What Black History Month Doesn’t Teach You About the Harlem Renaissance
As one looks more into the politics of respectability—a discourse that displays how many members of the black middle class strive to silence what they deem to be the moral inadequacies of those most marginalized—we are able to identify historical instances that were stifled in their time period and still today. We must reclaim the stories (and most importantly the histories) of those who have been pathologized throughout the generations. I believe we can find stories that add to black history if we begin to take a closer look at the individuals who were cast aside and labeled deviant by black and white societies. One of these narratives is that of the Ballroom Scene and how we can place this subculture’s origins back into the Harlem Renaissance, a time where some of the most salient black art found its inception.
In the early 1920’s the Hamilton Lodge Ball became the most popular yearly assembly of the LGBTQ community. This is the earliest documentation of what now can be considered the origins of the ballroom scene. The Lodge Ball that took place in the Harlem neighborhood of New York was documented in several newspapers throughout two decades, and was highlighted for having majority black audiences and participants. .
The organizers of this ball— “Hamilton Lodge No. 710 of the Grand United Order of Odd Fellows” – called it the “Masquerade and Civic Ball” officially. However, it was also known in Harlem as the “Faggots Ball” by the late 1920’s. In 1937 the ball recorded having up to eight thousand guests who attended. An observer of the Hamilton Lodge Ball explained that the ball brought together “effeminate men, sissies, ‘wolves,’ ‘farries,’ ‘faggots,’ the third sex, ‘ladies of the night,’ and male prostitutes…for a grand jamboree of dancing, love making, display, rivalry, drinking, and advertisement.”
Balls similar to the Hamilton Lodge Ball found more space and popularity in New York. However, Balls and the Ballroom scene in the 1920’s and 30’s was not exclusive to New York. There are newspaper articles that can locate similar LGBTQ Masquerade and Civic Balls happening— in the same time period— around the country including places like Chicago, New Orleans & Los Angeles. However, the Hamilton Ball in Harlem, due to its stature gained the most attention. George Chauncey, a historian, argues “at least a handful of other cities hosted gay subcultures of considerable sizes and complexity.”
These subcultures that were known as “faggot balls” but would contemporarily be categorized, as “drag balls” would eventually evolve into what is now known as the House Ball. These multifaceted queer and of color subcultures—found as far back as the 1920’s—have always been social spaces of safety and acceptance for those involved in the ballroom scene.
Those who thought they were a disgrace to the black community have often muffled these spaces of safety for members in the LGBTQ community of color. Some have tried—sometimes succeeding— at erasing these instances from black history. Others have tried to separate these stories and disengage them from the black experience. During this black history month we need to retake ownership of this history of the Ballroom Scene as having a place in one of the great eras of black history. We must continue to fight against the politics of respectability and show the generations to come that even those who are most disenfranchised create a culture of resilience, resistance, and spirit. This is the Black History that I care to know, just as much as any other history.