2019 May 2019

The Queer Moan of Clara Smith: On Queer Aphasia in Blues Studies

Smith is representative of many overlooked and erased queer figures. These narratives are not just forcibly erased, but the connective association between historical event and queerness is also severed.

by Caitlin Rimmer

Blues studies is most often also the study of queer people of color, but the colonial frame from which this area of studies was born continues to uncouple this connection. Clara Smith was the second most recorded blues singer of the classic period (1890-1940). Smith was a highly successful woman of color who would today be described as bisexual. She was both a partner and a mentor to Josephine Baker, introducing a young Baker to the queer world of the 1920s; and yet is largely unrecognized in both early 20th century queer histories and blues studies.

Smith is representative of many overlooked and erased queer figures. These narratives are not just forcibly erased, but the connective association between historical event and queerness is also severed. Drawing upon (post)colonial studies, indigenous studies, queer theory and folklore, I frame this process of suture as “queer aphasia”- a severing of the ability to rightfully name and identify queerness in the historicising process.[1] Using Smith as a fulcrum for the concept, I explore the concept of queer aphasia as it has impacted the archiving and study of historical queer lives.[2]

Figure One: Courtesy of Elcha, Edward. Promotional Photograph of Clara Smith, 1925. Reproduced in ‘The Latest Blues Records: Columbia Race Specials’ Columbia Phonographs Record Catalog, January 21, 1925. 

Aphasia stems from the medical field. It is a language impairment that often impairs multiple aspects of communication; such as the ability to connect names with objects, to construct sentences, or to read. It is often caused by a stroke or trauma.[3] Ann Laura Stoler’s Duress: Imperial Durabilities in Our Times fantastically illustrates the concept as it applies to postcolonial settings:

“Very little of these histories has been or is actually forgotten: it may be displaced, occluded from view, or rendered inappropriate to pursue. It may be difficult to retrieve in a language that speaks to the disparate violence it engendered. But it is neither forgotten nor absent from contemporary life. Aphasia, I propose, is perhaps a more appropriate term, one that captures not only the nature of that blockage but also the feature of loss.”[4]

I began researching Smith’s life in 2015 and saw that much of the previously unknown data about her life was far from undiscoverable- it was often lying in plain sight: unsought for and overlooked. Biographies of Smith have been built on the foundation of research carried out in the 60s blues revival. The influence of this early work engendered a limit on what has been considered “discoverable” about Smith and other queer contemporaries, that is only recently being questioned. It is imperative to contextualize these texts within their conditions of emergence; which is ultimately the world of the ageing white men that wrote them. Men raised in a world where female queerness was violently and quietly erased.[5]

From a researcher’s perspective, Smith’s relationship with Baker provides a significant lead. In spite of this, their relationship has shockingly been left largely unexplored. After Baker’s death, her autobiography Josephine[6]was published in 1977. Josephine contains a wealth of recalled quotidian details about Smith’s everyday life and existence during the early 1920s. Smith made Baker actively hone her reading and writing skills and had a particular soft spot for sweet potato pies. Baker wrote “…she made me eat them too. As I had a sweet tooth, I loved sugar… and I fell sick.”[7] Josephine and Baker’s later biography Josephine: The Hungry Heart, published by Baker’s son in 2001, include more information on Clara Smith than has been published anywhere else.

Figure Two: Courtesy of Leonetti, Carlo. Promotional Photograph of Clara Smith, 1926. Reproduced in Van Vechten, Carl. ‘Negro ‘Blues’ Singers.’ Vanity Fair, March, 1926. 

Unusually, in surveying the biographic entries of Smith written between this 1977 date and 2016, I found almost no instances where information from Baker’s biographies had been included.[8] The information present in the entry was most often distilled from Derick Stewart-Baxter’s notes on Smith in his 1970 Ma Rainey and The Classic Blues Singers and the personal diaries of highly problematic Harlem Renaissance patron Carl Van Vechten.[9] In his patronage of Black artists, Van Vechten oscillated rapidly between paternalism and deep othering; often referring to African Americans as ‘those people’ and using racial slurs. The privileging of white, male voices is a familiar pattern, which here combines with undervaluing the significance of queer female relationships.

While the relationship between the two is sometimes mentioned, the elements of their relationship that are not titillating to the male gaze have been overlooked. A generous interpretation is that the connection is glossed over, as it is simply a means of contextualizing Smith to readers. I would suggest, however, that this absence is caused by a wider social inability to vocalize and identify with non-heteronormative narratives; in both fiction and historical fact. The nuance and personal significance of Smith and Baker’s relationship is “displaced, occluded from view, or rendered inappropriate to pursue.”[10]

Their relationship was also in a network of wider devaluing of women’s relationships with one another in this period.  The term “lady lover” was a euphemistic term for female same sex partners. Maude Russell, who performed alongside Baker, explained the phenomenon, stating:

“men only wanted what they wanted, they didn’t care about pleasing a girl. … And girls needed tenderness, so we had girl friendships, the famous lady lovers, but lesbians weren’t well accepted in show business, they were called bull dykers. I guess we were bisexual, is what you would call it today.”[11]

This quote is a layered insight to queer dynamics of the 1920s. The label ‘lady lover’ skirts the individual away from the more socially vilified ‘bull dyker,’ a binary that dwells at the root of the modern butch/femme dynamic. With this in mind, I would add that while Baker and Smith were both what would be seen as bisexual today, I have no doubt that the suggestion that ‘lady lovers’ were all bisexual also functions to erase femme lesbians. Russell is made complicit in this action, despite her attempt to talk candidly and openly about a taboo topic, revealing the tension of aphasia as opposed to erasure, or even repression. Even in directly referring to a female same sex relationship, the queer weight of that statement is intentionally misplaced.

Russell justifies female bisexual relationships as a way to simply gain sexual pleasure (tenderness), and in an earlier comment, suggests these relationships were to save money on a room or for safety from predatory men. While these are all valid motivations, Smith and Baker’s relationship fails to be explained away fully by them. Smith and Baker both had seemingly content relationships with men at other times. Smith had relative financial security at the time, and, given that Baker was a slim, 14-year-old girl at the time, Smith certainly was put more in danger by their association than saved from it. I will also note that given the power balance in age, finances, and industry status their relationship is more problematic and complex than previous biographies have given the space to explore.

Figure Three: Courtesy of Leonetti, Carlo. Promotional Photograph of Clara Smith, 1926. Reproduced in Van Vechten, Carl. ‘Negro ‘Blues’ Singers.’ Vanity Fair, March, 1926. 

Many of Smith and Baker’s intimate exchanges surround the generational transmission of their craft. Both women were noted for their comedy, but it seems Baker was introduced to sensual stage performance by Clara, as well. Baker’s son writes in her biography, “it wasn’t only Clara’s voice that Josephine loved, but the long silk handkerchief Clara used as a prop, and her blue feather boa.”[12] The use of a handkerchief and feather boa in particular suggests a more sexually charged performance by Smith than other reports let on. No other descriptions so specifically mention the physicality of Smith’s performances. (The queer performative hanky is a delightful, anachronistic, detail to appreciate in this reported speech.)

Queer aphasia is just one method within an aggregate system by which queer histories are overlooked, misunderstood and under-represented. This glaringly queer information on Smith was not erased, or particularly hidden- it was just outside of the dialogue surrounding Smith. The impact of queer aphasia left previous researchers unable to see and vocalise queer connections in the materials.

My MA thesis involved gathering together all that was previously known about Smith in one place, and supplementing that narrative with further original archival research. Whilst much of my research was incredibly challenging, I cannot overlook that I was able to add new information to Smith’s biography simply by including quotes from a biography of her known associate (a biography that has been published for over 40 years, reprinted and widely distributed). This extreme example illustrates the extent to which queer aphasia influences each level of the research process, and this is what I would like to bring light to. In the process of creating, cataloguing and contextualizing archival materials there is a palimpsestic layering of queerphobic, colonial tradition that historical queer narratives must speak through to be heard. As such, when telling queer historical narratives, we must be aware to not only cease perpetuating these patterns ourselves, but to actively and creatively deconstruct the queer phobic narratives recursively folded into our research materials and their contexts.

Caitlin Rimmer studied folklore at UNC Chapel Hill, specializing in the folklore of queer and non monogamous communities. They have particular interest in the process of transmission; both as it occurs and the means by which it is throttled. They are currently working with the American Folklore Society to host a series of special events, Queer as Folk(lore), at the 2019 society annual meeting that will highlight contemporary queer folkloristics.

Further Reading

[1] In developing this term, I draw in particular on Yin-Kun Chang’s articulation of ‘cultural aphasia’ in the study of Taiwanese textbook production. Yin- Kun Chang. ‘Queer Phobic and Cultural Aphasia: Heterosexual Hegemony Suturing the Textbook.’ Journal of Education and Social Studies, Vol. 14, (2007):1-32.

[2] This is one element of a larger project, which I have written more extensively on in my MA thesis, to be published later in 2019. A full biography of Smith can be found there. Caitlin Rimmer, “Queer And Moaning: Queen Of The Moaners Clara Smith” Master’s Thesis, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, 2019.

[3] “Aphasia Definitions” National Aphasia Association. Website. Accessed 15.05.18. https://www.aphasia.org/aphasia-definitions/

[4] Ann Stoler. Duress: Imperial Durabilities in Our Times. Durham: Duke University Press, 2016. 128.

[5] For an extensive discussion of the impact of institutionalised homophobia during 1960s and 1970s on the study of lesbian history and culture, see Evelyn Blackwood, “Reading Sexuality Across Cultures: Anthropology And Theories Of Sexuality” in Out In Theory: The Emergence Of Lesbian And Gay Anthropology. Edited by Ellen Lewin and William Leap, 69-92. Champaign: University of Illinois Press, 2002.

[6] Josephine Baker and Jo Bouillon. Josephine. New York: Harper and Row, 1977.

[7] Josephine Baker and Jo Bouillon. Josephine. New York: Harper and Row, 1977. 44.

[8] See “Queer And Moaning: Queen Of The Moaners Clara Smith” for more extensive results.

[9] See Stewart-Baxter, Derick. Ma Rainey and The Classic Blues Singers. London: November Books ltd, 1970. and Van Vechten, Carl.“Keep A-Inchin’ Along”: Selected Writings of Carl Van Vechten about Black Art and Letters. Edited by Bruce Kellner. Westport: Greenwood Press, 1979.

[10] Ann Stoler. Duress: Imperial Durabilities in Our Times. Durham: Duke University Press, 2016. 128.

[11] Maude Russell quoted in Josephine Baker and Jo Bouillon. Josephine. New York: Harper and Row, 1977. 63.

[12] Baker, Jean-Claude. Josephine: The Hungry Heart. New York: Cooper Square Press, 2001. 51.

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