Politics of Sex, 1923

June, 1923. Bessie Smith marries Jack Gee, Columbia releases Down Hearted Blues. Hiram Evans, the Imperial Wizard of the Knights of the Klu Klux Klan and the Imperial Kloncilium established the Women's Klu Klux Klan. A little over a year later the above picture was taken on Long Island, New York. The second wave of the Klu Klux Klan had enlisted approximately four million men and women by the mid-twenties and was no longer a peculiar southern institution.

The migration of the Klan north is indicative of not only increasing natavist ideology, but also of the increasing pervasion of sex roles, which had been developing predominantly in the south since the beginning of slavery in America. These sex roles are what later fuels sexual ideology in the Black Power Movement and lends credibility to Patrick Moynihan's liberal paper, known as the Moynihan Report.

These sex roles are most simply put as follows (I urge you to look at the supporting texts for this page, it is a very complex situation). The men's Klu Klux Klan is the most pervasive. It is the disdain for sexual relationships between black men and white women. It is dependent on Victorian ideology, the "purity (helplessness) of White Womanhood," and the image of the lynched black male rapist. The Women's Klu Klux Klan is the less pervasive of the two, because it is dependent on a silenced southern history. The WKKK's disdain for miscegenation is concentrated in the image of the erotic black jezebel and "the destruction of white marriages by the untrustworthy white men who 'betray their own kind,'" (Blee, 34).

Bessie Smith is not documented as having interracial relationships, she barely ever played for anything but predominantly black audiences. But, this ideaology is not far removed from her or from the blues culture in which she lived. As pointed out elsewhere in this site, black women in this culture found a majority of their employment in domestic service. This domestic service situation was a common place for these later relationships, often forced, to occur. Another way in which these ideologies directly affected this culture and Smith's life as well, is the notion of beauty and primitive eroticism. Bessie Smith was turned down several times for being "too black," or rather not beautiful. Her music and the blues culture as well fed off the notion of what dominant white culture considered "primitive eroticism." The explicit sexuality in Bessie Smith's lyrics are evidence of this. As a black woman Bessie Smith was allowed some agency and voice for her sexuality, by this sex role stereotyping.

For More Detailed Information:

Excerpt from: The Sex Question and Race Segregation Archibald H. Grimke

Excerpt from: The Mind that Burns in Each Body Jacquelyn Dowd Hall

Excerpt from: Labor of Love, Labor of Sorrow Jacqueline Jones

Excerpt from: Modern Sexuality and the Myth of Victorian Repression Christina Simmons


Jailhouse Blues

Down-Hearted Blues