Bessie Smith: Bisexual Icon

Besse posterHBO is in post-production on Bessie (dir Dee Rees, teleplay Christopher Cleveland), the Bessie Smith biopic and the LGBT community have fired up their pens to begin writing commentary. With Queen Latifah in the title role,  Mo’Nique playing Ma Rainey and Michael Kenneth Williams as Jack Gee there’s a lot to be excited about, especially as Bessie provides a fine opportunity to raise Bessie Smith to her rightful place as a keystone in our collective history. Autostraddle recently described her as a ‘queer pioneer’;  I say, that’s not good enough. She was not just queer. She was bisexual in every sense of the word. This is our opportunity as the bisexual community to speak up and claim her as our bisexual icon. She is a part of our legacy and in many ways was the original, bisexual, black feminist.

Bessie Smith was someone whose life and lyrics presented a challenge to the established order.  She was a rebel before rebelliousness became popular in mainstream America and she was most definitely bisexual.

Shiri Eisner tells us in Bi: Notes for a Bisexual Revolution, ‘bisexuality holds an enormous potential for subversion and disruption of the patriarchy’. Bessie Smith was the embodiment of this ‘enormous potential’. She performed songs about men, she married men, and still she chose to be with women as well. In her songs one can hear her deep distrust of the worst parts of normative in the early 20th century masculinity. Masculinity, as it has been defined in our patriarchal society, has always worked to uphold the dominance of men; Bessie Smith undermined that dominance both in her songs and in her personal life.

What was lovely about her is that she stood almost in exact contrast to the stereotype of a black woman at the time. She was boisterous. She was unapologetically sexual. Many historians say she was openly bisexual. She refused to back down. She loved to stand up in people’s faces when they crossed her.

Kai Wright

BessiesmithSmith was certainly no stranger to misogyny throughout her life. The way men approached her, was the same way they approached all women during that time, considered property of husband or father regardless of their successes outside of the domestic sphere. Her highest profile marriage, to Jack Gee who she met in 1922 while performing a cabaret in Philadelphia, has been described as a volatile and violent one.  Bessie was generous with the money she made as a recording artist; she went on drinking binges and she had affairs with various women. She was the original fire brand, independent woman. In response to this ‘misbehavior’, Gee grew increasingly violent and controlling while Bessie continued to live her life the way she saw fit.  In 1929, she ended her relationship with Jack Gee after she found him having an affair with one of her chorus girls.  It is rumored that she shot at him while he ran down the train tracks to escape her rage.

In a world in which women, and especially black women, were not allowed to have a voice, she spoke out forcefully and loudly. Bessie Smith upended the idea that a woman’s place was in the home, subservient to her man, with no expectations of sexual fulfillment. In Sam Jones Blues she speaks to the radical notion that a woman is not defined by marriage to a man:

You ain’t talkin’ to Mrs. Jones
You speakin’ to Miss Wilson now
I used to be your lawful mate
But the judge done changed my fate
Was a time you could-a’ walked right in
And call this place your home sweet home
But now it’s all mine, for all time
I’m free and livin’ all alone

“For the first time in the history of the African presence in North America, masses of black women and men were in a position to make autonomous decisions regarding the sexual partnerships into which they entered” says Angela Davis in Blues Legacies and Black Feminism.  The modern bisexual movement shares this ideal of choice; although a woman can be attracted multiple genders, she can chose to be with another woman. It is in the act of choosing that she presents a challenge to the dominant heteronormative narrative and empowers herself.

Says Samantha C. Tenorio:

[t]he lyrics of the blues provide a glimpse into this [sexual] autonomy. […] Blues artists like Gertrude “Ma” Rainey and Bessie Smith often sing of a woman who has sexual agency […] but more importantly, is not afraid to stand up to the middle-class ideology of what it means to be a “true woman”.

Women-Loving Women: Queering Black Urban Space during the Harlem Renaissance (.pdf)

stlouis_blues_1929Many of Bessie Smith’s songs are filled with sexual innuendo, which in and of itself was not common at the time.  But what is even more remarkable, is that the women in these songs, clearly have sexual agency. I Want a Little Sugar in my Bowl and Empty Bed Blues are two of the more well known songs in which the protagonist spells out just what she wants in no uncertain terms.

Bisexuals often lament the fact that we have so little cultural heritage not realizing that we do have history, it’s just been buried by an unchecked biphobia that tries to silence us. We don’t have to build a culture from the ground up.  It is already there.  We just need to recognize and celebrate people like Bessie Smith who blazed a revolutionary trail before we were even born.  In the book Jazz People, Guitarist Danny Barker says “Bessie Smith was a fabulous deal to watch. She was a pretty large woman and […] she dominated a stage. You didn’t turn your head when she went on. You just watched Bessie”. Take a listen sometime to her voice and you will hear defiance, pride, power, and a force of presence that is hard to describe using words.  One of my personal favorites – though it is so hard to chose just one – is ‘Tain’t Nobody’s Bizness if I Do. It could very well be our own bisexual anthem.

 

There ain’t nothing I can do or nothing I can say
That folks don’t criticize me
But I’m going to do just as I want to anyway
And don’t care if they all despise me

If I should take a notion
To jump into the ocean
‘Tain’t nobody’s business if I do, do, do, do

If I go to church on Sunday
Sing the shimmy down on Monday
Ain’t nobody’s business if I do, if I do…

 

Bessie will be released in the USA on 16th May 2015. No UK release date is currently available.

 

Image 1: Bessie promotional poster courtesy HBO.

Image 2: “Bessie Smith in 1932” by Carl Van Vechten [Public domain].

Image 3: Poster of the movie St. Louis Blues (1929) , unknown author [Public domain].

The following two tabs change content below.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *