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Uprooting Myths of Black Womanhood with Brittany L. Proctor, Ph.D

By Tatum Larsen 

While Minnie Riperton’s most widely recognized song “Loving You” comes from her 1974 album “Perfect Angel,” Riperton’s vocal talents were celebrated early on when she was the lead singer in the psychedelic band Rotary Connection. Riperton’s music and career continue to be topics of discussion to this day. On Jan. 16, visiting professor Brittany L. Proctor Ph.D. gave a talk titled “Sonic Gardens, Black Women’s Subjectivity, and the Limits of Genre: Minnie Riperton’s Come to My Garden,” in which she analyzed Riperton’s 1970 album “Come to My Garden.”

The presentation focused on Riperton’s transition from the psychedelic genre to the popularized fusion sound of the 1970s to display the flourish of black woman creativity and subjectivity. 

According to the official event description, “[‘Come to My Garden’] … fused soul and blues sensibilities to revamp the psychedelic sounds of her former band, Rotary Connection.”

Proctor, who graduated from Northwestern University with a Ph.D. in African American studies, currently teaches in the UCI Gender and Sexuality Studies Department. She stated that many artists felt pigeonholed by what she referred to as the “law of genre,” the idea that, prior to the experimental era of the 1970s, genres should not be mixed. Proctor stated that the adherence to this unofficial law, “separated black artists from the avant garde”. 

Proctor raised the issue of black subjectivity and taxonomy in relation to the law of genre. She said that black artists were reduced to what genre gap they could fill without intersecting or experimenting, especially excluding genres which were considered high brow or whitewashed, such as opera or classical. However, with the abandonment of the law of genre, black artists were able to embrace avant garde musical stylings as evidenced in Riperton’s album. 

“Riperton’s ‘Come to My Garden’ denotes the excess or surplus produced by the codification of aesthetic or political energies. Her sensitive and soulful stylings create a built environment rooted in the displacement of genre both as a means to discipline black music and aesthetics” Proctor said about the Riberton’s fusing of genres in her album. 

Proctor stated that during the album’s release, the voice of a black woman was far less important than the body of a black woman and what it could provide. 

In reference to the album’s opening song “Le Fleur” Proctor said that it “nudges us to acknowledge that black womanhood cannot collapse into the signification of biocentric theories of gender and cannot be made sense of entirely by the body.” 

In relation to the commodification of the black woman’s body, Proctor referenced Aunt Hester from Frederick Douglass’ “Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass.” Proctor argued that the abuse that a black woman faces transcends the physical form as it questions her self-worth and personal autonomy. Proctor explained that the scene in which Douglass’ aunt Hester screamed while being tortured by her slave owner “signifies the commodity of the black body and black women’s apparent usefulness.” But at the same time, Proctor explained that Hester’s screams were a rejection of the commodification of the black woman’s body and perpetual black performance, in that it embodied a subjective voice that was rarely heard.

Proctor theorized that Riperton’s “Come to My Garden” serves as commentary on the limits of genre and black subjectivity achieved by the use of a metaphorical garden which sought to reconstruct the idea of black womanhood and subjectivity by creating space for self-preservation and cultivation. 

23-year-old Riperton released “Come to My Garden” in collaboration with experimental producer Charles Stepney in 1970. This served as a departure from the strict adherence to The Law of Genre by creating a fusion of seemingly adversarial genres. With a blend of folk guitars, soulful drums, swarms of classical strings and soaring operatic melodies, Riperton created a flurry of capacious sounds that explored her multifaceted identity as a black woman and an artist. 

Proctor — known for her academic deep-dives into albums by black artists of the likes of George Clinton, Patrice Rushen and the Ohio Players — delved further into the metaphor of the garden by referencing literary texts by black women. From Audre Lorde’s “The Black Unicorn: Poems,” to Alice Walker’s “In Search of Our Mother’s Garden,” Proctor said that the use of the metaphorical garden is a constant when discussing the cultural ecosystem of black womanhood. 

“Black women have tended to gardens in wastelands,” Proctor said, quoting Professor of African studies at Williams College Joy James.

Proctor explained that the garden represents a place of refuge for black women. Though a garden is often a place of labor and toil, it is also where black women can freely express their creativity and individuality, free from objectification and criticism. 

Proctor equated Riperton’s vocal performance to a self-contained and self-organizing entity, like plants in a garden.

“Of course a black woman’s voice and gender is represented in Riperton’s ‘Come to My Garden. Somewhat unorthodox, her seemingly bombastic style is imbued with all the knowledge that gardens produce for black women; stillness, presentness and rest,” Proctor said.