‘Tain’t Nobody’s Bizness if I Do

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.
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