In these writings, I will refer to Gladys Bentley by name and also use the pronouns they/them/theirs. The use of these pronouns is not to place gendered assumptions on Gladys (in later years Gladys was using she/her/hers pronouns), but to encompass all of Gladys' identities on and off stage as Barbra Minton, Bobbie, Fatso Bentley and sometimes "husband." Though it is popular to do so, I will not assign modern ways of describing Gladys' assumed gender identities in these writings. Figures of past times may not have found modern labels to be representative of who they were, so we should not apply them. Placing gender identities onto figures of past times insinuates we have more knowledge than them, removing their autonomy.
Gladys' identity was ever fluid, like water caressed by humid winds.
Let's revel in her beautiful storm, honoring all that Gladys was and chose to be, when they chose to be.
Gladys was born on June 1907 in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, rejected by the arms of their mother because they weren't assigned male at birth.
In the article I Am a Woman Again in Ebony magazine in 1952, Gladys states feeling remised of love from their mother. It was their personal belief that this lack of love was the cause of their gender expression––the choice to often present as masculine and often identify as a man. This yearning for love led her down treacherous paths of redefining and acceptance in her career, gender and sexuality. Stakes were high in this time, as McCarthyism was in full effect and figures like Gladys were under heavy surveillance. The laws of the McCarthy era prohibited cross-dressing, the performance of salacious materials and drinking––all things that Gladys took part in. Escaping this pressure to fall in line was no small feat and Gladys made great efforts to save their career. This can be seen in the I Am a Woman Again article as Gladys, known for wearing three piece suits with a top hat, is shown performing house chores in a house dress.
Though even with these small insights into Gladys' movie-like life, I'm still left with far too many questions. Gladys was a piano extrodinaire. What age did Gladys learn to play? Were they a prodigy? Is that why they left home at the fresh age of 16 to pursue a career in entertainment?
I even find myself questioning their words in the autobiographical article I Am a Woman Again. Eyeing the pictures of Gladys performing domestic tasks around their home, I'm filled with suspicion. Did these images have the affect on the public that they wanted? What if these images are meant to act as an intimate portal rather than a tool for the conversion of the public? I'm sure a tuxedo, gloves and top-hat weren't their house clothes. What if, despite how far from "masculine" it's considered, a mumu was truly their preferred night wear? What if the pearls draped over their hands weren't just for them to wear, but had sentimental value? What if the pearls were their mothers'? What if this was all a hoax? What if this was all the truth? These questions rattle in my mind as I observe the photos with a gentle somber gaze. Though putting aside my biases and what I'd thought up to be clues of an alternate scheme, the ultimate question prevailed: what if Gladys was living in their newfound truth? What if who they proclaimed they were was who they were truly meant to be? Simple resolutions follow these questions, with Gladys being en route to becoming a minister shortly before passing in 1960. Maybe Gladys' life had truly turned around. Yet the possibility of being gendered as "other" and being religious still remains and proves realistic.
Unfortunately, we will never know.
With very little information on Gladys' life, who Gladys was, Gladys' upbringing and Gladys' final days, we are given little opportunity to gain satisfaction and relief from their story. We are left to ponder and ask questions that return no answers. We are left to having no choice but to let Gladys' simply be. Yet in between these moments of pondering and acceptance, we are also given a chance to imagine. Imagine a world where Glady's could be free in all of their forms with little fear of repercussion. We can read between the lines and add subtext if we haven't already found it. We can keep Gladys' legacy alive by asking "what would life had been like for Gladys in the 21st century?" "What are ways that I could support someone like Gladys?" Through this imagining, we can build new worlds that are better and safer for every single Gladys, whether they're an international star or not.
By taking what is known about Gladys and building a bridge with critical fabulation, we can gather a better understanding of Gladys' life while building new worlds around them. These new worlds can act as a vehicle of preservation as telling historic stories with added measures brings attention to these histories. Activating Glady's archives through song is one example of this.
The musical projects created with Gladys in mind are intended to take the listeners on a trip through what I'd imagine Gladyu's thoughts and moments of their life. "Settling Down" chronicle what a polyamorous dating style, which Gladys was known for, allegedly having "many women" and referring to themself as a "husband" to many of these lovers. On the contrary "Too Soon" chronicles a change of heart as Gladys experiences love at first sight with their soon to be wife, who Gladys is said to have married in a New Jersey ceremony in 19blachblachblach.
Viewed as an a perfect piece of African sculpture, animated by her own rhythm
by the poet Langston Hughes, Gladys sang through orders of stopping and with the risk of imprisonment.
these projects center water to represent the fluidity of Gladys' identity and the changes she experienced throughout her life, as challenging as they sound to navigate.
The Black Forgotten
This is in no means to say that the artists I view as a Black Forgotten had no carrier, received no praise and accolades, or do not get mentioned by even few. The term is matched to those who at the prime of their careen superseded all others are made history in their present day, yet have fallen into. obscurity. This obscurity could be caused by a loss of archival materials to the erasure because of intersecting schools of oppression that affect the figure (queerness, race, wealth, etc). I find myself asking the question "how was Gladys one of the wealthiest Black figures of the early 20th century yet minimal coverage of her can be found? How did she thrive as an international entertainer yet is not recognized in the vein of her counterparts like Moms Mabley, who shared electrifying nights of a stage with Gladys at Connie's in Harlem?Why is there such little information and materials left behind on her, making it hard for those who seek knowledge to sooth their desires? This is what creates a Black Forgotten figure. The heights of her career cannot be understood by those who seek to find Gladys today. This is why I journey to get to know Gladys, and treat Gladys like a friend.