"It seems I was born different. At least, I always thought I was."
In order to fully appreciate the groundbreaking, disruptive artistry of Miss Gladys Alberta Bentley, I implore you all to put yourself in her shoes as I take you on a trip, back to a time of economic depression, racial segregation, atomic warfare, geopolitical tension, *takes breath*, widely spread homophobic propoganda, and mass moral panic in the good ol’ United States of America. The early to mid-20th century saw a major shift in the way that many people lived, with changes in ideology, society, and culture. It was also during this time that African Americans finally began to see progress in their strive for cultural self-standing.
The Harlem Renaissance was a critical point in the evolution of Black artistry and excellence that serves as the foundation of American popular culture today. And while there were a plethora of Black pioneers who assisted in creating a new Black identity, it was Gladys Bentley who boldly defied gender normative behaviors and femininity, all while being a successful Black woman in the 1930s.
Born in Philadelphia, Gladys was raised in poverty as the eldest of four. In an interview she did with Vogue magazine, Gladys expressed always feeling undesired as a child because of her mother’s desperate want for a son. It was very early during her adolescence when she began to express interest in wearing her brother’s suits and even mentioned having a crush on one of her female teachers. Her non-heteronormative behavior of the time subsequently resulted in various trips to doctors and psychiatrists who wrote off her feelings as, “an extreme social maladjustment”.
Imagine being a sixteen year old girl who has known nothing but rejection and social disdain her entire life and is yet expected to thrive in such environment; I promise you won’t have to look long to find someone who lives in that same world today….and it’s been almost a HUNDRED YEARS!
Due to her family's inability to accept Gladys as she was, rather than allow the toxic norms of her time to demean her independence, Bentley left home at the age of 16 to live and find her own life in the wondrous, up and coming city of Harlem. I immediately, selfishly, and unapologetically think of myself in this situation, having moved to a city with so much distraction and ongoing excitement. We are similar in ways, as I’m sure are millions who leave their homes in search for something more. The pilgrimage at times can be so arduous, however, that it is easy to forget who is responsible for the sheer opportunity and the roadblocks they themselves had to conquer in order for it to be so.
She struggled early on, having to perform at rent parties to get by, but never compromised her authenticity and eventually landed a job as a pianist/vocalist at one of the city’s most notorious gay speakeasies. “The Clam House” was so successful from her business, that it was eventually changed to “Barbara’s Exclusive Club” (Her stage name at the time being, Barbara “Bobbie” Minton).
Gladys rose to fame as her most bona fide self, even making enough to afford a $300/month apartment in Park Ave. She performed at many famous clubs throughout the country and was well linked with many famous celebrities at the time like Cary Grant, Langston Hughes and Cesar Romero. During her shows, she mostly played the blues and parodies of popular songs of the time, mocking “high” class imagery with “low” class humor and created a culture clash between the sexually charged “black” blues, and romantic “white” ballads.
Gladys sang loud and fearlessly, called out men, openly sang about sexual relationships, and would even flirt with women in the audience. And although she dressed in drag, Gladys did not try to pass as a man or attempt to deceive her audience into believing she was biologically male. Instead, she exerted a 'black female masculinity' that troubled the distinctions between black and white, and masculine and feminine.
The Harlem Renaissance was the rebirth of African American arts. Through intellect and production of literature, art, and music, this time sought to challenge the pervading racism and stereotypes to help uplift the ‘race’ entirely. This endeavor is and will forever be ongoing in my opinion--as it should. To forget or simply disregard anything but the totality of intellectuals, however, who’ve undergone the tribulations of their own time in order for us to succeed, would only hinder our own personal self-growth. There are so many who have a seat at the table, and only so many have been heard of. If you didn’t know, Gladys Bentley is now a name we should forever hold in high regards; there is no “now” without her, and I thank her for her courage, apologize for the wait, and will remember her fight for people like me. Thank you, Gladys Bentley.