Domestic Violence

Domestic violence was an integral factor in Bessie Smith's marriage to Jack Gee. The public display of physical violence, both Jack and Bessie taking agency was extraordinary but not uncommon in this subculture. The blues lended to the visibility of many phenomena, homosociality, infidelity, sexuality and also to domestic violence. The story that Ruby Smith, Bessie's niece by marriage (to Jack) and a member of her troupe, tells of Bessie and Jack, although spectacular does not seem extraordinary in this culture. Bessie, apparently informed of an affair between Jack and a young woman in her chorus line, physically threw the woman off the train car and proceeded to chase a confused Jack down the railroad platform, firing a gun at him the whole way.

It is evident by reading the New Amsterdam News, a race paper in Harlem, that domestic violence was a common and visible occurrence in the community. In a weekly collection assembled by the New York Public Library, almost every issue has a front page story on domestic violence. The majority of these stories involve individuals identified as working class and end more often than not in the death of the woman involved.

This may seem horrific today, but the matter-of-fact manner in which these stories are related and the frequency of their appearance show evidence that this was not a completely condemned form of anger expression. The place in which this shows up in Bessie Smith's lyrics point to the same conclusion.

For More Detailed Information:

Lesbianism in the Life of Bessie Smith Chris Albertson

Due to the poor condition of the text, I was unable to scan in any articles from the New Amsterdam News. If you are interested in more detailed accounts, I urge you to look at the New Amsterdam News, New York Public Library Collection, starting in 1922.


Down-Hearted Blues

'Taint Nobody's Biz-ness If I Do