The Famous Lady Lovers: Black Women and Queer Desire Before Stonewall

Univ. of North Carolina. Sept. 2023. 210p. ISBN 9781469675480. pap. $24.95. HIST
Though some attention has been paid before to the lives of queer Black women in the pre-Stonewall era, by historians and others, Woolner’s (history, Univ. of Memphis) book is extraordinary in its scope and inventiveness to focus on their intimate lives. The book mentions famous people, such as Bessie Smith and Ma Rainey, but many others who are lesser known are included too, thanks to the author’s sleuthing skills and research. There are crime scenes, lovers’ quarrels, Broadway shows, and parties galore, and Woolner’s expertise as a historian means that she leaves no record behind. She sources diaries, newspapers, government reports, and everywhere the evidence leads her, tracking down how women who were attracted to other women might have lived their romantic lives in this era. It is especially fascinating to see how they managed to forge their own society within the larger, not always accepting, Black community. Moreover, much of the growth of this world was done in the turbulence of the great migration.
VERDICT Woolner’s beautiful prose and writing style makes this book a delight to read. Academics and general readers alike will be drawn to it.
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