During this year’s African-American history month, I’ve come across a number of different lists highlighting the achievements of the prominent black, lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) people among us – including right here on AfterEllen.com.
When I started writing the book Black, Gifted & Gay five years ago, such lists were few and far between. Their prevalence now reinforces how far we’ve come as a community over the past few years. I feel lucky to be alive during this moment in history – when LGBT people can serve openly in the military, when our fight for marriage equality moves forward state by state, and when our children learn about equality in school.
In the midst of all this progress, it’s more critical than ever to remember those who came before us. These 10 African-American women – most of whom never had the luxury of living their lives openly – were just a few among many who paved the way for African-Americans, feminists and lesbians alike. We are the direct descendants of their struggles and their sacrifices. The freedoms we enjoy today are a realization of their vision and their aspirations. We owe each of them a deep debt of gratitude that we can’t possibly repay. All we can do is acknowledge the legacy they’ve left us as an inheritance – and do our best to build on it for the next generation.
Gertrude “Ma” Rainey (1886-1939)
Ma Rainey was the first Vaudeville entertainer to incorporate the blues into her performances, which led to her to – perhaps justifiably – become known as the “Mother of the Blues.” Although she was married, Rainey was known to take women as lovers, and her song “Prove It on Me Blues” directly references her preference for male attire and female companionship. Rainey often found herself in trouble with the police for her lesbian behavior, including an incident in 1925 when she was arrested for taking part in an orgy at home involving women in her chorus. Bessie Smith bailed her out of jail.
Zora Neale Hurston (1891–1960)
Zora Neale Hurston was an American folklorist, anthropologist, and author during the Harlem Renaissance. During her lifetime, she published four novels and more than 50 short stories, plays and essays. She is perhaps best known for her novel Their Eyes Were Watching God, published in 1937. Today, nearly every black woman writer of significance – including Maya Angelou, Toni Morrison, and Alice Walker – acknowledges Hurston as a key influence. Although she was never public about her sexuality, the book Wrapped in Rainbows, the first biography of Zora Neale Hurston in more than 25 years, explores her deep friendships with luminaries such as Langston Hughes, her sexuality and short-lived marriages, and her mysterious relationship with vodou.
Bessie Smith (1894-1937)
Widely referred to as The Empress of the Blues, Bessie Smith is considered one of the most popular female blues singers of the 1920s and 1930s and is credited, along with Louis Armstrong, as a major influence on jazz vocalists to this day. Bessie Smith began her professional career in 1912 by singing with Ma Rainey and subsequently performed in various touring minstrel shows and cabarets. As a solo artist, Smith was an integral part of Columbia’s Race Records, and her albums each sold 20,000 copies or more. Although married to a man named Jack Gee, Smith had an ongoing affair with a chorus girl named Lillian Simpson.
Mabel Hampton (1902–1989)
Mabel Hampton was a dancer during the Harlem Renaissance and later became an LGBT historian, philanthropist and activist. She met her partner, Lillian Foster, in 1932 and the two stayed together until Foster’s death in 1978. Hampton marched in the first National Gay and Lesbian March on Washington, and she appeared in the films Silent Pioneers and Before Stonewall. In 1984, Hampton spoke at New York City’s Lesbian and Gay Pride Parade. Hampton’s collection of memorabilia, ephemera, letters and other records documenting her history are housed at the Lesbian Herstory Archives and provide a window into the lives of black women and lesbians during the Harlem Renaissance.
Josephine Baker (1906–1975)
Josephine Baker was the 20th century’s “first black sex symbol.” An American dancer, singer and actress, Baker renounced her American citizenship in 1937 to become French. Despite the fact she was based in Europe, she participated in the American Civil Rights Movement in her own way. She adopted adopting 12 multi-ethnic orphans (long before Angelina Jolie) whom she called the “Rainbow Tribe,” she refused to perform for segregated audiences (which helped to force the integration of performance venues in the United States) and she was the only woman invited to speak at the March on Washington with Martin Luther King, Jr. Although she was married four times, her biographers have since confirmed her multiple affairs with women, including Mexican artist Frida Kahlo.
Gladys Bentley (1907-1960)
Gladys Bentley was an imposing figure. She was a 250-pound, masculine, dark-skinned, deep-voiced jazz singer who performed all night long at Harlem’s notorious gay speakeasies during the Harlem Renaissance while wearing a white tuxedo and top hat. Bentley was notorious for inventing obscene lyrics to popular songs, performing with a chorus line of drag queens behind her piano, and flirting with women in her audience from the stage. Unlike many in her day, she lived her life openly as a lesbian and claimed to have married a white woman in Atlantic City. An article in Ebony magazine quoted her as saying, “It seems I was born different. At least, I always thought so …. From the time I can remember anything, even as I was toddling, I never wanted a man to touch me.”
Lorraine Hansberry (1930–1965)
Lorraine Hansberry was an African-American playwright and author. Her best known work, A Raisin in the Sun, was inspired by her family’s own battle against racial bias in Chicago. Hansberry explored controversial themes in her writings in addition to racism in America, including abortion, discrimination, and the politics of Africa. In 1957 she joined the lesbian organization Daughters of Bilitis and contributed letters to their magazine, The Ladder, that addressed feminism and homophobia. While she addressed her lesbian identity in the articles she wrote for the magazine, she wrote under the initials L.H. for fear of being discovered as a black lesbian.
Audre Lorde (1934–1992)
In her own words, Audre Lorde was a “black, lesbian, mother, warrior, poet.” Lorde began writing poetry at age 12 and published her first poem in Seventeen magazine at age 15. She helped found Kitchen Table: Women of Color Press, the world’s first publisher run by women of color, in 1980. Her poetry was published regularly throughout her life and she served as the State Poet of New York from 1991 to 1992. Lorde explored issues of class, race, age, gender and – after a series of cancer diagnoses — health, as being fundamental to the female experience. She died of liver cancer in 1992.
Barbara Jordan (1936–1996)
Representative Barbara Jordan (D-Texas) was the first African-American woman elected to Congress from a southern state. In 1976, she delivered the keynote address at the Democratic National Convention, marking the first time an African-American woman had ever done so. Her speech has since been ranked as one of the top 100 American Speeches of the 20th century and is considered by some historians to be among the best convention keynote speeches in modern history. Although Jordan never publicly acknowledged her sexual orientation, her Houston Chronicle obituary mentioned her longtime companion of more than 20 years, Nancy Earl. Her legacy inspired the Jordan Rustin Coalition, a Los Angeles-based organization dedicated to the empowerment of Black LGBT people and families.
June Jordan (1936-2002)
June Jordan was one of the most widely-published and highly-acclaimed African-American writers of her generation. A poet, playwright, speaker, teacher, journalist and essayist Jordan was also known for her fierce commitment to human rights political activism. Jordan said of her bisexuality, “bisexuality means I am free and I am as likely to want to love a woman as I am likely to want to love a man, and what about that? Isn’t that what freedom implies?” Her influential voice defined the cutting edge of both American poetry and politics during the Civil Rights Movement. She published 27 before her death from breast cancer in 2002 at the age of 65. Three more of her books have been published posthumously.