Cookie Woolner: Cultural historian of race, gender and sexuality.

Assistant Professor of History, University of Memphis

Research

‘The Famous Lady Lovers:’ African American Women and
Same-Sex Desire Before Stonewall

Alberta Hunter

Alberta Hunter

Bessie Smith

Bessie Smith

This manuscript examines the emergence of social networks created by African American women who loved women, and the public discourse that swirled around them. Focusing on specific urban locales in Chicago and New York, it examines the representation of such women nationally in the black press and the entertainment world. It highlights a variety of factors, which, by the 1920s, led to the increasing visibility of African American “lady lovers.” The Great Migration – the mass exodus of southern blacks to the North and West beginning with World War I – was a key stimulus to the communities these women helped to build in vibrant and heterogeneous segregated urban spaces. The overlap of vice districts with black neighborhoods brought a preponderance of boarding houses filled with single people, which helped stimulate the rise of mass culture and the entertainment industry. Black newspapers were especially important in disseminating what became common representations of lady lovers. Their narratives often included stories of violent “queer love triangles” occurring between women. Black reporters also gave voice to the disapproving black middle-class, understandably worried that the public behaviors of recent, uneducated southern migrants would tarnish their efforts to reproduce “respectability” as they defended themselves from the virulent race prejudice of the North. The black sector of the popular entertainment industry, with its touring vaudeville circuits, offered alternative and highly mobile forms of labor for talented and ambitious women, and also served as a central meeting place for lady lovers. Successful blues singers like Bessie Smith and Gertrude “Ma” Rainey, who recorded for the segregated “race records” industry, created complex and layered queer representations that increasingly engaged queer audiences, a burgeoning sector of city dwellers. Private parties, buffet flats, and other illicit Prohibition spaces enabled queer counterpublics to be enacted beyond the purview of white, thrill-seeking “slummers.” Though lady lovers were visible participants in the vibrant, black urban working-class districts of the early-twentieth century, the “respectable” black community accelerated its campaign against deviance from traditional gender norms, certain that the public presence of such women threatened their struggle for racial justice in the violent Jim Crow era.

Dr. Cookie Woolner

Department of History
219 Mitchell Hall
University of Memphis
Memphis, TN 38152
cwoolner@memphis.edu

© Cookie Woolner 2016.
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