In honour of Black History Month in the US and LGBT+ History Month in the UK coming to an end today, we’re paying homage to the work of Channing Gerard Joseph and to the people and cultures he discusses in his Ted Talk, “How Black queer culture shaped history.”
“Walk light ladies, the cake’s all dough, you needn’t mind the weather if the wind don’t blow”
This was a popular song during the slavery era. Black Americans sang it on holidays and during a dance contest called a “Cakewalk.”” Channing says,
“What you may not know is that drag queens probably sang it at the earliest queer balls in the United States. You also may not know that drag culture shares a history with African American emancipation. The reason you don’t know is that Black queer communities have largely been erased from history.”
He stated that so much historical research begins with genealogy.
“Another reason is that historians of all colours have looked down on black queer folks as immoral, deviant, distasteful, diseased, even dangerous.”
What is the long-term impact of this? Channing says
“Many don’t learn how Black queer people have shaped history. People like Bayard Rustin, a gay Black man who organised the March on Washington in 1963, leading to the passage of the Civil Rights Act. Or Frances Thompson, a formerly enslaved Black woman, assigned male at birth, whose harrowing congressional testimony about the Memphis Race Riots of 1866 helped shape the course of Reconstruction and galvanised support for the 14th Amendment which provided Black Americans with citizenship rights and the promise of equal protection.”
Channing then goes on to discuss his biggest discovery:
“One of those people was William Dorsey Swann, the first drag queen. Swann was born into slavery in Maryland just before the Civil War. In the 1880s, as a young adult, he moved to Washington DC to find work to help support his parents and siblings. In Washington, he found the Emancipation Day Parade: an enormous annual celebration commemorating the end of slavery in the US capital. The highlights of the parade were called Queens: beautiful crowned Black women who personified African American’s newfound freedom. The Queens of Emancipation Day so inspired Swann that he adopted the title “queen” for himself at the secret dance that he and his friends called “A Drag”. If that wasn’t fascinating enough, he continues with etymology, “The word “drag” possibly comes from a contraction of “grand rag”, which is an early term for a masquerade ball. So, although people assigned male at birth have dressed in feminine clothing for all sorts of reasons throughout the centuries, the term “drag queen” began with Swann, who was the earliest documented person to call himself a queen of a cross-dressing party described by its participants as a drag.
The title queen signified that Swann held an honoured place in the community. But the term “queen” is even more important because it’s one of the earliest positive terms that queer people had to describe themselves.”
Channing says that if schools taught about some of the contributions of Black queer people, it would not only have made an enormous impact on children’s lives but possibly also saved their lives,
“Learning Black queer history is crucial to understanding our shared history. You’ve probably heard that the fight for queer liberation began with the Stonewall uprising: New York police raided a queer bar in 1969. Riots followed and magically, a celebration of pride was born. The problem is that’s not true. Queer pride did not arise out of nowhere. There had to be a foundation of self-acceptance and solidarity in place already. In fact, many people have been working for decades to build a courageous and confident community that made Stonewall pride and eventually marriage equality possible.”
Tracing back, Channing describes how in the 1880s, positive terms like “transgender” and “non-binary” didn’t exist yet,
“”Homosexual” was a word only used by Germans and although “gay”, “lesbian” and “bisexual” were English words, they didn’t mean what they mean today and they weren’t used to self-identify. So, it can be tempting to apply modern identities to people of a distant past. But, if we do so, we often fail to consider and respect the ways that they thought of themselves. If we fail to consider how our ancestors thought of themselves, we risk erasing a crucial element of our shared history.”
Swann’s balls were raided numerous times by the DC police, leading to jail time and eventually a public petition and a bid for a presidential pardon.
“That makes Swann the earliest documented American activist to take legal steps to defend the queer community. But the authorities couldn’t stop Swann, they couldn’t stop the balls from continuing and expanding to other cities. Today, queer drag is mainstream. From Paris Is Burning, Pose, to RuPaul’s Drag Race, and the houses of 21st century ballroom culture which feature Queens who preside over beauty and dance contests have maintained the same basic structure as Swann’s 19th century community.”
Channing finishes his talk powerfully discussing how the history of DC’s emancipation day has largely been forgotten, but
“the power to choose how we define ourselves as Swann did is more important now than ever and as long as the term “queen” lives on, anyone who participates in or enjoys watching drag competitions is paying homage to a century and a half long celebration of African American emancipation.. William Dorsey Swann is just one example. How many other Black queer stories have been erased from the historical record? And what could those stories teach us about who we are?”
You can watch the Ted Talk here.
If you enjoyed reading this blog or watching his Ted Talk, look out for his forthcoming biography, House of Swann: Where Slaves Became Queens.
“Through the lens of Swann’s extraordinary life, House of Swann tells the forgotten history of the earliest efforts at queer resistance and liberation in America, just after the Civil War.”