For Black Women, Love Is a Dangerous Thing—“Bitter” Showed Me How to Do It Anyway
I imagine she wrote it for women like me. Women who wear their hearts on their sleeves but hold their hands over their mouths.
Bitter is about those golden things; golden things that hurt, that build, that hurt and build and golden things that one day just weren’t anymore. It’s a meditative epiphany on the meaning of love, how it looks, tastes, feels. It also goes toe-to-toe with the push and pull of desire, all its messy tendencies, heady reactions and revealing outcomes.
Ndegeocello’s baritone vocals, deep and subdued, exposed the experiences of a black woman choosing to love recklessly in a world incapable of showing her tenderness in equal measure. She placed her desire; both physical and emotional at the forefront of the album, leaving no doubt that she’d been bruised but was also grateful for the pain which came in waves, rising then receding, leaving her softer than before. Her love journey was imperfect but also desirable, a reality which resonated with me.
Bitter starts off with “Adam,” a slow moving instrumental that soon turns urgent, foreshadowing the darkness listeners will wade through as Ndegeocello grapples with betrayal, insecurity and brokenness.
It’s this dangerous force that she tapped into on the song with the string accompaniment and gradual swell standing in contrast to the album’s tenth track; the very mellow “Eve.” Where “Adam”is a foreboding, somber, and eerie build up to a free fall, “Eve”is a mash-up of disembodied sonic frequencies that quietly settle in after feeling their way around the emptiness.
In the Christian faith, it was Eve’s inability to trust and listen that wrecked what’s understood to be the first pure love, punishing all of humanity. On Bitter, the most control and calm is felt on Eve, a compelling change from the biblical story. This might have been an unintentional occurrence, but in this I also see the setup of colliding femininity with what to the distracted listener seems to be discord, but is in fact restraint. Holding back so as to reorient your bearings is something most women who have loved and lost will know well, and it’s a feeling Ndegeocello offered as an interlude, giving pause before easing back into the chaos.
In trying to understand the complex, new dynamic at University, I committed myself to someone whose politics were so divorced from mine. I was young enough to be naïve, but not young enough to be unaware of my own self-deception. Politics consume my life and their intersections with identity, blackness, and gender fill up all my days, whether it’s through my work or my relationships. With the one I’d chosen, every conversation on race would end at an impasse on a good day and pounding headaches on the days when I just couldn’t let things go. When I couldn’t indulge their opinions on race in society and they easily clocked up our diverging beliefs to something as casual as pineapple or no pineapple on your pizza. My foolishness led me to a place where I was out of balance and completely unmoored, though I still remained a hopeless (yet now cynical) romantic.
Bitter thenbecamea welcome source of solace. When we broke up, the embarrassment of having invested in something so clearly without a solid foundation was hard to lay to rest. Sometimes it felt harder than the relationship. The residual feelings of failure, gross amusement at said failure and hurt clouded all my cardinal points. The album was a lesson in moving forward after being reckless. It wasn’t a compass, but a hand drawn map suggesting options and different pathways, all of which would likely lead you to a final destination. Once there, if you were if not happier with yourself, at least you were more aware of your inner workings.
At nineteen, when I found myself submerged under emotions for a first love, Bitter showed me that riding the waves was the best and only outcome to making it on the other side.
Name aside, the album’s song titles read like aspirational wishes for a healthy relationship: “Loyalty,” “Grace,” “Sincerity,”and on each, Ndegeocello’s voice is deep, moody, and layered—perfect on its own and able to invoke a crescendo unaided. I used to think that the last moments of a breakup would always be sharp and jagged, with the harsh words that were carelessly spoken filling the space that once held love. It’s these moments I thought would be the most painful, when the anger was at its most potent and visible form, vibrating around you. My own breakups showed me it’s the quiet ones and the resigned silences which hurt the most.
The disagreements which widened the fissures between me and the one I’d loved didn’t culminate in a big final fight—it was months of arguing more, meeting less, rarely talking until one day we just stopped all together. An awkward hug months later at a Dancehall party wasn’t half as bad as the moments we’d see each other at basketball games but never acknowledge the other’s presence. In hindsight, it might have been that on both sides, the acknowledgment was in the silences. Becoming less than strangers with somebody who used to know you better than most is the kind of feeling you need to unfurl slowly to understand.
It’s those complicated emotions that echo through Bitter’s more contemplative tunes. Her tone was wistful when she sang about the sharp ridges which protruded through her peace in “Wasted Time,” but her voice remained grounded in the realization that change would come and so too would healing. She was regretful but unashamed on “Faithful” where she reckoned with her own infidelity, and on the album’s namesake she was tortured by the bitterness of a lover whose eyes now showed hurt instead of love, a result of past indiscretions come to light in the lyrics: “You push me away bitterly/My apologies fall on your deaf ears/You curse my name bitterly/And now your eyes they look at me bitterly.”
Giving myself over to the impulses of love and desire as a black woman has at times felt like a lesson in limitations, and in a digital world those limitations find you every time you log onto any website. Opinions on why black women are less attractive than other women, masquerading as scientific research, or the various tiers for black women intersecting with desirability and the inherent bias surrounding black girlhood and maturity are part of a constant barrage of inescapable misogynoir. Sometimes it’s macro, other times it’s small discomforts, but it is ever-present, making experiences with love and desire not only about finding someone you can just kick it with, but someone who hasn’t been socialized to find you less than.
From an early age, systemic, social, and structural factors make love something that’s seemingly in conflict with black womanhood. It’s why this elusive emotion is about so much more than just wanting the fairytale. It’s about safety in the midst of unrelenting abuse, and a soft place to land when you’ve spent time pushing against walls. Choosing to love people who could easily be taken from me through state violence, and taking control of my desire even when the least of it is grounds to harass, over-sexualize, and violate my body makes love and desire fraught endeavors.
So to come across the boldness of Ndegeocello was not only wonderful, it was utterly safe and warm. It was a reminder of the “biglove” feared and needed by Toni Morrison’s characters in Beloved, who knew that such a kind of love, “Would split you wide open.” Listening to Bitter, made “big love” something I not only wanted, but believed in with the same faith I had when I was younger.
This solidified the song as a nostalgic reminder of the kind of love young black women fight to have, and also fight to keep.
For those familiar with ՚90s black romance films, “Fool of Me,” the album’s most well-known song, is inextricably linked to the penultimate scene in the filmLove & Basketball, starring Sanaa Lathan and Omar Epps. The two leads were childhood best friends (Monica and Quincy) turned lovers then exes, and in the famous clip they played a game of one-on-one basketball, instigated by Monica. If she won the game she would win Quincy’s love and if he won he could walk away. Monica lost the game but still ended up with Quincy, having won his heart decades earlier during their first ball game as kids. The song echoes as both players clearly still in love, crossover, power up, lay up, side-step, swerve, shove and try their hardest to be the one that lands the final basket. It was a perfect addition to the Gina Prince-Bythewood film and this solidified the song as a nostalgic reminder of the kind of love young black women fight to have, and also fight to keep. The kind where the love interest isn’t just your partner, but also your friend.
I have envisioned one day playing the album for someone I’d go one-on-one with in a ball game and during the songs I played several times over, I would stare at their face intently, willing them to hear her words as my own. For them to understand that her points of emphasis are mine and her fears, also mine. By listening to the whole album they would hear the sound of my heart and know me a little bit better. On Bitter,Ndegeocello didn’t deflect vulnerability with sarcasm or wit as I tend to, neither did she lash out when things fell apart, choosing to hide her suffering behind coldness and indifference. Everything she felt she left on the tracks, whether it was with words or the soft strums of her guitar. She was patient with herself, her failures, and paranoias. I imagine she wrote it for women like me. Women who wear their hearts on their sleeves but hold their hands over their mouths.
As a multi-hyphenate artist, Ndegeocello exists in a group with mostly other black women, who approach the layers of their own desire with intention and respect. In both literature and music this is a reality rarely given substantial center stage for exploration. Black women’s experiences of want are marginalized to highlight the expectations of servitude and chastity—the two extremes of care they are allowed and which are prevalent in all facets of pop culture. What then does art look like when a black woman centers her interiority and presents those findings; all the contradictions and complications, the self-pity, vulnerability, ecstacy and the bone deep longing always shadowed by a specter of loss? It looks like Bitter, an album whose lyrics are textured with memory, have both body and weight, and which breathe alongside us.
All of Bitter’s tangible qualities fit me so seamlessly that I have carried the album in the times when those specific words punctuated what I could not or was unwilling to say. Everything that was amorphous but which still scarred, Ndegeocello’s lyrics helped name.
Since buying the CD, I have fallen in and out of love a few times. Some have hurt more than others and only one has been particularly brutal. I always come back to Bitter to sit and feel all the emotions I will have tried to numb with club bangers. I start in the middle, with that one song that gently guides me through my process, then find my way to the beginning and listen all the way through, then repeat. Sometimes for several hours and sometimes a little longer. I’m older now, afraid still but more settled within that fear. I didn’t get here because of Bitter alone but it helped to have a voice echoing my truth. Not to validate it but to make it recognizable to me so I could see it, feel it, and be alright with it.
Tari is a journalist and photographer from Zimbabwe, based in Brasil. Her work has appeared in Vice, The Globe and Mail, Rookie Mag, Noisey, SYFY, Broadly, The Fader, New York Magazine, Flare Magazine and Hazlitt. You can find more of her on Twitter @FungaiSJ.