Like many, I am anxiously awaiting the publication of Larry Kramer’s The American People: A History which is set to be released in 2012. That book is sure to be equal parts insight and controversy. Until then we can read about the contributions of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer people (and their allies) in this handful of critically acclaimed titles:
A Queer History of the United States
by Michael Bronski
This book considers our nation’s history through the lens of sexuality and gender from pre-1492 to present. It demonstrates that even in seemingly repressive times all people have had an integral role in shaping the cultural and political landscape. Many historical figures you’ve probably never heard of, and many facts you probably didn’t know about those you have, are presented.
A Saving Remnant: The Radical Lives the Radical Lives of Barbara Deming and David McReynolds
by Martin Duberman
Noted historian Duberman profiles the lives of two early activists whose uncompromising lives are symbolic of the radical 1960s. Blurb alert: McReynolds was the first openly gay man to run for president. Bias alert: I don’t have a great one line blurb about Deming.
The Secret Historian: The Life and Times of Samuel Steward, Professor, Tattoo Artist, and Sexual Renegade
by Justin Spring
Spring chronicles of the life Samuel Stewart, aka Phil Sparrow, as he transforms himself from college professor to Chicago South Side tattoo artist. Friends with the art elite of his day and Alfred Kinsey, Stewart’s truly unique life offers great insight into what it was like to be gay pre-Stonewall.
Mama Black Widow
By Iceberg Slim
Iceberg Slim’s has the dubious distinction of being the bestselling African American novelist in American history. The cultural impact of his novels Pimp and Trick Daddy would be hard to underestimate though this is probably more visible to Caucasians in cinema and music than fiction. With the explosion of urban fiction, Slim has engraved himself a permanent place in the cultural canon. One of Slim’s final novels, Mama Black Widow is the fictionalized autobiography of Otis Tilson, aka Sally, a drag queen surviving in early 1960s Chicago. I was drawn to Mama Black Widow being curious about the pre-Stonewall transgender experience. In that regard it is something of let down, but in other ways it is a Molotov cocktail.
The first fifty pages explode as Tilson’s heterosexual relationship falls apart and the Chicago race riots blossom around him. He runs through the chaos back to his Mama’s house. We soon realize their mother-son relationship is anything but healthy. Before we can learn more, the plot flashes back to Tilson’s childhood in the de facto slavery of the sharecropping South. Stop me if you have heard this one before, this is the one slow moment in the novel. Soon enough the family moves north to the slums of Chicago. Then the book falls into the urban fiction template Slim himself created: good girls gone bad, bad boys getting worse, drama in the church, heinous crime, heinous injustice, seriously politically incorrect social attitudes and dirty sex. Papa Tilson’s transition from patriarchal country preacher to disenfranchised manual laborer destroys him. Mama Tilson becomes the head of the family and makes sure bills get paid by any means necessary. The journey north seems to obliterate Mama’s moral compass even if there is always food on the table.
The plot roars along with the pace of the best pulp fiction. The catalog of nightmares that is Otis’ childhood rivals Burroughs’ Naked Lunch. Granddaddy of the Beats and Granddaddy of Street Lit have a lot in common. I kept thinking of Naked Lunch when reading Mama Black Widow. You need a strong stomach for both. Cringe-factor-ten and pedal-to-the-metal plot do not make up for the lack of character development in key instances. There is a big lacuna between Otis’ skewed childhood and his adult double life as a drag queen. We are not privy to when he realizes he is gay, or how he is initiated into the underground gay scene in Chicago.
Moral ambiguities abound in this book. Social hostility between blacks is a major theme. Mama Black Widow is much more a book about black on black crime than overt racism. Slim’s implied attitude towards homosexuality will also be a sticking point for many. Though the narrator is gay, this is not pro-gay novel. Every reader will have to decide for themselves what is art and what is trash; what is realism and what is exploitation. As if any of those categories are cut and dry. The library’s version of Mama Black Widow is a reissue under Norton’s Old School Books imprint. Any qualms a major publisher may have had about touching Slim’s work in the past has apparently been overcome by a chance cash in on the popularity of urban fiction. An artifact much too volatile for many to sit comfortably with, Mama Black Widow remains a dispatch from the margins between what is acceptable and unacceptable.