A hell-bent Headliner: The story of Gladys Bentley (Black History 365)

Welcome readers,

The Harlem Renaissance was a period in American History that was filled with exuberance and creativity. The people who created brilliant forms of art during that time did it with integrity and were very steadfast in bringing African American art to parts of America that were unfamiliar with it. However, even with all the praise artists received during that time for their captivating work, some artists had to experience an audience that was unreceptive to them and face condemnation for staying true to themselves. With that said, in this entry of Black History 365, I will present the story of Gladys Bentley, an unconventional artist that brought extraordinary talent and flamboyance that America during that time wasn’t accustomed to. 

Gladys Bentley unabashedly displayed her queer desires during the Harlem Renaissance. Even though a great entertainer, Bentley was constantly reviled due to her explicit songs, appearance, and queer lifestyle. She wore masculine attire over her full-figured physique, specifically a white tuxedo, tophat, and accessorized with a cane. Moreover, this kind of image was jarring to most, but once she began singing her appearance took a backseat. Regarding this, her musical prowess was respected and she made her mark as a formidable force in American music. 

Born in Philadelphia on August 12th, 1907, Bentley was the daughter of a Black American father and a mother from Trinidad and Tobago. When Bentley was young she knew she was not an ordinary child, saying that “it seems I was born different”. Her parents had a feeling something was awry when she began consistently wearing boy’s clothing. As a result, her parents went as far as to go to doctors in hopes of trying to “cure” her unorthodox interests. Nevertheless, Bentley felt comfortable and confident wearing men’s attire and would wear it from that day on. 

At the beginning of the Harlem Renaissance, Bentley found her first break in entertainment on the Harlem Party circuit and then the nightclubs, such as the UBANGI Club. During that time “the pansy craze” was prominent and drag queens were referred to as “pansy performers”. They were popular entertainment throughout major U.S. cities such as Los Angeles., New York City, Chicago, and San Francisco. The UBANGI Club appealed to queer audiences and it became a place where Bentley felt welcomed and thrived. Furthermore, as her popularity increased she began getting billed as a male impersonator, and with this kind of marketing, it was hard for an audience to ignore an impending spectacle. Bentley was against cultural norms and she challenged concepts of what women were like during that era. In addition, she did it as a black woman in America, and that should be noted because it was commonplace for black women to be depicted as jezebels and lascivious after the reconstruction era. During her performances, she kissed women on stage, and overtly expressed her queer sexuality on stage with sexually explicit songs. In regards to this, homosexuality and other “deviant” sexual orientations were seen as peculiar and this attitude lead to a moral panic known as “Lavender Scare”. Gay men and lesbians were said to be a national security risk and communist sympathizers. This paranoia resulted in the marginalization of gay performers and one way the U.S. protected itself from threats was to remove them from employment. Additionally, gay people were seen as susceptible to being manipulated by foreign threats and the U.S didn’t want that kind of exposure. When it came to Bentley, she was reproached for her constant ostentatious behavior which she used to compliment her singing and was then subsequently barred from performing at other New York City nightclubs due to her conduct. Nebulous phrasing such as “Disorderly Places” was used as a disclaimer for patrons entering nightclubs performed by gays.  

Even though Gladys Bentley was an eccentric performer that had success performing at nightclubs nationwide for two decades, she had to endure a lot of public pressure and it resulted in her changing her performance and image to placate their discontent. Equally important, Bentley went back into the closet and lived her life so it seemed as a heterosexual woman, marrying a man and cleaning up the content of her music. Nevertheless, she still found success even with her rebranding but not to the level of her days working the New York City nightclubs. 

Bentley brought to the Harlem Renaissance a flare and was emboldened to display it at any cost up until the later parts of her career. Her impact was palpable every time she went on stage, and she even was the inspiration for several characters in novels such as “Deep River, “Strange Brother”, and “Parties”. Some might say she’s an unsung figure from the Harlem Renaissance and that’s why her story should be told.

Works Cited 

Shah, Haleema. “The Great Blues Singer Gladys Bentley Broke All the Rules.” Pocket, 14 Mar. 2019, getpocket.com/explore/item/the-great-blues-singer-gladys-bentley-broke-all-the-rules?utm_source=pocket-newtab&fbclid=IwAR2p9WwnDdqfNEZ_BFV5M0Shvf2pe_QnX9EZw56fSywdczpzjRK3XwEzjQw.

The Harlem Renaissance (Black History 365)

Welcome to Black History 365, a series where I explain, educate, and explore historical events, unsung black figures in world history, and recount the triumphs and struggles of black people worldwide. In this entry of Black History 365, I will present the story on the Harlem Renaissance, a period in history that shaped black culture and became a staple for entertainment in the east coast.

After the end of the Civil War in 1865, hundreds of thousands of African Americans newly freed from the nightmare of slavery in the South began to dream of becoming active participants in American society, including political empowerment, equal economic opportunity, and economic and cultural self – determination. 

Unfortunately, by the late 1870s, that dream was a largely dying one due to white supremacy quickly restored to the Reconstruction South. White lawmakers on state local levels would pass the strict racial segregation laws known as “Jim Crow laws that made African Americans second – class citizens. Even though a small number of African Americans were able to become landowners, most were exploited as sharecroppers, a system designed to keep them poor and powerless. Meanwhile, hate groups like the Ku Klux Klan (KKK) perpetrated lynchings and conducted campaigns of terror attacks and intimidation to keep African Americans from voting and exercising other fundamental rights. 

With the North and Midwest beginning to have booming economies due to the offering of industrial jobs for workers of every race, many African Americans realized their hopes for a better standard of living and a more racially tolerant environment was outside of the South. By the turn of the 20th century, The Great Migration occurred as hundreds of thousands of African Americans relocated to cities like Chicago, Los Angeles, Detroit, Philadelphia, and New York. The Harlem section of Manhattan, which covers just three square miles, drew nearly 175,000 African Americans, resulting in the neighborhood consisting of the largest concentration of black people in the world. Furthermore, Harlem became a destination for African Americans of all backgrounds. From unskilled laborers to an educated middle – class, they shared common experiences of slavery, emancipation, and racial oppression, as well as a determination to forge a new identity as free people. 

The Great Migration drew to Harlem some of the greatest minds and outstanding talents of the day, an astonishing array of African American artists and scholars. Between the end of World War 1 and the mid 1930s, they produced one of the most significant and entertaining eras of cultural expression in the nation’s history, the Harlem Renaissance. Yet this cultural explosion was not limited to Harlem, because it would also occur in Cleveland, Los Angeles, and many cities shaped by the great migration. Alain Locke, a Harvard educated writer, critic, and teacher who became known as the “dean” of the Harlem Renaissance, described it as a “spiritual coming of age” in which African Americans transformed “social disillusionment to race pride”. 

Poetry and Prose, paintings and sculptures, Jazz and swing, opera and dance encompassed the Harlem Renaissance. With that said, what united these diverse art forms was their realistic presentations of what it meant to be black in America, what writer Langston Hughes called an “expression of our individual dark skinned selves, as well as a new militancy in asserting their civil and political rights. 

Among the Renaissance’s most significant contributors were intellectuals, W.E.B Du Bois, Marcus Garvey, Cyril Briggs, and Walter Francis White; electrifying performers Josephine Baker and Paul Robeson; writers and poets Zora Neale Hurston, Effie Lee Newsome, Countee Cullen; visual artists Aaron Douglas and Augusta Savage, and an extraordinary list of legendary musicians, including Louis Armstrong, Count Basie, Eubie Blake, Cab Calloway, Duke Ellington, Billie Holiday, Ivie Anderson, Fat Wallers, Jelly Roll Morton, and countless others. 

At the height of the Renaissance, Harlem was the epicenter of American culture. The neighborhood was filled with African American owned and run publishing houses and newspapers, music companies, playhouses, nightclubs,and cabarets. The literature, music, and fashion they created defined a “cool” culture for blacks and whites alike, in America and around the world. 

As the 1920s came to a close, so did the Harlem Renaissance. Its prime was cut short largely due to the Stock Market Crash of 1929 and the resulting Great Depression, which hurt African American owned businesses and publications which caused less financial support for the arts available from patrons, foundations, and theatrical organizations. 

However, the Harlem Renaissance’s impact on America was indelible and was a landmark in American history. The movement brought notice to the great works of African American art and influenced future generations of African American artists and intellectuals. The Renaissance was sort of a self-portrait of African American life, identity, and culture in ways that would capture and entertain the rest of the nation. The culture that emerged from Harlem transmitted to the world at large, challenging the racist and disparaging stereotypes of the Jim Crow South. Moreover, it radically redefined how people of other races perceived African Americans and understood the African American experience. 

 Most importantly, the Harlem Renaissance instilled confidence and racial pride in African Americans across the country, a new spirit of self-determination and expression, a new social consciousness, and a new commitment to political activism, all of which would provide a foundation for the Civil Rights Movement of the 1950s and 1960s. In doing so, it validated the beliefs of its founders and leaders like Alain Locke and Langston Hughes that art could be a catalyst to improve the lives of African Americans.

Leave a like and comment if you’d like to chime in. Also give my page a follow so you can stay up to date with my future posts.

Start a Blog at WordPress.com.

Up ↑

%d bloggers like this: