One of the widely held beliefs about gay and lesbian history goes like this: the farther back in time, the worse things were. Maybe if we reached all the way back to the Greeks and the Amazons, or if we were transported magically to the island of ancient Lesbos, we'd find something to cheer our souls. But basically, back in the day, before Stonewall, things were pretty grim.
Well, the common wisdom turns out not to be entirely true. There have been times and places where a combination of circumstances allowed queer life to surface, and an oasis of safety opened up. One of those times was the 1920s and 1930s, and one of those places was the South Side of Chicago.
It was in the 1920s that "South Side" came to mean the African-American part of town. Between 1910 and 1930, major migrations out of the rural South made Chicago's Black population soar. From only 44,000 folks in 1910, the numbers swelled to over 230,000 in 1930. Because of open discrimination by white realtors, landlords and homeowners, most African Americans found themselves forced to settle on the South Side. From the railroad tracks just west of State Street to Cottage Grove on the east, and spreading south from 31st Street to Washington Park, a densely packed community quickly grew.
The 1920s were relatively prosperous times in the U.S.—the "Fat Years," as two observers of South Side life called them. It was the Prohibition decade, too. Prohibition added an extra thrill to the city's nightlife. With the sale of alcohol a crime, and the mob jumping in to make big bucks in the liquor trade, anyone with a flask could feel at least a little bit outside the law. So, with money to spend and the new freedom that city life seemed to offer, Southsiders in the 1920s supported a world of clubs and theaters that rivaled those in any urban neighborhood.
Among the top attractions in town were the female performers who sang the blues. A musical form with roots in Southern Black communities, the blues became bigger than ever in the 1920s. In response to campaigns from newspapers like the Chicago Defender, the music industry finally, in 1920, began to record Black women. Almost instantly, a new set of stars were born. Bessie Smith's first recording, in 1923, sold three quarters of a million copies, an astounding number for those days. When singers like Smith, Ma Rainey, Alberta Hunter or Ethel Waters performed before live audiences in theaters and clubs, the demand for seats exceeded capacity.
The Defender had, as one of its missions, promoting the achievements of what in the 1920s the paper regularly referred to as "the race." Every issue gave generous space to the entertainment world. Reporters in other cities sent in reviews of performers on tour in order to stoke anticipation for their arrival in Chicago. From Detroit in 1926, one writer described an Ethel Waters show as "one of the most spicy and risqué to ever appear in this city ... Night after night people have been turned away." A Ma Rainey performance in Louisville drew this description: "The way Ma draws them in, she should be called the 'mother of packin 'em in' ... Ma does three numbers that burn 'em up [ and ] send them out screaming for more."
When these singers were in Chicago, the Defender pulled out all the stops. It lavished them with praise. "All Chicago loves Alberta [ Hunter ] . She has a personality that makes one go again to hear her," it wrote. "The talented lady captivated all who met her." During a 1925 run at the South Side's Monogram Theater, a headline alerted readers that "Ma Rainey Packs 'Em In ... She proved the magnet which had the 'sold out' placard on display at each show long before curtain time."
Celebrities today often live surrounded by handlers and in a world of such wealth that it keeps them far removed from their fans. Not so for these blues singers in the 1920s. For one thing, the economic gap between a successful entertainer and the working people who sat in the audience was not nearly as large as it is today. But, even more, racial segregation in housing kept these stars in the community where they performed. Hunter lived on East 36th Place, a block or so from State Street, a main thoroughfare through the Black community. Rainey had an apartment at 35th and Wabash. They could be seen out on the streets of the South Side. Fans felt as if they knew these women, as if they were all part of each other's lives.
The performances and the music encouraged this sense of connection. Although the singer might be dressed in lavish gowns and costumes, she still bantered back and forth with the audience in a way that let them know she was one of them. And then there was the singing itself. The style of the blues was filled with emotion. The performer sang of the hardships of life and the heartache of love in ways that were both raw and vulnerable. In "Broken Soul Blues" ( doesn't the title say it all? ) , Ma Rainey begins with these lines: "My soul is broken, my heart aches too / Days I spend longing, daddy, for you / Nights I spend weeping, weeping for you."
Angela Davis, who has written eloquently about these blues singers, argues forcefully that one of the key features distinguishing female blues singers in this era was the "pervasive sexual imagery" in their music. One of the things that emancipation meant for African Americans, she says, was the freedom to choose one's partners. Sexuality, Davis writes, was "a tangible expression of freedom."
A lot of the songs these women performed and wrote spoke openly about sexual passion. Not surprisingly, many center thematically on men. I-can't-live-without-him and He-done-me-wrong sum up the content of quite a few of these blues compositions. But there are others in which women's sexual desire and women's sexual activity are out there, fully on a par with male sexual adventuring. In "Barrel House Blues," another song recorded by Rainey, the woman is the match of her man: "Papa likes his sherry, mama likes her port / Papa likes to shimmy, mama likes to sport / Papa likes his bourbon, mama likes her gin / Papa likes his outside women, mama likes her outside men."
Of the songs from this era that I know of, a favorite is "Ma Rainey's Black Bottom." It celebrates one of the dance crazes of the 1920s. The verses are full of sexually suggestive double entendres:
All the boys in the neighborhood
They say your black bottom is really good
Come on and show me your black bottom
I want to learn that dance...
Come on and show that dance you call your big black bottom
It puts us in a trance.
Early last morning 'bout the break of day
Grandpa told my grandmamma, I heard him say
'Get up and show your good old man your black bottom
I want to learn that dance.'"
"Black Bottom" was just one of many songs that Rainey recorded. Her music company, Paramount, regularly placed large illustrated ads in The Defender. The ad for "Black Bottom" shows Ma Rainey, with a clarinet and trombone player on either side of her, dancing exuberantly. She wears a low-cut sleeveless dress that, with one hand, she has lifted way above her knee. The other hand is posed provocatively on her hip, and the look in her eye says "let's have some fun together."
Ads like these ( and there were many of them ) promoted not only the record, but the singer and her performances too. For the large Southside readership of The Defender, it was a short distance from the sketch of Rainey dancing wildly to seeing her live, in the flesh, at the Monogram or Dreamland. Through records, print, and performances, singers like Rainey became appealing figures of fantasy, stimulating in different ways the desires of men and women alike.
With this as a context, what then do we make of an eye-catching ad in the Sept. 22, 1928 issue of The Defender? It shows Rainey on a street corner at night, dressed in decidedly masculine attire, chatting up two fashionably dressed femmes, while a police officer eyes them suspiciously.
To be continued...
Copyright 2008 John D'Emilio