An Empowering Queerness in HBO’s “Bessie”

In my modest understanding of race in the early 20th century, what is perhaps hardest for me to wrap my head around in the 21st century is the sheer extent to which segregation and racism physically and socially undermined black people. The violence that Bessie Smith and her peers had to experience on a day to day basis demonstrated the stark realities of living in America at a time when racism was accepted and encouraged. I found HBO’s Bessie particularly interesting in that it demonstrated how Bessie used the blues and her masculinity to fight back against the systems of oppression that either used Bessie’s talent for financial gains (in the case of cheap venue owners and labels refusing to offer royalties) or, like the KKK and, more generally the southern white demographic, attempted to stifle her career altogether.

The movie portrayed Bessie’s masculine queerness not only as a part of her identity but also as a necessary defense mechanism that allowed her to achieve fame and maintain a degree of independence that she literally spilled blood to attain. Would Bessie have the same masculinity and confrontational demeanor if she didn’t have to incessantly defend herself against attacks on her identity in the volatile South? Like Ma Rainey, Bessie uses her butchness to empower herself and establish her individuality. As Angeline Davis notes, “[slave music] was collectively performed and it gave expression to the community’s yearning for freedom” (4). If we understand Bessie’s butch attitude and “intellectual independence” (3) to be a product of post-slavery racism and segregation, the butch blues is not far removed from the slave music that preceded Bessie and Ma Rainey. Davis reiterates that, “for recently emancipated slaves, freely chosen sexual love became a mediator of between historical disappointment and the new social realities of an evolving African-American community” (10).  Bessie’s blues is both an evolution of earlier slave music and a historical reflection that attempts to redefine blackness through the public display of her sexuality, confidence and pride. Additionally, the black community’s acceptance of Bessie’s crossdressing demonstrates a larger culture that celebrates the exaggerated identity of Bessie Smith as a departure from slavery in which black individuals were not allowed self expression or identity. 

Leave a Reply