Oxford AASC: Photo Essay

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PHOTO ESSAY

African Americans in the LGBT Community

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Bessie Smith (1894–1937) (Wikimedia Commons)

Bessie Smith (1894–1937), also known as the Empress of the Blues, was one of the most important American musicians of her time. Smith was among a group of other black women blues singers—including Lucille Bogan and Ma Rainey—who openly broached same-sex desire and intimacy in their music. In her song, "The Boy in the Boat," for example, Smith sang: "When you see two women walking hand in hand, just look 'em over and try to understand: They'll go to those parties—have the lights down low—only those parties where women can go." Smith's music embraced the power of female sexual agency and went against the social norms of gender and class respectability. Her life and work has been the subject of numerous studies, including Angle Davis's 1999 book, Blues Legacies and Black Feminism, and Dee Rees's 2015 film Bessie staring Queen Latifah as Smith.

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