The Capaciousness of the Erotic in Classic Era Women’s Blues: Interrogating Black Female Homoeroticism Through Gloria Wekker’s Analysis of Matiism

Sister Rosetta Tharpe in 1940 — Source: Getty Images

The sexuality of Black women and femmes who love other women knows no bounds. In her piece “Mati­-ism and Black Lesbianism,” Gloria Wekker discusses the complexities and numerous possibilities of diasporic female same-sex intimacy. In Suriname, the Sranan Tongo word “mati” is meant to describe women who engage in sexual relationships with other women, while simultaneously carrying out relationships with men, oftentimes bearing children as well (Wekker, 398). Mati is not a unilateral path, and its embeddedness in a working-class Africanist culture makes the opportunity for queer means of relation possible (Wekker, 368). A constellation of practices between women and women, and sometimes men, mati transcends the sexual; and the very capaciousness of matiism becomes illuminated when Wekker places these Afro-Surinamese relationships in conversation with the cultural frame of Black lesbianism.

In North America, Wekker argues Black lesbianism has taken on an “exclusive spirit,” particularly in regards to its “egocentric” capacity, which is often revealed in the attitudes towards men (Wekker, 377–79). Failing to resist the primacy placed on individualism in the Western world, Black lesbianism has reduced sexuality into a domain predicated upon rigid understandings of female-to-female intimacy. Conversely, grounded in the communalism of mati culture, a woman may fall in love with a man and take up a sexual relationship with a woman, in unison, or in any particular order or arrangement she desires (Wekker, 373). Mati relationships are able to flourish without begging for definition or boundaries, it is a formation akin to the idea of ‘one big family,’ with a matrifocal quality (Wekker, 373). The self is a sociocentric body in the mati tradition, a by-product of the collective (Wekker, 378). As such, the dichotomy between mati expressions of Black female homoeroticism and Black lesbianism, which internalizes the white supremacist notion that ‘we must name ourselves in order to know ourselves’ (Wekker, 377), is articulated through a conversation between Astrid Roemer and Audre Lorde, who share in a dialogue about their mutual crises of naming, and its importance (Wekker, 375–77).

Our Mutual Crises of Naming

Audre Lorde in her home study, Staten Island, NY

To Roemer, if she loves a woman, “I love that one woman, and one swallow does not make a summer…” she goes on, Who is to say whether I shall not love a man in my later life? (Wekker, 375)” Together, Roemer and Lorde consciously hold in consideration the question of whether or not it is crucial that diasporic women who love other women call themselves “Black lesbians” (Wekker, 375–77). Must the name(s) we use to call ourselves be shared by others — or can we have new names, and different names? Must our language always be shared, particularly the language that gives voice to our identities? Roemer poses this fateful question: Do names kill or create things (Wekker, 376)? Lorde replies back to her with another pivotal inquiry, “And who are we naming ourselves in service of? (Wekker, 376)Lorde would pray for each of us that the answer is not fear. As they contemplate this series questions on naming, and others, Roemer and Lorde ultimately settle on different sides of the diasporic horizon: Lorde proclaiming that the language of “Black lesbian” defines the core of her being (Wekker, 377), and Roemer deciding that there are some things that ought not to be given names. The diaspora is not homogenous, so what are we to do with names?

Surinamese author, Astrid Roemer

In Amsterdam, during the summer of 1986, Lorde and Roemer sat down together for a dialogue (Wekker, 375), begging the same questions on naming that their foremothers settled before them in the midnight reverberations of tent revival performances springing up across a pastoral landscape. Black women in early twentieth-century America who sang the blues declared in their songs that there is a critical difference between being “nameless” and “un-nameable.” Their expressions constructed an aesthetic space where the spirit and sexuality could embody its queerness, and their performances gave vitality to the prescient notion that the erotic fascination between diasporic women who love other women is capacious in its possibilities. ‘The erotic as nameless’ poses a powerful challenge to white and male supremacies, and queer Black women who sang the postbellum American blues engaged and resolved their crises of naming, by refusing the obligation to name themselves at all.

The Capaciousness of the Erotic in Queer Women’s Blues

Resting in the pocket of African American sonic innovation, the blues of Black women urged its listener to embody her full erotic self and to embrace all of her contradictions without the pursuit of a label. The blues operating as a vessel translating sound across the delta and hill country, performances by Black women during the blues’ classic era were able to hold brutality and its foil: tenderness, passion and disaffection, uncertainty and knowledge, lack and excess. These women, and thus the genre’s embrace of the multifaceted forecloses the need to search for definition, or name. According to Angela Davis, this is the “unadorned realism” of the blues (23). Its realness is evidenced through the blues’ capacity to hold the contradictory in conversation with itself. These conditions of aesthetic reality where the blues was sung and ultimately felt, allowed Black women the ability to become unconcerned with the task of banishing social taboos.

A blues singer emerging in the vaudeville scene of the 1920s, Lucille Bogan built her career writing, “songs about her experiences as a sex worker, her encounters with violent men, her drinking dependency…and her sexual affinity for women (Day).” In her “Shave Em’ Dry” blues, keys pulse and lift Lucille Bogan setting her free to praise her womanly embodiment and power. She proudly declares:

I got nipples on my titties, big as the end of my thumb

I got somethin’ between my legs’ll make a dead man come.” (Shave ’Em Dry)

She knows you will assume what it is that she’s got that will make a deceased man open his eyes at his own wake. A site of contradiction and messiness which confounds a preoccupation with naming, in both their songs and imaginations, critic and scholar Albert Murray suggests: Blues women allowed the contents of their music and performances to be held in “antagonistic cooperation” with one another (Murray, 3). By the end of Lucille Bogan’s “Shave Em’ Dry” blues, she announces, “my cock is made of brass (1935).” Bogan lets her lover know, “I would fuck you, baby, honey I’d make you cry (1935).” A woman with both breasts and a phallus, Bogan’s embrace of contradiction operates to trouble the very notion of patriarchy and assumptions regarding the female sexed body. Abandoning the prisons of gender and sex altogether, Bogan formulates and retrieves an idea of the erotic that confounds heteropatriarchy and heterosexuality. “Shave Em’ Dry” blues fucks up gender, femininity, romantic sexual love, and Christian monogamy.

The presentations of sexuality that blues women put forth were primarily unconcerned with tact, or whether or not their performances signified something empowering or respectable as bell hooks suggests in Selling Hot Pussy (hooks). On the contrary, “…the blues registered sexuality a tangible expression of freedom; it was this dimension that most profoundly marked the secularity of the blues (Davis, 8).” Encountering Christianity’s colonization of Black spirituality at the time, blues singers were often thought to have made a pact with the devil, particularly due to their embrace of sexuality as a matter of private and public expression, which was equated with sin (Davis, 120–137). Despite the postbellum Black church’s distaste for the blues, the genre need not banish religion (Davis, 133); instead, it creates a divine encounter of its own. Thinking of the blues as Black and queer women’s resistance to Christianity, its performance in spaces such as the “tent revival” imply a religiosity of its own making. Queering the concept of the church revival, the blues as religion provides a sonic and tangible communal space to challenge the heteronormativity, homophobia, and misogynoir of Black Christianity.

Embracing Incompleteness in the Blues

In many ways, the blues genre operates as farce, as do its performers’ understandings of their sexual and erotic selves (Murray, 6–7). In the context of the music, all categories are embraced, enabling the blues singer, listener, and spectator to deal with feeling — but not without contention. Embracing incompleteness, ambivalence and uncertainty, within blues idiom, one can be both made and destroyed by adversity. Reality has no regard for the politics of respectability, it is “unadorned (Davis, 23),” cold-hard, and often warm, truth.

When one listens to the work of classic blues women like Ma Rainey and Bessie Smith, there is no tightly-knit plot, nor space for naming what it is one feels in the act of listening. Rather, the blues is best understood as a means of testifying, enshrined in a confit of ambiguity and contradiction. It is an erotic expression on Audre Lorde’s terms, where the fullness of what we have the potential to feel while experiencing the blues holds more weight than naming the very nature of our own blues. In music’s sonic embrace, one need not be complete or whole, but rather open to the possibilities beyond one’s self. During the post-Emancipation period in the United States, when Black women sang about their intimate relationships and lives in equivocal ways, they functioned to create an aesthetic ecology where a Black woman’s becoming was allowed to be capacious and complicated in its possibilities. A woman’s struggles needn’t be named because, in the pocket of the blues, feeling is acceptable knowledge. Invoking a Black feminist ideology of the experience as evidentiary; what is personal in the songs of Blues women is simultaneously political.

Sexual Sovereignty: Queering Language and Embodiment

In her chapter “I Used to Be Your Sweet Mama,” Angela Davis argues that sexual sovereignty was among the most tangible domains in which Emancipation was acted upon and through which meaning was expressed for early twentieth-century Black women in the United States (Davis, 3–41). While heteronormative love was not necessarily romanticized by early blues women, their songs established intimacy’s rightful place in blues discourse (Davis, 23). Davis writes, “blues women had no qualms about announcing female desire…Such affirmations of sexual autonomy and open expressions of female desire give historical voice to possibilities of equality not articulated elsewhere (24).” As such, an onslaught of non-traditional aspects of lived love and sexual relationships pervade the blues.

Arrested in 1925 for her participation in an orgy with other women, canonical women’s blues singer Gertrude “Ma” Rainey responded to rumors regarding her lesbianism in song (Day). Recorded in 1928, in her “Prove It on Me Blues (1928)”, “Ma” Rainey dares her audience to catch her in a homosexual love affair. Declaring that in her song that she could, “talk to the gals just like any old man (“Gertrude ‘Ma’ Rainey — Prove It On Me Blues”),” Rainey goes on to sing:

It’s true I wear a collar and 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.” (“Prove It On Me Blues”)

“Prove It On Me Blues” by Gertrude “Ma” Rainey (1928)

Performing the blues around the same time as Rainey was also Gladys Bentley, a full-figured, openly-queer woman who became a seminal figure of the Harlem blues scene (“Obscure Queer Blues”). Described as “masculine-garbed smut singing entertainer (Shah),” Bentley’s embodiment and songs yanked at the cult of heteropatriarchal femininity. Frequently adorning herself in a brimming top hat, hair chopped short and a white three-piece suit, Bentley was known to sing at gay-friendly clubs throughout New York and Chicago; where she was often accompanied on-stage by a cohort of drag performers (Rodger). In “Queer(y)ing Freedom,” Livermon writes: “…black queer struggles for recognition and respect are less about a challenge to the state…than about a challenge to how black subjectivity is performed and imagined as heteronormative in the public sphere. Black queers actively challenge how their bodies are marked as the constitutive outside of blackness (299).” The voices and bodies of Rainey, Bentley, and hundreds of other women both recorded and lost to history challenge the continuous conceptualization of Black female sexuality as a position of powerlessness. Furthermore, their deliberate choices of embodiment and style pose necessary challenges to heteropatriarchal conceptions of the Black woman’s role.

Using coded erotic language in their songs, Davis reminds us that “the realism of the blues does not confine us to literal interpretations (Davis, 24),” Through language, in particular, blues women troubled the assumption of naming as a necessity, destabilizing its listener’s own security in language. Similar to Wekker’s explanation of the language associated with “mati,” the blues’ embrace of language functions similarly to matiism’s understanding of language, that it cannot be all-encompassing. In both realms, language is not wholly adequate. Both matiism and the blues require the recognition that people speak in “mutually unintelligible tongues,” and it is this “unintelligibility” that marks both domains as powerful. The term “mati” can mean many things, and similarly, blues expressions of Black female sexuality possess a capacious quality — where meaning is found only through the erotic engagement of its source. The language of the blues means nothing if one cannot feel it, and mati relationships are ultimately defined by what is felt between its practitioners, not the label itself.

Their songs chock-full of cunning antics, sly tricks, a woman ‘getting her loving,’ and making use of a man, with so much at work in the artistry of blues women, the language offered in their songs cannot be accepted at face value. Although a song by the openly gay male blues singer George Hannah, his record with Meade Lux Lewis called “The Boy in the Boat” (1930) speaks to the use of coded erotic language in the American blues (“Obscure Queer Blues”). An innuendo for the clitoris, upon listening closer to his Midwestern blues, Hannah is revealed to be about same-sex intimacy between and amongst women, he sings:

“Talking about that boy in the boat.

When you see two women walking hand in hand.

Just look ’em over and try to understand.

They’ll go to these parties have their lights down low.

Only those parties where women can go. (“The Boy in the Boat”)

Described as an “effeminate-sounding” man, George Hannah’s proximity to the traditionally feminine voice fucks up heteropatriarchal gender-roles (“Obscure Queer Blues”). Not only affirming the capaciousness of female same-sex intimacy, Hannah furthermore queers the blues environment by necessitating a negotiation of the space and place men hold within communities of women.

The artistry of Blues women collapsed binary distinctions characteristic of Western society. In Bessie Jackson’s “BD Women’s Blues” (1935), an openly queer classic-era song, Jackson troubles the incarcerating notion of the woman as heteropatriarchally feminine (“Obscure Queer Blues”). An abbreviation for the term ‘bull dyke” or “bull dagger,meant to describe a butch (or masculine) woman who loves other woman, Jackson sings:

“B.D. women, they all done learnt their plan

They can lay their jive just like a natural man…

…B.D. women, you know they sure is rough

They all drink up plenty whiskey and they sure will strut their stuff.”

(“B.D. Women’s Blues”)

Constructing the subjects of her song in stereotypically masculine roles, Jackson troubles the notion that a man and women’s domain are separate. Furthermore, she constructs a sonic space where Black women are freed from heteropatriarchal standards for their behavior, relationships and embodiment.

Homoeroticism in Diasporic Working-Class Communities

Through their music, Black women who sang the blues offered each of us the possibility of singing, feeling, and embodying a space where one’s personal life could be linked to a broader site of struggle. Davis writes: “Sexuality is not privatized in the blues. Rather, it is represented as a shared experience that is socially produced (91).” Going against the conventions of “property” which enforces individual ownership, rather than pursuing a shared registry of names to call ourselves, in the sonic embrace of the blues, we are each assured: we will still find each other. And thus, it was true. In the evening air of tent revivals and other performances, queer women and femmes found one another, in whatever spaces swinging piano keys and skin-stripping guitar strings were able to penetrate. In the context of the blues, naming incarcerates and it is woefully unproductive. We don’t need names, but rather by being with one another, we can remember how we are truly in relation, and how to reconcile all that we have forgotten.

Through antagonistic storytellings of desire, loss, poverty, and womanhood, oftentimes accompanied by sanguine piano blues, queer Black female singers gave life to the un-nameable. Here, in the company of their blues, a space of boundless sexual and erotic expression is possible — it is sufficient to feel rather than name all of what we are. Lending credence to the erotic as Lorde defines it, and utilizing the power of the fullness in which we have the capacity to feel is a particularly working-class diasporic sentiment (Lorde, 54). In the context of the lives of poor and laboring Black women recently emancipated in the United States and working-class mati women in Suriname, both communities of women operationalize their sexuality, kinship-networks, and propensity for feeling in order to sustain themselves.

In working-class diasporic communities, Wekker argues that there is, “a certain tolerance of homosexuality in the working classes, as long as it does not bear a name (373).” Importantly, this tolerance of queerness in working-class communities dismantles hegemonic perceptions of homophobia across the diaspora. Similarly, Davis illuminates, “the historical affirmation of sexuality as a part of working-class oppositional consciousness in the black community (131),” which was a defining element of the women’s blues — specifically its’s embrace of homoeroticism. These non-normative practices not only freed women, but allowed them to have access to their own definitions of the erotic in empowering ways. As a result, many of the performances of blues women embody a queer sensibility without always calling it by name, and mati relationships’ rejection of monogamous-heterosexuality produce a space where the sexuality of Black women is acknowledged as effectual. Consequently, the erotic is transformed into a site of possibility and power (Lorde, 56).

What to Do With Men?

Both in the blues and matiism, men can and ought to be used; and this does not write off the possibility of loving them, or women. Matiism does not refuse men, and as Wekker describes, “Mati typically are working-class women, whose claims to social status lie in their capability to mobilize and manipulate kin networks (378).” This perspective is aligned, to some degree, with the experiences of some African American women who were able to enter the blues industry in the early decades following Reconstruction.

Although in some cases, performing and recording the blues offered women greater economic possibilities, oftentimes, the likelihood of breaking into the industry were slim, and a matter of whose ears one could garner. Edith North Johnson’s career is a testament to the idea of relation as capital. Although the date of her wedding is unknown, Edith was married to Jesse Johnson, an entrepreneur and record producer in St. Louis. He owned a cab company and a restaurant, and all of his businesses bore the modest name “Deluxe (Owsley).” Perhaps not a misnomer, by the end of the 1920s Jesse Johnson’s record business was booming, and towards the end of the 1940s, nationally recognized jazz musicians were playing after hours each night in his café (Owsley). Edith North Johnson was introduced to the blues in her husband’s record store, where she sang along to the music playing throughout the shop. At the height of her husband’s career, she began to record the bulk of her work.

I don’t intend to disparage Edith North’s contributions by implying that her flowers belong to her husband, or to derail this paper’s discussion of homoeroticism between Black women by engaging in a discussion of Johnson’s heterosexual relationship with a man. However, Johnson herself might not argue that there are tricks a woman must play to get what she needs from a man; and sometimes a woman needs to sing the blues. Moreover, the erotic domain is so capacious that is able to accommodate this iteration of eroticism articulated by Edith North Johnson. In her song “Eight Hour Woman,” Johnson gingerly suggests, “Don’t you know I’m that certain kind of woman all men hope to find someday (Johnson, Eight Hour Woman)?” She’s really no trouble to please at all she politely assures you, “You know, it don’t take much to make me happy, eight hours and bring me all your pay (Johnson, Eight Hour Woman).” There are uses for a man, and Edith North Johnson’s marriage provided her with access to the midwestern blues industry and much more.

Following her husband’s death, Edith North Johnson assumed control and ownership of his businesses: the Deluxe Taxicab Co., the Deluxe Hotel, and the Deluxe Record Shop (Newspapers). While a man need not benevolently give a woman all of his pay as “Eight Hour Woman” explicitly suggests, Johnson’s song is transparent in its expression that loving a man, and being in relation to him, may have the potential to fulfill a woman’s needs. Not much is known about Johnson’s romantic or intimate life following her husband’s death, but the capaciousness of Black female sexuality suggest that the possibility cannot be written off that there were moments in her later life where hetero-eroticism and homoeroticism blended and bled. Wekker describes matiism as a “comprehensive and inclusive movement,” which possesses a “centripetal” quality (Wekker, 377). As such, in both the blues and mati tradition, a woman’s sexuality can lay claim to more than just the object of her intimate affection. Men are not romanticized in either context, however, they are present in each formation — an aspect of relation Black lesbianism tends to ignore.

The blues is also not complicit in the discussion of male abuse, classic-era performances by blues women were one of the few cultural sites where a discourse on male violence could be established (Davis, 25). In many cases, this reality of harm inflicted by men has led many women to warble on in their blues about wanting nothing at all to do with a man; and turning towards women instead. At the age of twelve, Alberta Hunter fled her home in Memphis, Tennessee for Chicago where she would begin her career singing in brothels and nightclubs (“Alberta Hunter”). A classic era blues singers during the 1920s — 1940s, early in her career, Hunter experienced a brief marriage to a man. Refusing to ever consummate her union (“Alberta Hunter”), the end of Hunter’s marriage was preceded by a catalog of blues tunes on the appeal of women and the pleasures of female company (“Alberta Hunter Residence”).

These songs elevated Hunter to a canonical level of recognition, on par with other lesbian blues singers like Gertrude “Ma” Rainey and Ethel Waters (UBLEP). Across Hunter’s career, she engaged in an on-again, off-again Chicago-based love affair with a woman by the name of Lottie Tyler (“Alberta Hunter Residence”). Although Alberta Hunter expressed her queer identity in ambiguous, often subaltern terms, it was not always obvious in her music what gender Hunter’s love object was. Nevertheless, her performances resonated with queer audiences, and her descriptions of troubled love affairs and her lived-love relationship with Lottie Tyler constitute a space where homoeroticism between Black women is affirmed (UBLEP). When Alberta Hunter presides over the record in “Someone Else Will Take Your Place (1923)” she tells her man, “hit that thing, big boy!” and to get on, because “when you’re leaving me, pretty baby. Someone else will take your place.”

Conclusion

To be a woman who loves other women is to be incomplete; to perpetually undergo a process of becoming. Under these conditions, the pursuit of names and categories has the capacity to stifle the erotic as a source of liberation. The blues defies these boundaries, reconstituting and prioritizing feeling as a way of knowing ourselves. In sum, the existence of such a capacious homoerotic formation such as matiism, and the ample room for the erotic offered in Black women’s blues reveal that there is no one single way to be a diasporic woman who loves other women. Both traditions work to trouble the notion of a unitary experience between diasporic women and refuse to seek the homogenizing labels that Western Black feminism offers many Black women and femmes. This is the fatal implication of language: it has the potential to smooth over the very contours and nuances of Black female erotic and sexual life that make it a realm of such vast possibility. The blues makes evident the very insufficiency of language as an agent of storytelling. It is only in conjunction with the erotic, on Audre Lorde’s terms, that we can refuse the desire to name ourselves, and turn to the practice of feeling as evidence of our knowing ourselves and each other.

In the context of the blues, singing as a form of expression gives vitality to one’s feelings, and this is the locus of one’s erotic power. One must experience the erotic for themselves, and it cannot be experienced second-hand (Lorde). Blues women from the 1920s through 1940s, in their performances and recordings, constructed a space where individual’s erotic transcendence was possible — in a space of community, and it could be queer. Resting in the pocket of the postbellum blues, Black women and femmes did not need names to find one another. Instead, we are offered the possibility of embracing ourselves, and one another, in our entirety; and particularly in our contradictions. Within earshot of the Black women of the blues, women are free to love one another in its full capaciousness, and it is sufficient to be everything at once, because the erotic lives of Black women are un-nameable, not nameless.

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