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Black queer women have shaped American culture since long before the era of gay liberation. Decades prior to the Stonewall Uprising, in the 1920s and 1930s, Black "lady lovers"—as women who loved women were then called—crafted a queer world. In the cabarets, rent parties, speakeasies, literary salons, and universities of the Jazz Age and Great Depression, communities of Black lady lovers grew, and queer flirtations flourished. Cookie Woolner here uncovers the intimate lives of performers, writers, and educators such as Bessie Smith, Ethel Waters, Gladys Bentley, Alice Dunbar-Nelson, and Lucy Diggs Slowe, along with the many everyday women she encountered in the archives.
Examining blues songs, Black newspapers, vice reports, memoirs, sexology case studies, and more, Woolner illuminates the unconventional lives Black lady lovers formed to suit their desires. In the urban North, as the Great Migration gave rise to increasingly racially mixed cities, Black lady lovers fashioned and participated in emerging sexual subcultures. During this time, Black queer women came to represent anxieties about the deterioration of the heteronormative family. Negotiating shifting notions of sexuality and respectability, Black lady lovers strategically established queer networks, built careers, created families, and were vital cultural contributors to the US interwar era.
Cookie Woolner is a cultural historian of race, gender, and sexuality in the modern U.S., associate professor in the history department at the University of Memphis, and author of The Famous Lady Lovers: Black Women and Queer Desire before Stonewall (UNC Press; Sept 2023).
Michele Mitchell is Associate Professor of History at New York University and former North American editor of Gender & History. She is the author of Righteous Propagation: African Americans and the Politics of Racial Destiny after Reconstruction (2004) and co-editor of Dialogues of Dispersal: Gender, Sexuality, and African Diasporas (2004), Gender, Imperialism and Global Exchanges (2015), and Heterosexual Histories (2021). She also serves on the Editorial Board of the Oxford Research Encyclopedia of American History.