Gotta Go Gotta Flow opens with a picture of the Patio Restaurant, a mainstay blues club on the Southside of Chicago. It is late and a car is caught passing by. Streetlights shine like stage lights but the street is empty.
“Damn. Nighttime Chicago hurtles through its hours without apology or grace.”
And so begins the story of a community, illustrated by the photography of Michael Abramson, a photographer who began to document Chicago’s blues clubs in the late 1970s, and brought to life by the writing of Patricia Smith, an award-winning poet raised on Chicago’s West Side. “These fiercely breathing visuals are a last link to the unpredictable, blade-edged and relentlessly funky city I once knew,” says Smith, whose words narrate the myriad of experiences and identities within “The Club.”
Without Smith’s words, Abramson’s photos tell a story captured by an outsider who was allowed entrance into a private space. They are images of celebration and party that can easily be taken for face value by a careless or ignorant audience. Musicians. Macks. Foxy ladies. Queens. But, paired with Smith’s words, the individuals in the photographs become more than subjects—they become biographies. Smith’s reflections on gender, black culture, and identity within the unique city that is Chicago, simultaneously celebrate and instigate. The white, male gaze is partnered with a black, female voice, which is why the most evocative and eviscerating content in Gotta Go Gotta Flow are the poems about women.
“They dance to save their lives.”
There is something sacred in the soul of a woman who is at home on the dance floor. A woman whose hips drop with the beat, effortlessly. Instinctively. A woman who, when the music moves her, shines brighter than the limelight. I know, because I am one of these women. I’m confident that poet Patricia Smith is one of these women. The pages of Gotta Go Gotta Flow, the photographs by Abramson, are filled with these women.
I received this book in the mail just days before Beyoncé dropped “Formation,” followed by a Black Panther-influenced performance of the song during the Super Bowl 50 halftime show. The video and performance have launched a nationwide debate about race, gender, and—particularly—black womanhood. What Smith accomplishes in Gotta Go Gotta Flow echoes the conversation sparked by Beyoncé’s performance. Her poetry gives voice to a culturally unheard group: black women. Chicago women.
“Ain’t no woman like a Chi-town woman. Everywhere she be there be art.”
It feels as if Smith knows the women in these pictures, and what could be read as an average couple or typical group of girlfriends out for a night on the town is transformed by her narration. The well-known strength we often associate as a “natural” characteristic of black women is juxtaposed with the complex realities that create the need for such strength. “Girls on the Verge” is the title of one section of photos: a woman’s hand, a woman’s face covered by a fan, a woman laid out on a pool table, a woman looking into the camera flashing the brightest of smiles.
“There’s a certain kind of smile that hides a certain kind of terror.”
If you are one of these women, you know exactly what that means. You have smiled that smile or seen that smile on a friend. Smith gets it. With subtle, yet arresting effect, Smith explores sexual assault, adultery, statutory rape and pedophilia, homosexuality, and homophobia—all the while giving praise to the joy and necessity of “The Club.”
“The room is full of secrets like
this. Secrets you have to bend
over to conceal, secrets that worked
there way in from Chicago boulevards,
secrets that have a smell like smoke.”
The photo is of a man and a young woman, both bent over the jukebox. The photo was taken from behind and the man is dressed in pants and a sport coat, the girl in a short dress and white stockings. It seems clear that he is older and we wonder if she’s his date or his daughter. Smith knows this. She knows the unspoken rules of attraction and emotion that are particular not just to women, but to black women. Her words capture not just the poetics of the dance floor but the politics. In a city that has swept R. Kelly’s pedophilia under the rug time and again, the implications of these words are hard to ignore.
“I’m black, so I can tell you and you can believe it.”
In closing, Smith pens an epilogue that, while honoring Abramson’s work, acknowledges what the presence of whiteness means in a black space. Especially in America. Especially in Chicago. Especially in “The Club.” Abramson’s curiosity and ability to document the “glorious chaos” gained him access to a “coded intimacy” that when shared serves as a history lesson for those who were unaware such space, such personalities, such lives existed. Kind of like Beyoncé. Beyoncé’s performance coinciding with the publication of Gotta Go Gotta Flow is a reminder of what’s been lost, silenced, ignored, and devalued. But it has always, and will always, exist. In the streets. In the beats. In the club.