sing. As any good blueswoman should.

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