The following is a guest post by Cookie Woolner, author of The Famous Lady Lovers: Black Women and Queer Desire before Stonewall which is now available wherever books are sold.
Extraordinary in its scope and inventiveness to focus on their intimate lives . . . . Woolner’s beautiful prose and writing style makes this book a delight to read. Academics and general readers alike will be drawn to it.Starred review, Library Journal
I am thrilled to finally see the publication of my first book, The Famous Lady Lovers: Black Women and Queer Desire before Stonewall. But as the research for it began over a decade ago, I had no idea that when my book finally reached the shelves, there would be such a tumultuous political landscape. From the overturning of Roe to laws banning trans healthcare and drag shows, to the censorship of African American history, LGBTQ-themed books, and the ending of gender studies departments, the US is experiencing a backlash to much of the social progress made in recent decades. A book such as mine could easily be banned from school libraries in the current moment, and that saddens and angers me, because the story of the past that it tells is one that should be more widely known.
My book’s full title speaks to the common notion that modern LGBTQ history doesn’t start until the Stonewall Uprising of 1969, which is often held up as the beginning of queer activism and visibility in the US. The Famous Lady Lovers begins exactly one hundred years ago, in the early 1920s, focusing on how factors from the Great Migration to Prohibition and the rise of the popular entertainment industry created a fertile ground for Black queer women’s social networks to form in northern cities like New York and Chicago. And Black “lady lovers”—as queer women were then known—didn’t just find one another, they were central figures in creating American culture and subcultures in the 1920s and 30s, which were pivotal decades in modern history.
I had no idea that when my book finally reached the shelves, there would be such a tumultuous political landscape.
For example, blues singer Bessie Smith, educator Lucy Diggs Slowe, and writer and activist Alice Dunbar-Nelson, played central roles in popular music, activism, and education between the world wars. They had relationships with women on their own as well as while married to men, which was often challenging but seen as worth the difficulty. Black lady lovers created unconventional relationships despite the dominant social beliefs that queerness was pathological, criminal, and unnatural at this time. They created blueprints that modern young women would follow and draw on for generations to come. They expanded options for women’s lives outside of marriage and motherhood, focusing on their careers and alternative kinship forms.
In some ways, our current moment has a lot in common with the early twentieth century: we’re in a time of prosperity for a small elite, and queer identities have become more visible than ever, which is leading to pushback. It’s also an era of racial violence, although racially motivated shootings and police violence capture the headlines more than lynchings and race riots.
Blues singer Bessie Smith, who became one of the first African American celebrities of the twentieth century, selling hundreds of thousands of records, still had to deal with the racial violence of the Jim Crow era—once even having to fend off the KKK at a southern tent show. And her friend and elder mentor Ma Rainey, known as the “Mother of the Blues,” still had to use the back entrance when arriving at northern recording studios in the interwar era. While Rainey teased her audience about her sexuality with songs like “Prove It on Me Blues,” Smith did not even bring up queerness in song unless trying to distance herself from it. Their lives embodied the tensions of a society that was not able to fully embrace Black queer women in all their complexity.
Black lady lovers created unconventional relationships despite the dominant social beliefs that queerness was pathological, criminal, and unnatural at this time.
Today, the search for queer community and gathering spaces takes place virtually as well as in “brick and mortar” spaces for multiple reasons, from convenience and accessibility to COVID safety. But regardless of how one finds their people, I hope my book serves as a reminder that even in difficult times, queer people, and Black queer women in particular, have always found one another and created connections and networks of care to sustain themselves and create the lives they desired. To ban such histories and pretend Black queer subcultures have not been around for over a hundred years is to make our lives and our knowledge of the past smaller.
As sobering as current events are, historians such as myself know better than most that “progress” does not just journey upward and onward, but rather, such backlashes occur regularly. As I tell my students, history isn’t so much about memorizing names and dates but about understanding a shifting power struggle between different ideas and interests. The fight for power is always in motion and never settled. In this current moment, I hope that reading about bold women who created queer relationships and social circles amidst the Jim Crow and Great Depression era will remind others that when politicians and the state fails us, mutual aid and community ties can sustain us.
Cookie Woolner is associate professor of history at the University of Memphis.