Here’s a newspaper story I found years ago and never knew what to do with. Inspired by a friend who works on the intersections and tensions between Black and gay activism, I finally digitzed it, and figured I’d throw it out there into the public sphere, since it’s a pretty fascinating piece of history.
Brief backstory: I spent the summer of 2003, and some of 2004, in Memphis, researching the history of race and censorship (which I ultimately published as an article here). I spent endless grueling hours scrolling through reels of microfilm, from the two dominant local white papers and also the Memphis World, the local Black newspaper that frequently contested racist censorship decisions. So I did not particularly have LGBT history on my mind for this project, but when I saw this, I knew it was too significant not to print out. The quality is abysmal, because it’s printed from old microfilm, but it should be legible if you click on it and blow it up:
The title suggests perhaps a recoiling–why else the need for a recovery?–but the tone of the article is softer. Gender is a little slippery here–we start with “two men who were too much in love to live apart,” but one becomes (in scare-quotes) a “wife.” Another “she,” the chief bridesmaid, is also a “young man”–who goes missing, as the story continues:
We’re caught here in some gender anxiety, but also clear disinterest from the police in interfering. (As a sidenote, the article in the second column shows the Black press resisting the concerted national effort to depict interracial labor activism as a communist conspiracy–a story with particular resonance in Memphis, where violence against unions had a long and then-ongoing history).
This is hard to decipher, I know, but here is one powerful sentence: “The two men apparently were seriously in love” (top of the 2nd full paragraph). The tone of the article is bemused, a little unsure and suspicious, but not hostile. “People said the couple was elegant,” reporter Wilbert E. Hemming reports, with no apparent scorn or mockery.
Disorder erupts from an apparently outraged crowd, but again, the police apparently arrest homophobic rioters, not the (now fleeing) couple.
And then the article ends.
I will confess, I don’t know enough about the political history of Jamaica in the 1940s to firmly situate this article in that context, nor the broader LGBT history of its national culture (and I’m deeply suspicious of idiotic article titles like Time‘s 2006 story “The Most Homophobic Place on Earth?” which tend to play into larger narratives of a civilizing American empire).
But the article also speaks to another narrative, that of the U.S. Black press and its reporting of queer issues in the 20th century. Thaddeus Russell has argued that middle-class Black politics hardened into a heteronormative stance in the 1950s, in order to make stronger citizenship claims at a time of pronounced Cold War homophobia, which thereby drowned out a more accepting Black working-class culture. But Kevin Allen Leonard challenges Russell in a recent article, arguing that the African American press in Los Angeles was already demonizing Black queerness in the 1940s.
Leonard makes a compelling case about L.A., though he also notes, “it is very difficult to draw definitive conclusions about same-sex desire and gay identity in the African American community, since very few sources of evidence allow historians to probe African Americans’ attitudes in the years before World War II.” As he observes, we’re often left to use newspaper reporting on drag balls as a proxy for wider sexual politics because of this paucity of source material.
One newspaper article does not a counternarrative make. But it is certainly a rare and valuable item, and one that I’m glad to get out of my files and into the world. Its casual approach to queer love and marriage is remarkable for any U.S. newspaper in 1947. I scrolled fairly extensively through the Memphis World in the 1940s and 50s, and I can’t recall seeing much else in the way of queer coverage. Was this story (which, after all, came through a press wire) reported elsewhere? I’m not sure; so relatively few midcentury newspapers are digitized and accessible (a quick and superficial Google search does show reporter Wilbert E. Hemming popping up syndicated in place like the Indianapolis Recorder, detailing a Jamaican art show with a Black Christ).
So that’s where I leave things, but I’d love to hear more about this article, the story it covers, and its cultural context, whether in Jamaica, Memphis, or elsewhere.