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Masterplots II: African American Literature Lady Sings the Blues Analysis

(Literary Essentials: African American Literature)

Lady Sings the Blues is a patchwork quilt of anecdotes with no consistent thesis holding it together. One of the major themes has to do with the difficulties of being a black jazz artist in America. White musicians such as Benny Goodman and Artie Shaw, as well as a host of others, were able to capitalize on an art form invented by African Americans and with roots in Africa. Black musicians were barred from many clubs and theaters because of racial prejudice. They found it nearly impossible to tour the United States, and in the 1930’s and 1940’s, touring the country was a prerequisite to financial success. Holiday describes this phenomenon with ironic humor rather than the bitterness that was expressed by many black jazz musicians in the 1960’s and later decades.

Another important theme concerns drugs. Few people have had more experience with illicit drugs than Holiday, and she presents drug addiction as the worst form of hell on earth. The tragedy of this great artist is that her career was cut short by drugs, and the strongest moral to be drawn from her life is that using drugs is equivalent to committing suicide. She says explicitly:If you think dope is for kicks and for thrills, you’re out of your mind. There are more kicks to be had in a good case of paralytic polio or by living in an iron lung. If you think you need stuff to play music or sing, you’re crazy. It can fix you so you can’t play nothing or sing nothing. The only thing that can happen to you is sooner or later you’ll get busted, and once that happens, you’ll never live it down. Just look at me.

She also believed that the American government’s policy toward drug addicts was medieval:Imagine if the government chased sick people with diabetes, put a tax on insulin and drove it into the black market, told doctors they couldn’t treat them, and then caught them, prosecuted them for not paying their taxes, and then sent them to jail. If we did that, everyone would know we were crazy. Yet we do practically the same thing every day in the week to sick people hooked on drugs. The jails are full and the problem is getting worse every day.

That was written in 1956, when the drug problem was minuscule compared to what it has since become. Many people came to advocate the decriminalization of narcotics as the only feasible solution to a problem that threatens to destroy society.

Many of the anecdotes in the book concern jails and law enforcement officers. Holiday’s descriptions make it appear that the justice system in the United States was bigoted and corrupt. She claims that she was framed on at least two occasions by overzealous officers who planted incriminating evidence.

Holiday also talks at considerable length about the pleasures she had in life. Her life was not all suffering and tragedy; she enjoyed life to...

(The entire section is 761 words.)