Strange Fruits: Billie, Bessie, Bayard, Baldwin and Basquiat - Art, Anger and the Search for a Black Gay Aesthetic
by Max Gordon
Recently, I attended the Jean-Michel Basquiat exhibit at the Brooklyn Museum. I lingered over a particularly compelling work in which Basquiat had painted a black phonograph record - ninety-two-and-a-half inches in diameter - of Charlie Parker’s (Parker spelled PRKR) recording of “Now's the Time.” Where the title of the song had been written in white paint, Basquiat placed a tiny copyright symbol. For me, the image represented the exploitation of jazz by record companies during Parker’s era, the commodification of black music and art and the cynicism of American commercialism. My first thought was, “This piece is so shady, and I love it.” (Shady defined as subtly mean – a cruelty that can be easily missed until one later notices its bitter aftertaste. For example, a shady hostess to one of her guests: “What a lovely dress, dear! It looked so good on you last year, too.”
In a 1983 interview, Basquiat was asked about anger in his work. “It’s about 80% anger,” he replied. The interviewer pressed him: “But there’s also humor.” Basquiat answered, “People laugh when you fall on your ass. What’s humor?” Noticing this kind of shadow rage creeping up in more of Basquiat’s art as the exhibit progressed, and enjoying the sarcasm, irony and bitter wit in his work, I also thought to myself, “I feel I am looking at the art of a black gay man.”
You have to understand what I mean when I say this here, what its significance is to me. Although Basquiat does appear on some online websites as a gay icon, I do not know whether he was actually gay at any point in his life. I never met the man, and as there is no source that I have found that definitely confirms that he was ever homosexual, I will not presume. But in the context of traditional representations of masculinity, and when considering an artist’s ability to subvert those traditions and myths in his work, the term “gay” can cover a lot of ground and have many different and subtle meanings. I have read the suggestion that Basquiat may have been bisexual, or as we say today about heterosexual men who sometimes find themselves in bed with other men, bi-curious. For me, “gay” in an artistic context not only refers to sexuality, but to someone who stands outside the usual traditional definitions of masculinity: a man who is a punk, a sissy or a freak. I have also heard the phrase “experimental” when used with Basquiat, and the tone of the user implied that the word didn’t apply only to his art work. The museum guide’s tour impressed me with its sensitivity and appreciation of Basquiat’s critique of racism and of how his experience as a black man defined his work; when I asked her about the speculation concerning his sexuality, I was not surprised by her response. Questions of sexuality were really better left in the category of gossip and innuendo, she said, and I could see that she prided herself, perhaps correctly, for dealing specifically and only with “the work.”
I walked away unsatisfied, however, because I know that an artist’s sexual identity can inform his or her work as much as race can, and that one day we shall have a clear understanding of what a gay aesthetic is, and more specifically a black gay aesthetic. (We first have to acknowledge en masse that black gay people exist.) If race can be an identity on which an artist draws, not only in terms of culture, but also in the way that one is sometimes placed on the outside of society and “othered”, then a sexual identity of difference can do the same, and provide us with insights that are just as illuminating. Even if the artist is a card-carrying heterosexual, they may hang around with queers, or get their primary inspiration from a gay artist (Basquiat adored and collaborated with mentor Andy Warhol). They may hang out in gay clubs, observe black gay men voguing as Madonna did, and borrow freely (steal) those sensibilities for their own creations. There is no doubt that Basquiat loved women, and I am not the type of gay man who requires all my heroes to be like me to embolden a precarious gay self-esteem. What I am curious about is the way that men, specifically gay male artists, subvert traditional masculine representations in their work and in their person; through hair, dress, style and comportment. Basquiat may be “straight” until proven “guilty”, but there are the beautiful pictures of him looking gloriously faggy and fabulous, fucking with your expectations about him and loving every minute of it, making the viewer pause and ask questions about his or her ideas concerning sexuality and race, and leading you to think that even if Basquiat wasn’t gay himself, there was something or someone black and gay around him somewhere. And if there was, we probably will never find out, unfortunately, as I understand that his estate is fiercely guarded in its representation by his executors. (In the museum’s listening tour, Wyclef Jean is used as the voice of Basquiat. It is the wrong choice; Jean’s vocal rhythms are of the aggressive, heterosexual, hip-hop variety and don’t speak to the refinement and grace in Basquiat’s work. At the end, we hear a clip of the artist’s voice and it is lighter, more suggestively playful, male and strong, but relaxed, with obviously feminine qualities. Jean’s voice feels deliberately strident, like part of a straight cover-up.) When an artist’s creations are exhibited posthumously, there is, of course, a second work of art – that of the displayer, curator or executor who decides what will be left in and what will be taken out. In the end, the decisions about how the work is presented can of course influence a viewer’s experience of the work, as much as the work itself.
It is rumored that somewhere there exist the letters of James Baldwin, and that whoever runs his estate refuses to release them. I cannot confirm whether or not this is true, but as an unabashed Baldwin admirer who finds it hard even to discuss him without a loyalty that one usually extends to lifelong friends and immediate family, the topic inspires in me frustration, anger and a deep sadness. Baldwin was a loquacious man who enjoyed his friendships immensely - anyone familiar with the Baldwin legend knows this - and I assume that he must have been at least an occasional letter-writer to those he favored the most in his coterie. But as there are no published volumes of what must be his extensive correspondence with agents, publishers, lovers, and other artists, I have to assume there is truth to this rumor and that his letters have been deliberately withheld.
While we have the letters of Flannery O’Connor, William Faulkner, John Cheever and Mark Twain, we may never get the letters of a great black gay American writer simply because someone in his family may be embarrassed by what is stated in them. I imagine the letters may reveal not only that Baldwin loved men, but possibly that the unrequited love of his life was a white man - one his closest friends. We may discover writing more visceral than his fiction and which confirms our suspicions that on the other side of public adoration is a private, almost unbearable longing. I am in no doubt that Baldwin’s letters will reveal his great generosity and care; but I also imagine that they will provide insights to many of his more painful personal moments, times he felt that he was ugly, unloved, or adrift. We can only speculate however, because the letters have not materialized and probably will not until they are in the hands of someone who sees their value as literature. Baldwin’s legacy forces the black gay artist to consider, in the event of death, untimely or otherwise, who will become executor of our estate and make the decisions about our work. We may choose to leave our money to anyone we damn well please, but our art must be left only in the hands of those who appreciate all its significance; someone who won’t use his own system of values and sense of privacy as a standard for the artistic legacy he aims to “protect”.
I am a great fan of Diana Ross’ performance in Lady Sings the Blues, but the movie can be rightly accused of telling any black American’s story except that of the jazz legend Billie Holiday. The movie is about a poor black girl with talent who becomes a junkie, rescued by her black knight in shining armor, Louis McKay, who attempts, unsuccessfully, to save her from herself. Billie’s real life, on the other hand, was a complex, horrifying, and at once tragic and triumphant story that might not be believed if told on-screen. While still a young woman, Billie had been raped, arrested, sent to a reform school (where she claims she was locked in a room overnight with a dead girl), and performed and recorded regularly. Billie said her career officially started when she and her mother Sadie were going to be evicted from their apartment and she needed to make some money. She went into a bar and sang “Traveling All Alone,” because “that came closer than anything to the way I felt.”
It is widely known that Billie Holliday, like the American blues singers Bessie Smith and Ma Rainey, had affairs with women. Billie also loved men, sometimes with devastating consequences. Julia Blackburn writes in her book With Billie that Ruba Helena, a dancer and entertainer who lived with Billie and her mother Sadie in Harlem in 1939 recalled, “[Billie] told her pianist Carl Drinkard that she went with women. ‘But I was always the man.’” What is not emphasized in the Holliday mythology as often as the heroin, alcohol, arrests, raids and abusive men who pimped Billie for her money and fame, is the fact that she may have been targeted specifically for harassment because of her legendary song “Strange Fruit.” Written by Lewis Allan about lynching in the South and recorded in 1939, the song painted a vivid, ironic portrait of a “pastoral scene of the gallant south. The bulging eyes and the twisted mouth.” Lewis Allan said of Billie’s rendition of “Strange Fruit”, “She gave a startling, most dramatic and effective interpretation of the song which could jolt the audience out of its complacency anywhere. That was exactly what I wanted the song to do and why I wrote it.” According to the Blackburn biography, British journalist Leonard Feather called the song “the first significant protest in words and music, the first unmuted cry against racism,” and for Ahmet Ertegun, the record producer, it was “a declaration of war…the beginning of the civil rights movement.” Many who knew Holliday believe that she was singled out for drug arrests, prison sentences, and finally the loss of her cabaret card which affected her ability to get work while other famous drug-users were allowed to go free simply because she continued to sing the protest song. Some venues even insisted beforehand that Billie sign a contract promising not to sing “Strange Fruit” during her show; she often violated the contract, sang it anyway and caught hell for it, as her room was raided by narcotic authorities the same night of her performance or she was arrested several days later.
While Billie Holliday will always be remembered for the pleasure she brought to the world with her unique, heartbreaking sound and for the stories of her being victimized by narcotic agents, we need also to consider another image - that of a dangerous woman whose sense of indignation over racism and her unwillingness to cooperate and “simply entertain” led to her being systematically betrayed and destroyed by her country and government, who couldn’t appreciate her artistry and resistance, and who used her drug addiction as a way to silence her singing about injustice. We may believe that Billie’s bisexuality had nothing to do with her defiance as an artist, and some may respond, “What difference does it make who Billie Holliday slept with?” But as an artist who was known to love other women sexually from time to time, an “outlaw” woman whose “dykey” courage meant she was ready to take on everyone from the police, to club owners, to racist white men who tried to humiliate her in bars, Billie’s sexual history may have something to tell us about her legacy. Her “God Bless the Child (Who’s Got His Own)” could be an anthem for lesbians and gays, or for anyone who has had to step out and make her own way in the face of societal disapproval. Or her “Ain't Nobody’s Business if I Do,” a song notorious for its quintessential sass, and which can be heard as an anthem of empowerment and self-determination, however masochistic its theme. “If I should take a notion, to jump into the ocean, ain’t nobody’s business if I do.” Billie sings as a black American woman, but the lesbian part, for those who may still doubt, inspires Billie’s insouciance, her butch bravery, and is found within the context of her music and lyrics.
Bessie Smith, another "outlaw" woman and bisexual, was named as a fundamental inspiration by both Holliday and Baldwin during their careers. Her gut-wrenching interpretation of the blues and the understated genius in her lyrics set her apart early from other performers, and many still consider her to be the greatest blues singer that ever lived. Smith recorded "Foolish Man Blues" in 1927:
There's two things got me puzzled,
there's two things I don't understand
There's two things got me puzzled,
there's two things I don't understand
That's a mannish-acting woman,
and a skipping, twistin', woman-acting man.
Smith devoured life. Although known for being generous to those in need, she was also never one to walk away from a fight, and instigated one whenever she felt offended. She beat up men and women extravagantly and in equal measure. Smith seemed fearless, except in the case of her husband, Jack Gee, who would often surprise her while she was on tour, and who, according to Smith biographer Chris Albertson, caught her in bed with a woman in Detroit on February 5, 1927 and threatened to kill her. Bessie and her touring company left town in the middle of the night, leaving many of their personal effects behind in order to escape Gee's wrath. In July of that same year, in Concord, North Carolina, the Ku Klux Klan showed up outside Bessie's show right before her encore and began pulling up the stakes to her tent. Abandoned by her "prop boys" who refused to join in the confrontation and who had withdrawn to a safe distance, Smith, "stopped within ten feet of [the Klansmen], placed one hand on her hip, shook a clenched fist...and shouted above the sound of the band, 'What the fuck do you think you're doin'?'" Albertson writes, "Bessie hurled obscenities at them until [the Klan] finally turned and disappeared quietly into the darkness. "
Bessie Smith's great talent and her contribution to the blues cannot be disputed. However, her biography and its too often narrow interpretation continue to beg the question; will America ever be willing to celebrate and claim this black gay woman, not only for her abilities as a performer, but for her defense against racist injustice, which, like Holliday's, is a prime example of American heroism? In a 1961 interview with Studs Terkel, Baldwin said, "It was Bessie Smith, through her tone and her cadence, who helped me to dig back to the way I myself must have spoken when I was a pickaninny, and to remember the things I had heard and seen and felt. I had buried them very deep. I had never listened to Bessie Smith in America (in the same way that, for years, I would not touch a watermelon), but in Europe she helped to reconcile me to being a 'nigger'."
In Rodney Evans’ film Brother to Brother, gay Harlem Renaissance writer Richard Bruce Nugent is remembered through a contemporary friendship with a young black gay painter named Perry. In an opening scene, a group of students is reading Baldwin’s The Fire Next Time as part of a class on black political studies. When Perry mentions Baldwin’s homosexuality, the homophobia he faced during the civil rights movement and the effect it may have had in silencing parts of his message, a black female student replies, “I didn’t even know James Baldwin was gay.” A black male student says to him, “We’re talking about activism and political struggle, not what people do with their sex organs. If you like to take it up the ass that’s your business. I don’t see why we need to hear about it in this class.” This student leads a group of men to assault Perry violently later in the film.
A black lesbian friend of mine, whose parents are divorced, had an argument with her mother again last week, and listened as she referred to my friend’s - draw out the word with contempt to make it sound as nasty as possible - lifestyle. In another conversation, her father admitted that while he would always love her, he thought what she did with women was sick and unnatural. I imagine her parents getting off the phone and later that week taking down a book of poems by Langston Hughes, an essay by Baldwin, or craving a blues song by Billie Holliday or Bessie Smith on a rainy night. They will not see any hypocrisy in their behavior, nor will they feel any compunction or shame that they have just humiliated their black gay daughter, who is also an artist, while continuing to be nurtured and inspired by the artistic works of black gay, lesbian and bisexual men and women; artists who were once somebody’s son or daughter themselves.
Her parents may have fond memories of attending or watching the 1963 March on Washington; one of the great, historic moments of the civil rights movement where Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. gave his “I Have A Dream” speech. What would they think if they knew that a black gay man was its primary architect? That even though Bayard Rustin, who formed the Southern Christian Leadership Conference with Dr. King, had been asked to step away from movement-organizing because of the controversy surrounding his homosexuality and political beliefs, he was invited back to organize the March because the planners knew he was the one to get the job done, that Rustin was the best organizer they had, gay or straight. In an interview he gave in 1987 to Redvers Jeanmarie, published in Other Countries: Black Gay Voices, Rustin said, “They had very real fears. If they openly recognized they were depending on me for anything, it could create problems – not only from the Strom Thurmonds and the J. Edgar Hoovers but also those inside the black movement whose attitude to homosexuality and to my having been a conscientious objector were equally vicious.” I consider Rustin’s insights and wonder how his identity as a black gay man enhanced his vision of a liberation movement and theology, how it might have contributed to his sense of pageantry, and his ability to envision the greatest civil-rights “ball” the country had ever known. What would the homophobic student in the film Brother to Brother say to the argument that the 1963 March on Washington was a prime example of a black gay aesthetic?
In his brilliant short story “Spice” in the collection Shade: An Anthology of Fiction by Gay Men of African Descent, Ano Cinque Hicks describes the plight of Alvin, a black gay man who is preparing gumbo with his mother in anticipation of the arrival of dinner guests. The gumbo is a family recipe where everyone invited is asked to bring a spice to be added to the dish. Hicks masterfully reveals the tension of Alvin’s need not to offend his mother, while trying to deal with the pressure placed on him to date and marry the other family’s daughter. Alvin confronts his mother about a picture that he finds in the kitchen drawer, taken of him after attending a Gay Pride march. Usually displayed, the picture has been hidden to avoid any unpleasant conversations that evening. Alvin’s mother leaves the rest of the cooking to him so that she can get dressed, refusing to engage with his attempts to have an honest discussion about his sexuality, and reminding him not to forget to add his spice to the final mixture. He does, by taking a pair of scissors, cutting the picture of himself to pieces and dropping them into the boiling pot. The story ends with the implication that what can’t be psychologically integrated into Alvin’s family about his identity will be physically digested instead.
There are a number of reasons why this is a definitive example of a black gay male aesthetic, a primer on shade and fierceness. It is not only what occurs in the story that identifies it as black and gay, but also the details focused on to the exclusion of others that suggest the writing of a black gay authors like Baldwin or Hughes, more so than Ralph Ellison or Richard Wright. Toni Morrison admitted in a 1985 interview with author Gloria Naylor that she hadn’t read Zora Neale Hurston until after she’d started writing, a fact that frustrated some scholars who were trying to establish a tradition of black female writers. “No,” Morrison said at the time,” you should be happy about that… If I had read her, then you could say I was consciously following in [her] footsteps, but the fact that I never read her, and still there may be whatever [scholars] are finding, similarities…means that the world as perceived by black women…does exist.”
Less than two months after arriving in New York, I went out on a second date with a man who was black, gay and a chef. Later that evening, we arrived at his apartment where he offered to cook us up a midnight snack. Jason had the wide dark shoulders and muscular body of a football running-back which, in my mind, seemed a little incongruent with his chosen profession. I’d never met a chef before, and definitely not a black one. I remember offering to help, but he placed a glass of white wine in my hand and hoisted me onto a counter top where I had a perfect view of his movements through the kitchen. I learned that night that there is nothing sexier for me than watching a giant of a man delicately fondle the ingredients of a meal he is preparing. Jason opened the refrigerator and stacked the groceries he would need in the crook of one arm, while throwing me mischievous smiles the whole time. He was cooking, yes, but there was also the fine choreography of bending low for pots, reaching high for plates, the careful lifting of lids, rinsing vegetables, tossing herbs. He had a look of childlike concentration on his face as he finely chopped onions, garlic and green pepper, sliding them off the cutting board into the heated olive oil; the tomatoes were red enough to be obscene, the basil and oregano were garden fresh, and the pasta was boiled and gingerly dropped into his mouth to assure its al dente-ness. After eating and making love, we sat up with the sheets gathered and picked up our plates to eat some more – cold, the sauce was even better.
Jason told me that his ex-lover was a famous performer, but that he had ultimately decided to end the relationship because he had grown tired of sneaking out of clubs and theaters, of being treated like a “buddy” backstage or ignored altogether. Each year, Jason was promised a relationship that could be publicly acknowledged, and by the end of the same year he was still being asked to hide in the closet or hotel room - packing suitcases and taking the back stairs. He loved this man and had waited patiently for years, but finally had to face that his boyfriend was never going to come out of the closet because of his career; especially when he was making his money crooning heterosexual love songs to the masses. Jason hesitated at first to say his name, but when I swore myself to secrecy, he finally told me. I almost choked on my fettuchini. Not only did I know the name, but he was one of my mother’s favorite contemporary black male singers. He’d just released a song, in fact, that she played so often in her car stereo, the lettering on the cassette had smudged until it was unrecognizable.
Jason’s story was powerful for me because it came at a time when I was relentlessly battling my mother over her lack of acceptance of my homosexuality. Every time I spoke with her, I had the same isolated feeling; the way she presented it, everyone in the black community was heterosexual except me, and when was I going to come to my senses and join the party. The conversation was circuitous and endless and always picked up where it left off whether we were speaking on the phone or I was visiting her at home. Now, I had come back to Michigan around Christmas and somehow we’d achieved a new record, as we began to argue for the first time in the car on the way home from the airport. I’d only suggested that while I was visiting I might go out one evening after she’d gone to bed: we both knew what that meant. When our conversation reached its usual zenith of mutual recriminations followed by exasperated silence, she popped in her tape. The car was filled with the soothing tones of my chef’s ex-lover’s voice. My mother turned to me sharply while stopping at a traffic light and the car lurched dangerously forward. “What are you laughing at, Maxie?”
I wish I could report here that my desire to protect a closeted gay brother prevailed and I honored his privacy, but the truth is that the irony in that moment was too perfect to be wasted, and I wanted cruelly to pop my mother’s bubble as she’d recently popped so many of mine. I told her about my date with the chef and almost licked my lips when I arrived at the delicious punchline of my joke: “And so, whether you like it or not, your favorite performer, who sings your heterosexual jam, just happens to be a black gay man. So what do you think about that?” She paused for a moment, pressed rewind when the song ended and simply said, “It’s probably a lie. Your little friend was jealous over his friend’s success and told you that to bring him down. You know how people are.” And with that pronouncement the discussion was over. That day I got to see first-hand how nothing could intrude on the heterosexist fantasy when the person who applied it was willful and determined enough.
A year later I ran into the son of one of my parents’ friends, also black and male, at a gay sex-club in New York. He passed me in the hall, naked except for the towel wrapped around his waist and the key to his locker attached to it with a safety pin. I may have gasped: “Laurence?” A year older than I, and a black heterosexual dream-boat, Laurence had been used by my mother to shame me on several occasions during my high-school years. The perfect part in his short neat afro, everything about Laurence’s demeanor said black upward mobility, the NAACP, and the United Negro College Fund. Our parents had known each other for years, so my mother and Laurence’s occasionally spoke, and my mother shared with me the inevitable comparisons between Laurence and me after their phone conversations. Did I know that Laurence was studying to be an engineer; while I kept saying I wanted to do “something in the arts”? Laurence was dating a pretty girl from his class (white); but I stayed out late and never mentioned who I was with or where I’d been. Laurence always helped his mother when she asked him to do something around the house; meanwhile, I planned elaborate slave revolts and searched the sky for the North Star if I was even asked to take out the garbage or mow the lawn. Maybe, my mother suggested one day, I should ask Laurence to help me with my science homework. (I was struggling with chemistry, and I imagine she thought that as we sat next to each over my textbook, some of Laurence's heterosexuality might rub off).
Now he and I both smiled our embarrassment, standing there in the narrow hall shivering. Laurence explained that he was in from D.C. on business and he had never been to a sex club before, except once and God, it was really great to see me and how was my family doing and “we don’t really need to talk about this outside here, right?” I agreed, registering the distinct shift in power between us. I had come out in almost all areas of my life by then, sometimes with disastrous results, and I was definitely freer than he was. In a desperate moment, I considered throwing Laurence’s covert sexuality in my mother’s face as well, but knew it probably wouldn’t matter. Truthfully, I felt sorry for his being in the closet and for my wanting to use him as leverage. What I really wanted was for my mother to register that someone she respected and admired, whom she considered exemplary and brilliant, also happened to be black and gay. (And by proxy, that some of this acceptance might spill over to me, who unlike Laurence was black, gay, flawed and her son who still wanted her approval.) But I already knew that telling her about him wouldn’t change her mind about black gay men. In the end, even if she believed my story about Laurence, she would think he was exceptional not in addition to his sexual identity, but despite it.
As black lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people, we must claim our identities and artistic legacies, insisting that our work be remembered - not compartmentalized, discarded, closeted or ignored. Whether or not we have developed a definable black gay aesthetic, it is our responsibility to remind others that black gay art does exist, not as a footnote to “regular” black art, but as its own creation which informs the black, the American, and finally the world communities. When a full acknowledgement is made to black gay contributions, perhaps our families, those that are still inclined to reject us or accept us with reservation, will appreciate that many of their favorite singers, writers, dancers and musicians are among us, and that the work of black gay artists has been vital to them over the years. Only then will a black parent pause before making the comment about her child’s lifestyle. Recalling the work of Baldwin, Billie or Bessie, she will finally acknowledge that this gay ‘style of life’ that she has held in such contempt while still enjoying its strange fruits, has sometimes saved her own.
copyright Max Gordon
This article can also be read at Sapience Magazine