Critical Context (Critical Edition of Young Adult Fiction)
Holiday’s Lady Sings the Blues is suitable for students who are interested in the history of jazz or African-American women and in the psychology of addiction. The simple, straightforward language, which is sprinkled with obscenities and nonstandard grammar, is amazing for its complexity and multiple levels of experience. Like William S. Burroughs’ novel Junkie (1953), which was written a few years earlier, Lady Sings the Blues takes an unflinching look at the use and abuse of heroin.
As a political writer, Holiday is quite prophetic in describing drug addiction as a social problem. Seeing addicts as “sick,” she contrasts them with diabetics, who are not arrested for buying drugs that will help them control their disease. She also presents strong commentary on the judicial system of the 1940’s and 1950’s and its lack of sensitivity to addicts—calling, more often than not, for jail sentences rather than rehabilitation.
Holiday’s autobiography also comments on what it was like for an African-American woman to travel in different parts of the United States and in Europe, where she found the racism to be so much less significant. She contrasts European attitudes with the times that she had to enter the back doors of the American clubs in which she sang.
Lady Sings the Blues was made into a motion picture in 1972. For her performance in this slightly fictionalized version of Holiday’s autobiography, singer Diana Ross received an Academy Award nomination and introduced a new generation to Holiday’s story.