Audiences Loved Her. So Why Were Her Nightclubs Empty?

Gladys Bentley
Leslie Taylor-Grover
September 14, 2021

Gladys Bentley was a whole lot of things – but she definitely was NOT shy. During the Harlem Renaissance, when so many Black women performers were looked down upon, she found a way to make EVERYONE take notice.

Even though she wore beautiful makeup on her face, she draped her full figure in men’s formal wear, complete with a top hat and cane. But that wasn’t all she did to grab her audience’s attention.

As a blues singer, her fame spread far and wide – partially because she used her musical talent to create and perform some of the raunchiest, most profane songs ever! She was also openly gay during a time that was very rare.

While her fans loved her music, there was one group who certainly did not.

White people! Not only did they have her performances raided, they tried to have the nightclubs who hosted her shut down. None of it worked! Bentley kept doing her thing. She inspired fans – and many Black future performers – to be just who they wanted to be.

Bentley’s style and performances may have been controversial, but she was a beloved fixture of Harlem Renaissance nightclubs. As Bentley’s refusal to conform to social norms of the day demonstrates, we must always bring our true selves to the table. We are incredible just as we are!

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