February 26, 2014 at 9:11 am EDT | by guest columnist
A toast to queer black history
Bayard Rustin, Gay News, Washington Blade, queer black history

Bayard Rustin (Washington Blade archive photo by Doug Hinckle)


Black History Month has always been a tough time for me, mostly because it was always a delicate reminder of how little black history we are aware of or deem worthy enough to mention. My friends and I have always had our own brunch in celebration of the month complete with a toast to Frederick McKinley Jones who invented the refrigerator that keeps our apricot Bellini mix chilled as well as a nod to Henry T. Sampson Jr., inventor of the Gamma-Electric Cell that allows me to text everyone that I’m running late to our soiree due to an emergency wardrobe malfunction with my statement necklace.

Brunching and adorning aside, it is important to remember why Black History Month even exists. It’s not because of clever advocates lobbying for 28 days to focus mainly on mid-20th-century civil rights movements, but rather the result of a group of people who contributed to the world in ways that shape the way in which we live. This is especially true of LGBT figures in black history, many of whom hid their identities or served jail time as a consequence of the criminalization of queerness. So to honor those amazing people, I’ve created a list of a few I wish I could take out for a thank-you Bellini:

Willi D. Smith. Renowned in the 1980s as one of the best designers in the fashion industry, this Philadelphian revolutionized the way we wear pants with his slouchier cut. His signature of mixing countering patterns and colors inspired nearly a half-century of street couture.

Moms Mabley. Known as the funniest woman in the world until she died, Jackie “Moms” Mabley was known for her cutting edge comedy. Performing in everything from Chitlin Circuit showcases to The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour, she tackled racism, misogyny and a whol’ lotta bedroom activities through her side-busting humor.

Valaida Snow. Born and raised in a family of performers and nicknamed “Little Louis” for her trumpeting skills, Snow played cello, bass, banjo, violin, mandolin, harp, accordion, clarinet, trumpet, saxophone and sang with the likes of Duke Ellington and Ethel Waters. Surviving being arrested and placed in a concentration camp while on tour in Denmark, she delighted audiences until her death backstage during a performance in 1956.

Bayard Rustin. Longtime mentor and colleague of Martin Luther King Jr., Rustin was a leader in social justice, pacifism and gay rights at a time when none of the above were popular. In addition to being the architect of the 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, he was an accomplished vocalist becoming a regular performer at the Café Society Nightclub in Greenwich Village.

This month, while we listen to anecdotes of Malcolm X, Martin Luther King Jr. and Rosa Parks, take a minute to learn more about Queer Black History and the people who made it possible. At the very least, they deserve a toast.

Tiffany Mott-Smith is a graduate student at George Washington University working in LGBT health and policy.

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