On Wednesday Oct. 28, the Arcus Center for Social Justice Leadership along with the History Department and Women and Gender Studies Department brought to campus a lecture on same sex desire during the jazz age.
Dr. Cookie Woolner, a professor of Women and Gender Studies here at Kalamazoo College, shared some of her research on well-known black lady lovers in the Jim Crow Era with K students, faculty, and staff. Before digging into her findings, Dr. Taylor Petrey, the director of Woolner’s department, introduced her to the packed lobby.
Dr. Woolner began by explaining the terminology she uses in her work and upcoming book. The phrase “lady lover” is used as a way to describe women who love women. She also uses the term “queer” interchangeably. This was the language used by black and white communities during the jazz age.
Dr. Woolner introduced her audience to four famed black women: Ethel Waters, Gertrude “Ma” Rainey, Bessie Smith, and Gladys Bentley. All were in, or were rumored to have been in, same sex relationships throughout their careers.
With artists who were known to be queer, Woolner explained that their producers often fabricated stories of marriage proposals on every night of tours to detract from the sexual orientation of the musician. They thought that broadcasting that their performers were lady lovers was not good for business.
During this era, many newspapers were publishing articles on lady lovers. Woolner noted that in the black press, lady lovers were outed for anyone to read and some writers even included the full name and address of the women mentioned. These articles sensationalized and dehumanized black queer culture simultaneously.
One headline that makes this abundantly clear is from The New York Age, published in 1926: “Woman Rivals for Affection of another Woman Battle with Knives, and One Has Head Almost Severed from Body”. The article explains that at a party full of lady lovers, all of varying degrees of drunken-ness, emotions escalated to the point of knife-fighting. This article, as did many others of the time, linked this violence not with the excessive amounts of alcohol, but with the unnatural desires of lady lovers.
During the reception following the lecture, Dr. Woolner sat with students and heard their reactions to her research.
Sara Lonsberry K’19 said, “I thought it was really interesting. It was a topic I didn’t think about before… I would like to know more, to actually be in her class.”
Dr. Woolner is teaching “Queer Black History” next term.