In Defense of Lauryn Hill: Valuing Black Women’s Humanity

lauryn

It saddens me to think that someone would take the time to write the callously titled, “It’s Finally Time to Stop Caring About Lauryn Hill,” an article in which the author attempts to convince Hip Hop fans to be done with a brilliant songstress/rapper/actress who has contributed to the soundtrack of my youth. “You’ve done nothing for me lately,” the author boldly writes, and furthermore insists, according to his standards, “Lauryn Hill was a great artist. She’s not anymore and it’s time we stop holding her in that regard, waiting for her to pay off on a promise that’s long since expired.”  I ask, who are we—any of us—to demand and feel entitled to greatness from someone else, when we have not yet walked a mile in her shoes?

“Her voice may strike a false note, but her whole being is musical with the vibrations of human suffering.” –Anna Julia Cooper

Perhaps “It’s Time to Stop Caring” is just a writer’s lament, and, secretly, he really does hope the waves of cold-hearted frustration will transmit to the artist, such that she will enjoy a long-anticipated and authentic comeback just for him.  But, to take pen to paper to say that we should no longer care about an obviously tortured soul—which most of us are, if we are honest—is fraught with gendered politics and the unrealistic expectations we tend to have for otherwise “strong black women.” It is also rather inhumane.  I hereby submit, if Lauryn Hill never produces another “hit,” The Mis-Education of Lauryn Hill, et al, remains a legendary element of historic Hip Hop and a critical lens through which young women are able to see shades of ourselves, our strength, our creativity, our vulnerabilities, our humanity.

“Slavery is terrible for men; but it is far more terrible for women. Superadded to the burden common to all, they have wrongs, and sufferings, and mortifications peculiarly their own.” –Harriet Jacobs

I remember writing about Ms. Hill for a 2003 course in African-American Women’s History during my time as a master’s student at Columbia.  Although I had majored in history as an undergraduate and completed an extensive research project on enslaved women, my participation in this course was perhaps the first time I felt as if the experiences of black women in history were being fully validated. We studied a range of topics, viewed films like Julie Dash’s Daughters of the Dust and read numerous works, including Harriet Jacobs’s Life of a Slave Girl, Audre Lorde’s Zami: A New Spelling of My Name, the timeless work of Michelle Wallace in Black Macho and the Myth of the Superwoman, in addition to works by Joan Morgan, Patricia Hill Collins and Dorothy Wallace.  More than an academic enterprise, this course helped me to appreciate black women, not only as objects of inquiry, but as agents who help complicate analytical frameworks that previously ignored our existence, but for the problematic tropes of the jezebel and, dare I say it, the matriarch A.K.A. “strong black woman.”

“I was woefully incapable when I was a child of seeing that their strength was just one facet of their humanity, their fallibility.” –Michelle Wallace

It is both interesting and ironic that this “It’s Time to Stop Caring” person writes of the “mythology” that surrounds Lauryn Hill when,  if anything, the myth here involves not Hill’s legendary contributions, but the notion that she is any less than great but for her many vulnerabilities.  While at Columbia, I spent a great deal of time grappling with what I eventually concluded was a myth that both whites and blacks have perpetuated (often for different reasons), but one that also has been necessary for our very survival.  Subsequently, my studies on Garvey women and social activists for the National Association of Club Women seemed to corroborate “the myth,” given the extent to which these women dedicated their lives to some higher vision of justice, democracy, and the social and economic advancement of a race. My examination of women civil rights activists in later years drew me to similar conclusions. Yet, underneath pronouncements such as “the busy have no time for tears,” as Amy Jacques Garvey once opined, I read of the personal afflictions and ongoing alienation of women who were neither pitied nor entitled in American society.  I thought that if I could better understand the women who wore the masks, so to speak, the women who dissembled daily as both a form of political resistance and a way of life, then I could better understand the myth that I had become in my secret quest for a type of greatness I have yet to achieve.

“Two things everybody’s got to do fuh theyselves. They got tuh go tuh God, and they got tuh find out about livin’ fuh theyselves.” –Zora Neale Hurston

In addition to his attempts to debunk the myth that was once a great artist, on the one hand, the author of “It’s Time to Stop Caring” demonstrates little regard for Hill’s confrontations with and keen understanding of the historical structures which she publicly compares to slavery. Yet, every day, we are reminded—through widespread examples of black women’s underemployment (from our degraded pay rates to the continued willingness of many to work as nannies for white families); the brutal and unwarranted use of force against black women, (Renisha McBride, Ursula Ore, Marlene Pinnock), as well as through our carefully crafted mis-education in many public schools and the like—we are reminded of our proximity to a legally circumscribed existence.  Yes, even those of us who are middle-class (another of the author’s gripes about Lauryn Hill)!  Most tragically, however, the author of “It’s Time to Stop Caring” demonstrates downright hostility and disdain for Hill’s apparent emotional turmoil.  It’s like the “Why Didn’t She Just Leave?” folk who have pronounced ready judgment on women like Janay Rice: she should have been stronger.

“No one loves you more than me…and no one will ever will.” –Lauryn Hill

As a woman striving while black, it is for the latter reason that I continue to empathize with Ms. Hill—that is, her proximity to greatness and what is often described as her subsequent decline. In fact, I can recall how, as part of a creative final project for the African-American Women’s History course at Columbia, I decided to feature Lauryn Hill in a magazine titled “Therapy,” while underneath I included the subtitle “Lauryn Healed!”  Corny, sure.   But, other than experience the sensation of a new hit record or album, more than anything else, I wanted to see the sister receive the type of love and support we all need, but perhaps black women more than anyone else.  None of us–black women, that is—are infallible monoliths, who are from time to time inclined to a divahood long denied us. (Hill shows up late for concerts and so ends the world.)   But, we don’t give up on our own. Because, as has been the case with many of the black women I’ve loved across time and space, the real problem is, despite our brilliance, despite the foundations we’ve laid to prevent societies from falling apart, as a near-mythical Sojourner Truth might have it, the world stopped caring about us long ago.

 

Tikia K. Hamilton is a doctoral candidate in the Department of History at Princeton University, where her research focuses on race, education and politics in Washington, DC. She possesses a Masters in African-American Studies from Columbia University, and A.B. in History from Dartmouth College. An educator, she also has taught in NYC private schools. She plans to defend her doctoral degree in History from Princeton University in May, 2015.