Bessie Smith, St. Louis Blues, and Breaking Convention

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I was thinking about Bessie Smith today, because I’m working on a personal project and I need some inspiration. And as I was designing The Black Experience in America: The Course, she brought me one of those “Aha” moments.

A little more than a year ago I was in the post-Civil-War home stretch of structuring The Course, looking to illuminate the period between the botched Reconstruction period and the seeds of the Civil Rights Movement. I settled on a period that included the beginning of The Great Migration and The Harlem Renaissance.

There I encountered Bessie Smith, in a new period of self actualization for Black workers and Black creatives in general. Here was this woman from Chattanooga, Tenn., trained up under Ma Rainey, who would earn the nickname “Empress of the Blues.” She broke convention in her personal life and in her art — which is evident in this music video for St. Louis Blues, which she recorded in 1929:

Smith was part of a cohort that created the blues and laid the groundwork for rock, while facing extreme social exclusion and discrimination. This, I believe, is part of the universal importance of the Black experience as part of the American experience: As the nation struggles to emerge from a pandemic, we know our creativity can overcome hardship — even when the hardship is self-imposed.

So do yourself a favor, and watch Bessie Smith perform in the video, shot in Queens. And Check out Lesson 14 of The Course. And pursue your challenges with confidence.


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