By: Ruxi Chirila
During the Harlem Renaissance, one of the most salient debates amongst Black intellectuals centred on what kind of art Black artists ought to create and how they ought to represent Black people in their art. Thinkers such as George S. Schuyler dismissed the idea of a distinct ‘black art,’ from the premise that exacerbating differences between Black and white Americans would lead to further “conjur[ing] up in the average white American’s mind a composite stereotype” (52). This desire to escape racist stereotypes led to the urban Black middle-class adopting an ideology of respectability: to align themselves with “mainstream white society” and to curate an image of a stable and secure middle-class family structure (K. T. Ewing in Honey 14). Hazel V. Carby argues that these white cultural ideologies specifically “define black female sexuality as primitive and exotic,” and that the only socially acceptable response for Black women was to oppose this racist stereotype through “the denial of desire and the repression of sexuality” (12). Black middle-class respectability, then, disproportionately put pressure on Black women to present themselves as “sexually and morally pure,” (14) and, most importantly, as wives and mothers rather than individuals with complexity and autonomy.
Nella Larsen’s novel Passing follows two Black middle-class women, Irene Redfield and Clare Kendry, who ultimately fail in their attempts to escape the oppressive structures of respectability. This novel not only exemplifies the dangers of respectability to Black women’s liberty, but also the pervasiveness of its structure and its influence on their lives, making it nearly impossible to escape. Critically, David L. Blackmore articulates the ways in which middle-class respectability acts as a “veneer” beneath which Larsen’s novel “explore[s] subversive alternatives to the repressive bourgeois order” (475). Despite radically hinting at the possibility of a relationship between Irene and Clare, it is ultimately impossible for them to see their connection through. The final glimpse of Clare falling out the window is in the form of a detailed blazon in free indirect discourse, ripe with Irene’s sexual desire and her contrasting relief that Clare, the object of temptation who threatened her security and stability, has been “extinguish[ed]” (483):
“Gone! The soft white face, the bright hair, the disturbing scarlet mouth, the dreaming eyes, the caressing smile, the whole torturing loveliness that had been Clare Kendry. That beauty that had torn at Irene’s placid life. Gone! The mocking daring, the gallantry of her pose, the ringing bells of her laughter.
Irene wasn’t sorry. She was amazed, incredulous almost.”(Larsen 272)
There are two diverging interpretations of this scene that co-exist paradoxically: Irene defenestrates Clare out of fear of the liberatory possibility of their relationship, or Clare chooses to fall in order to be liberated from the oppressive social expectations put upon them both. Fundamentally, the ending to Larsen’s novel illustrates how Black middle-class respectability both stifles same sex relationships and denies women their sexual autonomy and individuality beyond their roles in relation to men and their children. Despite Irene and Clare’s inability to entertain the possibility of a relationship, Passing offers an insight into Irene’s internalization of respectability and how it leads to the climactic moment of Clare’s death, which is at once alleviating, erotic, and tragic.
Through their radically different art forms, two groups of Queer Black women artists in the 1920s—Blues singers and Black female poets—provide alternatives to the Black middle-class respectability that stifled Irene and Clare’s autonomy, desire, and possibility for homosexual experiences. Bessie Smith and Gertrude “Ma” Rainey were female Blues singers whose same-sex affairs were widely-known. As such, they were framed as unrespectable women due to their sexual openness, and their “music was designated as ‘low’ culture” (Davis 13). In spite of this, their cultural influence is significant: as Angela Davis argues, their music was an essential part of “working class women’s community building [that…] proclaims women’s complexity” (67). By contrast, the lyric poetry of Black Modernist poets Angelina Weld Grimké, Gwendolyn B. Bennett, and Mae V. Cowdery is intimate and individual. All three poets highlight the interior intricacies of women with reference to the figure of Aphrodite, a muse through which they create female spaces to explore their desires and multiplicities (Honey 5). The Blues women and the poets illustrate a radical exploration and assertion of female complexity, interiority, and desire that fundamentally opposes the “selfless propriety” expected of Black women (Honey 15). The contrast in their approaches—the collective experience of live music performance and the private, diary-like intimations of poetry—allows these artists to uniquely articulate female desire as a source of strength and meaning. Through their music and poetry, these women construct alternate spaces where their female speakers are free from the racist patriarchal society that centres the pleasure and desires of men and represses the liberty of Queer Black women.
Distinctions of Form
It is first crucial to historically situate the developments of these two forms of art—Blues music and modernist lyrical poetry—to illustrate how their distinctive features offer Queer Black women alternative forms of expression. Angela Davis notes that “one of the most obvious ways in which Blues lyrics deviated from the era’s established popular musical culture was their “provocative and pervasive sexual—including homosexual—imagery” (22). She subsequently argues that “sovereignty in sexual matters marked an important divide between life during slavery and life after emancipation” (23). She traces the development from religious and secular “slave music,” which “was collectively performed and […] gave expression to the community’s yearning for freedom” (23), towards Blues music, which was prominently secular and introduced a greater distinction between the performer and the audience, as well as a “new valuation of individual emotional needs and desires” (24). This shift towards an individual projecting their interiority onto an eager crowd holds a “sacred nature,” in which, in spite of its secularity, a Blues performance acts as a “communal channel of relief,” similar to a religious congregation, though the gospel here expresses women’s sexual freedom (27-8).
Ma Rainey and Bessie Smith “preached about sexual love, and in so doing they articulated a collective experience of freedom” (Davis 28). The form of a Blues performance, therefore, intermixes the individual and the collective, the private and the public, particularly in its association with Queer sexuality. Ma Rainey’s “Prove It On Me Blues” is the most crucial example of explicitly Queer lyrics being performed, recorded, and advertised by a female Blues singer. Her chorus is as follows:
“Went out last night with a crowd of my friends
They must’ve been women, ‘cause I don’t like no men
It’s true I wear a collar and a tie
Make the wind blow all the while
[…] talk to the gals just like any old man
They said I do it, ain’t nobody caught me
Sure got to prove it on me”(Rainey “Prove It On Me Blues”)
Not only do her lyrics include references to cross-dressing, but an advertisement for the song’s release “showed the blues woman sporting a man’s hat, jacket, and tie and, while a policeman looked on, obviously attempting to seduce two women on a street corner” (Davis 58). The Blues singers articulated their sexual autonomy through multiple mediums, including live performances, recordings, and visual advertisements for their music. They boldly and publicly declared their sexuality, thereby creating an avenue for themselves and their audience to oppose oppression.
Bessie Smith also preaches women’s autonomy in “Young Woman’s Blues,” in which a man leaves the speaker overnight. Despite this, she is not distraught by being alone; rather, it is a source of empowerment and liberty:
“I’m a young woman and ain’t done running around
I ain’t gonna marry, ain’t gon’ settle down
I’m gon’ drink good moonshine and run these browns down
See that long lonesome road, Lord, you know it’s gotta end
And I’m a good woman and I can get plenty men”(Smith “Young Woman’s Blues”)
Smith’s speaker relishes in her desirability as a young woman and sees her sexuality as a form of liberation from the institution of marriage. She feels no pressure to marry nor to “settle down” which highlights the absence of traditional family structures, and most importantly, the expectation of motherhood, from the song. Davis comments that this absence “does not imply a rejection of motherhood as such,” but rather suggests the rejection of “the mainstream cult of motherhood,” as the Blues singers found it “irrelevant to the realities of their lives” (32). This illustrates how middle-class respectability could not permeate the working-class, where communities of women formed around Blues music as a channel of relief.
The poets Grimké, Bennett, and Cowdery employed poetry for their more private explorations of interiority, though they still rejected the so-called ‘cult of motherhood.’ Maureen Honey emphasizes the ways in which their bodies of work have “fallen between the cracks of two major critical models:” Modernism, which focuses on white writers, and Harlem Renaissance Black Modernism, which centres male writers such as Langston Hughes and Claude McKay (3). Contemporary critiques of these female poets imply that their lyrical and occasionally pastoral forms were not seen as sufficiently innovative. Honey cites Jane Kuenz’s assessment of a larger “literary culture” that “broadly characterized their work, as it did [Countee] Cullen’s, as bourgeois, racially empty, and feminine” (17). However, this largely neglects the connection the poets drew between their lyrical poetry and their activism, as all three published activism poetry in 1927. Grimké’s poem “Tenebris,” offers the chillingly powerful imagery:
“There is a tree, by day,
That, at night,
Has a shadow,
A hand huge and black,
With fingers long and black.
All through the dark,
Against the white man’s house,”(Grimké “Tenebris” 1-7).
The poignant imagery of fingers in the dark alludes to tree branches brushing against the white house as Black specters haunting white consciousness. This poem centres its political, anti-lynching message by beginning with the tree that by night “Has a shadow”. The message becomes even more apparent when reading the white man’s house as both an old plantation house, or the White House itself, and the Black hands as those of victims of anti-Black violence.
Bennett approaches racial activism by looking to comforting images of the past in “Song ,” which details intimate imagery:
“My song has the lush sweetness
Of moist, dark lips
Where hymns keep company
With old forgotten banjo songs”(Bennett “Song ” 4-7)
Bennett connects form and content through the song-like nature of the poem’s subsequent use of repetition, evoking nostalgia through the depiction of music as a source of heritage, pain, and belonging. Cowdery’s “Lamps” constructs an extended metaphor comparing lives to burning lamps, where some seem to burn less brightly because of “ebon shrouds” though the opposite is true. The speaker proclaims:
“You and I are lamps—Ebony lamps.
Our flame glows red and rages high within
But our ebon shroud becomes a shadow
And our light seems weak and low”(Cowdery “Lamps” 28-31, emphasis mine)
The rich imagery of darkness in these three poems links the poets’ respective sources of political empowerment to radically contribute to dismantling the “models that portrayed black Americans fighting racism as predominantly male” (Honey 18). These poets deconstruct the false notion that lyric poetry cannot address racism and be socially conscious, further developing the complexity of the possibilities of lyric poetry.
The three poets are, however, better known for their erotic poetry, much of which is set outside of the city. This pastoral mode is an aesthetic move away from the male-dominated urban poetry of streets and cabarets (Honey 14). Instead, female bodies “are framed by nature,” (13) and, crucially, are in a female-only space. Grimké’s “Grass Fingers” (1927) positions erotic exploration in nature:
“Touch me, touch me,
Little cool grass fingers,
Elusive, delicate grass fingers.
With your shy brushings,
Touch my face —
My naked arms —
My thighs —
My feet.”(Grimké “Grass Fingers” 1-8)
The enjambment in the poem–with each line separating body parts–illustrates a bird’s eye view of a woman’s body lying down in the grass. This connects the female body intimately to the earth and implies that the exploration of female sexuality is a natural experience. Bennet’s poem “Song ” (1926) describes her speaker gently painting an English countryside for her lover as an act of intimacy. Cowdery’s “Interlude” (1936) offers the natural world as a “quiet place” (1) to contrast with the noisy urban center to further emphasize the oppressive nature of the city and the liberatory potential of womens’ mental escape into nature.
The three poets adopt these Romantic notions to express their sexualities outside of a city centre such as Harlem, which, though it was a “primary site of sexual activity in the 1920s,” (Honey 13) did not offer middle-class women autonomy. The poets’ speakers, then, occupy a similar position as Irene and Clare in Larsen’s novel. Honey highlights this as an unfulfilled connection that may have been possible between the poets and the Blues singers. Male poets could depict Blues singers such as Bessie Smith and Ma Rainey sympathetically, “the female gaze on these figures, however, could not so liberally depict sexuality” (13). Therefore, the poets adopt the pastoral mode and Romantic notions as an alternate way to express their sexuality as Ma Rainey and the Blues women could through provocative visual advertisements.
Aphrodite(s): Female Figures of Desire
This initial aesthetic move out of the city landscape opened the door for further developments in the exploration of female desire. The most significant motif is the Aphrodite’ figure. This figure appears at dusk and nighttime and is a muse who the speaker worships with passion and desire. It is through this muse figure that the speakers are able to experience “the erotic as a source of strength and meaning” (Honey, 5). Grimké ushers in this figure with the third part of her unpublished poem “A Trilogy”:
“Behold! She comes, the queen of Night!
With haunting grace and haunting eyes
A figure motionless, alone
Her solemn, radiant, vigil keeping
Never sleeping, never sleeping—”(Grimké “A Trilogy”)
Bennett’s “Fantasy” summons a similar figure at “Night,” which is capitalized in both poems: “I sailed in my dreams to the land of Night / Where you were the dusk-eyed Queen” (1-2). Further, Cowdery’s “Four Poems” centre female figures as goddesses of nature and ‘Night’ is personified. Nighttime landscapes are female: “Night turned over / In her sleep” (1-2) and “The moon / Is a madonna.” (13-4). In the second poem, the earth takes on a more erotic image:
Is earth’s mouth . . .
She thrusts her lovely
Through the clouds
For heaven’s kiss”(Cowdery “Four Poems” 18-23)
This recurring motif of goddesses who are elevated above the speaker instills a Romantic sense of the sublime. This retreat into a female-dominated Night realm further advances the initial pastoral motifs. Honey ultimately argues that these figures “[compel] respect and [cast] off the fetters of racist patriarchal civilization” by presiding over lands of Night (8). Cowdery, in contrast to Grimké and Bennett, does not name these goddesses ‘queens’ of their realms. They become one with the earth rather than ruling over it. No Aphrodite figure appears the same in each of the speaker’s descriptions, which serves to highlight their individuality.
The poets extend this same adoration of goddesses to Black female subjects, deifying them without resorting to typical conceits or tropes of servitude to express their sexuality. Grimké develops her metaphor of grass, first seen in “Grass Fingers,” in the poem “A Mona Lisa:” “I should like to creep / Through the long brown grasses / That are your lashes” (1-3). Grass and the natural realm continue to be sites of erotic exploration. The colour brown similarly depicts grace and beauty in Bennett’s “To a Dark Girl,” of which the first two lines are: “I love you for your brownness / And the rounded darkness of your breast.” The emphasis on darkness and brownness in these two poems echoes a more realist interpretation of the Queens of the Night—one that emphasizes an adoration of the beauty of Black women by other Black women. This female gaze reveals how these blazons are steeped in a fascination of other women. These poems challenge the traditional roles of wife and mother imposed by respectability. One poem, however, illustrates an aesthetic alternative to the ending of Larsen’s passing: the second stanza of Cowdery’s “Insatiate” (1936) is an erotic blazon of a woman that strikingly resembles that of Passing’s Irene-influenced blazon on Clare Kendry:
“If her lips were rubies red,
Her eyes two sapphires blue,
Her fingers ten sticks of white jade,
Coral tipped . . . and her hair of purple hue
Hung down in a silken shawl . . .
They would not be enough
To fill the coffers of my need.”(Cowdery “Insatiate” 6-12)
This detailed dissection of the speaker’s lover ends not with the subject’s death, but with her speaker becoming “willing prisoner” to her lover instead (26). Willingness in particular denotes the self-centred piety and servitude towards a goddess that the Grimké and Bennett exhibit as well; these speakers willingly admire and desire their subjects, who are at once of immeasurable beauty and their equal as women. This fundamentally breaks the structure of selfless servitude that the ideology of respectability expects of Black women and instead creates a new dynamic where the speakers are emotionally complex and deeply moved by the female deities they worship by choice.
The connection between these complex interior emotions in the poetry about goddesses and the Blues singers’ performances becomes clear upon gleaning the reverent audience testimonies of Bessie Smith and Ma Rainey’s shows. Audience members who saw the blues women perform live illustrate their stage presence in what can only be described as a blazon depicting awe-inspiring and powerful “Goddesses”:
“For these singers were gorgeous and their physical presence elevated them to being referred to as Goddesses, as high priestesses of the blues, or like Bessie Smith as the Empress of the Blues. Their physical presence was a crucial aspect of their power; the visual display of spangled dresses, of furs, of gold teeth, of diamonds of all the sumptuous and desirable aspects of their body reclaimed female sexuality from being an objectification of male desire to a representation of female desire.” (Carby 20)
The centrality of female desire at the heart of their aesthetic presentations grounds these women as individuals who “[reclaim] female sexuality.” The Blues women depart from the ideology of respectability, resisting the racist stereotyed hypsersexualization of Black women, to take control of their image and agency. This blazon-like description draws attention to each of the pieces of their physicality and clothing that make up their aura and illustrate their immense power. This power allows the Blues singers to form a congregational community around their songs and create spaces for Black working-class women to articulate the complicated ways they relate to society and to one another: in romance, in rivalry, and in solidarity.
Complex Inter-Female Relationships
The exploration of female relationships by these two groups of women is not exclusively erotic. The complexities of jealousy and friendships between women is a subject that Angela Davis claims exhibits “a feminist consciousness” (11), as “feminist traditions are not only written, they are oral” (19). The power of Blues music, particularly in performance, comes from its “participatory character,” which invites the audience to form a community that acknowledges how individual feelings relate to a larger consciousness (76). A particular form of Blues music, highlighted by Daphne Duval Harrison, is that of advice songs whose themes often focus on how a woman ought to “handle [their] men” (73). This theme is most apparent in Ma Rainey’s “Trust No Man,” which begins with Rainey addressing the women in the audience:
“I want all you women to listen to me
Don’t trust your man no further’n your eyes can see
I trust mine with my best friend
But that was the bad part in the end
He’ll tell you that he loves you and swear it is true
The very next minute he’ll turn his back on you
Ah, trust no man, no further than your eyes can see.”(Rainey “Trust No Man”)
Rainey makes all the aforementioned moves: she initially addresses the women in the audience to advise them not to “trust [their] man,” then shares a personal experience before repeating her advice after she has shared a possible consequence. Giving relationship advice the women in the audience can relate to is a significant cultural practice. As Davis argues this kind of music creates possibilities for “community-building among working-class women, [where] the coercions of bourgeois notions of sexual purity and “true womanhood” were absent” (63). Indeed, the existence of advice songs implies that life for the women in a Blues performance audience was imperfect: the concept of “true womanhood” is not only an unrealistic ideal, but it also coerces women to conform and denies them the opportunity to connect on the basis of advice-giving.
Women offer each other advice through the form of Blues music, but the Blues singers also have conversations with each other in the form of duets that explore the complexities of female interactions. Bessie Smith’s “My Man Blues” is performed as a duet between herself and Clara Smith. Although the opening dialogue presents the two of them in conflict after discovering they are seeing the same man, the women resolve their conflict effectively, as they hold immense respect for each other:
“Bessie: Clara, who was that man I saw you with the other day?
Clara: Bessie, that was my smooth black daddy that we call Charlie Gray.
Bessie: Don’t you know that’s my man? Yes, that’s a fact.
Clara: I ain’t seen your name printed up and down his back.
Bessie: You better let him be.
Clara: What, old gal? Because you ain’t talkin’ to me.
Bessie: I guess we got to have him on cooperation plan. I guess we got to have him on cooperation plan.
Both: Ain’t nothin’ different ’bout all those other two-time men.
Bessie: How ’bout it?
Clara: Suits me.
Bessie: Suits me too.
Clara: Well, then.”(Smith “My Man Blues”)
Davis crucially notes the context behind this song: Clara Smith was one of Bessie Smith’s “most serious music rivals” (Davis 70), which further emphasizes the radical nature of both women reconciling their dispute within the song as equals in a “cooperational plan.” Charlie Gray, despite being the catalyst for their dispute, does not hold power over the two women. It is their initially incompatible desires that begin the song, and their mutual respect for their desires and recognition of each other as equals—most clearly demonstrated by calling each other’s names after singing a lyrical line together—that resolves their conflict. This creates a narrative of female cooperation that allows for new possibilities for female equality and recognition that fundamentally opposes the ideology of respectability at the expense of female agency.
In contrasting the two groups of women—Blues singers and Black female poets—I have described the ways in which their art forms oppose middle-class respectability based on its negative consequences for women’s sexual autonomy and liberty. The Blues singers boldly proclaim their sexual desirability and their attraction to women, and subsequently encourage communities of Black working-class women to think critically about their own individuality and their relationships to others, particularly other women. The poets delve into nighttime landscapes where their speakers explore their complex interiorities and desires for women. Despite being middle-class women, lyrical poetry allows them to channel their desires for sexual liberty—and use those same lyrical forms to break boundaries on what women could contribute to racial activism. Honey argues that these poets opened the door for later poets and musical artists to draw on their innermost selves for their art, and to see “female sexuality [as a] source of creative power that challenges racism’s stranglehold on the Black woman’s dignity, beauty, and strength” (219). I will go further to add that Black women’s sexual liberation includes the liberation of everyone: Ma Rainey’s song “Sissy Blues” describes a Sissy—a term which could apply to either a trans woman or feminine presenting Queer man—stealing her man away:
“I shimmied last night, the night before
I’m going home tonight, I won’t shimmy no more
I dreamed last night I was far from harm
Woke up and found my man in a sissy’s arms
My man’s got a sissy, his name is Miss Kate
He shook that thing like jelly on a plate
Now all the people ask me why I’m all alone
A sissy shook that thing and took my man from home”(Rainey “Sissy Blues”)
Rainey addresses this scenario exactly as she does in other songs where a woman steals her man, thereby extending the possibilities of sexual liberation to others—Queer people in particular. This song highlights the ways in which the sexual liberation of Black women actively contributes to the sexual and political liberation of other communities; and to emphasize the range of these women’s impact in music, poetry, and activism. Ultimately, the Blues singers Bessie Smith and Gertrude “Ma” Rainey, and the Black Modernist poets Angelina Weld Grimké, Gwendolyn B. Bennett, and Mae V. Cowdery boldly trailblazed in writing, singing, and performing the complexities of female desire, of their interior lives, and of their relationships to each other to initiate new modes of expression centring Queer Black women.
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