A’Lelia Walker and I have some things in common. She was “a striking, tall, dark-skinned woman who was rarely seen without her riding crop and her imposing, jeweled turban” (asEric Garber described her in his essay, A Spectacle in Color: The Lesbian and Gay Subculture of Jazz Age Harlem). And I too look great in a jeweled turban, when I happen to have access to one. Walker was the daughter of Madame CJ Walker, the first female African-American millionaire in America. I know this because I grew up about two blocks from her mansion in the small town of Irvington, New York, and we learned about her every year in school.
But nothing was ever said about A’lelia, her only child, who was one of the leading social lights of the Harlem Renaissance. Her salons walked the line between famous and infamous. AsMabel Hampton, one of the attendees put it, they were:
“Funny parties — there were men and women, straight and gay. They were kinds of orgies. Some people had clothes on, some didn’t. People would hug and kiss on pillows and do anything they wanted to do. You could watch if you wanted to. Some came to watch, some came to play. You had to be cute and well-dressed to get in.”
Everyone who was anyone came to her parties. As Lillian Faderman wrote in Odd Girls & Twilight Lovers:
“A’Lelia Walker probably had much to do with the manifest acceptance of bisexuality among the upper class in Harlem: those who had moral reservations about bisexuality or considered it strange or decadent learned to pretend a sophistication and suppress their disapproval if they desired A’Lelia’s goodwill.”
But her parties didn’t stop at The Dark Tower, her apartment on 136th St. - she also brought the Harlem Renaissance to Irvington. Countee Cullen, Langston Hughes, and other literary heavyweights walked the main street of my town on a regular basis during the 1920s.
And I never learned a thing about it in school. So who knows what queer history your hometown is hiding…