The Happy Heaven of Harlem

The Harlem Renaissance was the artistic flowering of the Great Migration. As Duke Ellington wrote in “Drop Me Off in Harlem”:

I don’t want your Dixie,
You can keep your Dixie,
There’s no one down in Dixie

Who can take me ‘way from my hot Harlem.
Harlem has those Southern skies,
They’re in my baby’s smile,

I idolize my baby’s eyes
And classy uptown style.

Here are some of the songs that Steven Blier, in the article “Harlem, Billy Strayhorn . . . and me,” identifies as anthems of Harlem’s legendary tolerance for LGBTQ and gender non-conforming people.

“The Happy Heaven of Harlem” (Cole Porter), a place where “all lovin’ is free.”

“Lush Life,” perhaps Billy Strayhorn’s most famous song, with its clever and beautiful lyrics that are so expressive of what the Harlem nightclub scene was like; here it is inimitably performed by Johnny Hartman with the John Coltrane Quartet.

“Lotus Blossom,” performed by Duke Ellington and his orchestra.

Ethel Waters, in a show-within-a-show in the 1929 movie musical On With the Show (in other words, a meta-narrative, or a work of art that is self-consciously about art itself). Note that she is costumed in stereotypical Southern black field-hand garb, which she slyly dismisses in the number below, “Underneath the Harlem Moon.”

Underneath the Harlem moon, picking cotton may be taboo, but not, apparently, “the kind of love that satisfies.”

“Dinah,” which Blier calls “a love song to a woman”:

“Witness,” one of the many spirituals arranged by gay Harlem composer Hall Johnson, sung by Marti Newland:

Alberta Hunter singing “My Castle’s Rockin’,” which Blier notes “sounds like a lesbian anthem.”

The great Bessie Smith, singing some rather racy lyrics:

“In Harlem’s Araby” by Bessie Smith’s pianist, Porter Grainger:

“Worried Blues,” sung by Gladys Bentley, cross-dressing lesbian and Harlem Renaissance royalty.

Girls in Cars

Aside from the cheerful candy-colored queer eroticism of Janelle Monae’s video for “Pynk,” one of the things that strikes me is the way Monae flips the trope of women in a car into a narrative of black female pride and empowerment.

Women in cars are, of course, a well-worn visual feature of many rap music videos. In general, both the lyrics and the visuals suggest that women are, like cars, accessories, functional objects to be used, and less valuable than the cars they ride around in.

A couple of examples:

Dr. Dre, “Still D.R.E.”:

Wyclef Jean’s semi-tongue-in-cheek “Young Thug”:

In “J.D.’s Gafflin’,” Ice Cube talks about

[jacking] them motherf*ckers for them Nissan trucks.

So, while for male rappers, cars are a symbol of sexual dominance, credibility, and hypermasculinity, for Janelle Monae, cars are vehicles for freedom, independence, and irreverent fun.

Sort of like a combination of this:

Not unlike this:

Interracial buddy road movies have a long history in Hollywood, beginning with the 1958 prison-escape movie The Defiant Ones, featuring Tony Curtis and Sidney Poitier.

Perhaps it’s time for an interracial girl-buddy road film — or, for that matter, any girl-buddy road film in which the heroines don’t need to be destroyed in the end.

And, lest anyone imagine Janelle Monae is the first gender-bending black woman in popular music, read this belated obituary of Gladys Bentley (1907-1960).

Bentley’s lyric “What made you men folk treat us women like you do?/I don’t want no man that I got to give my money to,” are a far cry from blues portrayals of women as emotionally dependent upon men, like Bessie Smith’s in her only known film appearance: