2 Black Queer Women in History Who Blazed Trails and Weed
By: DM Blunted
In honor of Pride month, I wanted to celebrate two Black Queer Womxn in history, who blazed trails and weed at the same damn time! These iconic Black Queer Womxn are just two of the many other Black female jazz musicians of the ’20s and ’30s who embraced their sexuality. Which was no small feat. Bessie Smith and Josephine Baker spent their lives defying their adversaries. And while they lived their lives to the fullest every day, even in their success, they still had to fight against respectability, politics, misogynoir, homophobia, and anti-blackness.
Elizabeth “Bessie” Smith got her first taste of the blues singing at her hometown church choir, in Chattanooga, Tennessee. And as a young adult, she got her first taste of the spotlight dancing in a chorus for another queer jazz legend, Ma Reiny. Reiny, also known as the “Mother of Blues,” saw the raw talent (and rumors say beauty as well) in Smith and helped her cultivate it - and in no time Smith was headlining her own shows. By the early 1920s, Smith was signed to Columbia Records and had her first hit record “Downhearted Blues.” This kicked off Smith’s iconic jazz career and quickly made her one of the highest paid black musicians at the time. Smith wasn’t just known for her soulful and heart-wrenching voice but also for her sultry lyric content. She cooed songs about male and female lovers - as well as “reefer.” In her song “Boy in the Boat,” Smith sings,
"When you see two women walking hand in hand, just look ’em over and try to understand: They’ll go to those parties—have the lights down low—only those parties where women can go.” Even though Smith married men, it was known that she had affairs with other women, like chorus dancer, Lillian Simpson. It’s even rumored Smith and her mentor Reiny had a relationship at one point. But the fact stands that Smith lived her life openly and unabashedly in a time when it was legal to throw someone in jail for their sexulaity.
And in the last verse of her song, “Gimme a Pigfoot,” Smith adds the line, “Gimme a reefer.” Smith indulged in life, she enjoyed soul food, moonshine and a joint while never backing down from a fight. Seriously, she did tent shows throughout the south even though the KKK had threatened to collapse her tent and set it on fire. At one point a dozen KKK members did show up at her show only for them to be run off by Smith herself! Bessie continued to shake souls with her voice until her untimely passing in 1937, at the age of 43. She left this world with over 200 songs recorded for us to remember her by.
Listen to Bessie Smith singing St. Louis Blues
Freda Josephine McDonald, who later in life would rename herself Josephine Baker, was born in St. Louis Missouri. Before Josephine Baker moved to France and renounced her American citizenship, Baker was living a rough life on the streets, sleeping in cardboard boxes and scavenging trash cans for substance. But by the time she turned 15, her brother managed to get her an audition in a St. Louis chorus Vaudeville Show, where she soon became the “highest paid chorus girl in Vaudeville.” After a youth filled with anti-blackness, Baker left the States in 1925 for more forward-thinking France - and never looked back. Just as she had climbed the charts in Vaudeville she did the same in France. Her sensual and almost nude style of dance and perfectly timed satire had France mesmerized. After her iconic “Danse Sauvage”, you know the one, where she’s wearing rubber bananas around her waist and making them hips dutty whine - she was set to be a legend. White Parisians were swept off their wingtips and t-strap heels by Bakers performance and free spirit. Baker embraced the decadence of life with the finest clothes, jewels, and weed. In the book, “Josephine: The Hungry Heart” by Jean Claude (her son) and Chris Chase, Josephine reportedly would invite folks to join her for a smoke before she performed. And supposedly on the last night of a tour with her and Buddy Rich’s orchestra, Baker, “had this gorgeous gold loving cup made for Buddy and the band. A trophy, like an Academy Award, with our names engraved on it. And it was filled with marijuana.”
Jean Claude also notes that Baker was the same with her love. He estimates that she had her first queer relationship when she was only 14. This wasn’t a one-time thing. Jean Claude lists multiple Black women performers and artists that Baker had flings and relationships with.
But Baker wasn’t content with just being a star living in the lap of luxury. So when World War II broke out she wanted to help. Acting as a spy and informant Baker went to parties with high ranking officials, where she gathered information to write down on sheet music with invisible ink. Once the war was over Baker received the Croix de Guerre and Rosette de Resistance for her work in the French Resistance. And in the ’50s when she returned to the United States for a short visit and experienced the blatant racism she tried to escape when she was younger, she wanted to make a change. Aware that white men threw unimaginable amounts of money to see her perform in segregated venues, Baker started to refuse to dance in these places unless they desegregated the audience. Which in return forced clubs and venues to change their racist rules.
Watch this Josephine Baker Performance in 1927
We often forget or don’t even know, that it wasn’t until the early 60’s that it became illegal to jail and charge someone with a felony for being intimate with a same-sex partener. And to this day, many states still enforce archiac laws like this. We know that we live in a heteronormative society, that doesn’t want LGBTQ+ history apart of it. But I refuse to have these stories, where Black history, LGBTQ+ history, and Cannabis history intersect, be white-washed and erased. So tonight, while you’re soaking in a bath, with your favorite Kush Queen bath bomb - play some Bessie Smith and pray for a fraction of her strength to look your adversaries in the face.
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