The LGB scene in 1920s Harlem

The next chapter of lesbian history described in Odd Girls and Twilight Lovers is the LGB subcultures that began to emerge in cities in the 1920s, with particular emphasis on Harlem.

In Harlem in the 1920s, lesbians, gays and bisexuals could go to bars and be somewhat accepted, although it certainly wasn’t full acceptance. Bisexuality was more accepted than full time lesbianism — women were allowed to take an interest in other women as long as they were also married to men. Full time lesbians were not as accepted and were labeled as “bulldikers.”

Lesbian-themed lyrics appeared in Harlem blues music and titillated audiences with images of women-loving women.

One such blues singer was Ma Rainey, a bisexual woman who wasn’t afraid to be open about her relations with women.

“It was popular knowledge among those in the show business world of Harlem that Bessie [Smith] was initiated into lesbianism by her old friend and mentor Ma Rainey, another bisexual, whose “indiscreet” lesbian behaviour even got her in trouble in 1925 when she was arrested for a lesbian orgy at her home involving women in her chorus. A neighbour called the police because of the noise. Reports say the women scrambled for their clothes and ran out the back door, but Rainey’s escape was foiled when she fell down a staircase. She was accused of running an indecent party and thrown in jail, from which Bessie Smith bailed her out the following morning.

The news of her arrest did not hurt Ma Rainey, however. Like Gladys Bentley, she even capitalized on the shock effect that could be produced by hints of her bisexuality. Her recording “Prove It on Me Blues,” a blues monologue by a woman who prefers women, was advertised with a picture of a plump black woman, looking much like Ma Rainey, in a man’s hat, tie, and jacket, talking to two entranced feminine flappers. In the distance, observing them, there is a policeman.”

The lyrics to “Prove It on Me Blues” are the following:

Went out last night, had a great big fight
Everything seemed to go on wrong
I looked up, to my surprise
The gal I was with was gone.

Where she went, I don’t know
I mean to follow everywhere she goes;
Folks say I’m crooked. I didn’t know where she took it
I want the whole world to know.

They say I do it, ain’t nobody caught me
Sure got to prove it on me;
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,
Makes the wind blow all the while
Don’t you say I do it, ain’t nobody caught me
You sure got to prove it on me.

Say I do it, ain’t nobody caught me
Sure got to prove it on me.

I went out last night with a crowd of my friends,
It must’ve been women, ’cause I don’t like no men.
Wear my clothes just like a fan
Talk to the gals just like any old man

Cause they say I do it, ain’t nobody caught me
Sure got to prove it on me.”

Faderman notes that the lesbian character in this song would have been laughed at (due to being a caricature) but also cheered on for her boldness.

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