Sunday, February 3, 2013

Black Herstory Month

In honor of Black History month, Tokin Woman celebrates some African American women who celebrated marijuana. First and foremost is Bessie Smith (left), who smoked and sang about "reefers" throughout her career.

Born to a large, poor family in Chatanooga, Tennessee, Bessie joined a travelling minstrel show at age 14. Bessie was soon performing on stages all over the country as The Empress of the Blues. In 1933, Smith recorded "Gimmie a Pigfoot," featuring Benny Goodman and Jack Teagarden, for John Hammond's Okeh record label. In the last verse Smith sings, "Gimmie a reefer" in this video.

"[S]he was more than merely famous, she was a living symbol of personal freedom: she did what she liked; she spoke her mind, no matter how outrageous her opinion; she flouted bourgeois norms and engaged in alcohol, drugs, and recreational sex," wrote Buzzy Jackson in A Bad Woman Feeling Good (2005, W.W. Norton & Co., New York).

On September 26, 1937, weeks after the Marijuana Tax Act made marijuana effectively illegal in the US,  Smith was in a traffic accident on US Highway 61 and died from her injuries. Some say Smith was turned away from a "whites only" hospital for treatment. Her funeral was held in Philadelphia on October 4, 1937 and was attended by about seven thousand people.

VIP Louise Cook, nicknamed "Jota" or "Snake Hips," was an exotic dancer in Harlem who appeared in Oscar Micheaux's breakthrough 1931 film "The Exile." She also turned comedian Milton Berle onto marijuana.

Louis Armstrong wrote of her, circa 1929, "I shall never forget her, and her Dance. --She was so wonderful in her 'Shake dance she would take 5 and 6 Encores."

In his 1974 autobiography, Berle says of Cook, "She was known as one of the greatest belly dancers in the world, and her act was sensational, with everything going like a flag in a hurricane. She was one of those rare women that men had only to look at to want. And that was even standing still. She was slender, and light-skinned like the color of coffee with too much cream in it, and she had her hair in an Afro, which wasn't standard gear then. When she worked, she covered her body with oil that made it shiny and sexy-looking."

Cook didn't fare as well as a more famous dancer, Josephine Baker, who also indulged in marijuana, according to Josephine: The Hungry Heart by Jean-Claude Baker and Chris Chase. Phillip Leshing, who was then a 23-year-old bass player in Buddy Rich's orchestra, recalls in the book, "I remember once Josephine invited several of us to come to her dressing room and try some very good reefer. I went down with Harry 'Sweets' Edison, the trumpet player, and Buddy Rich, and we smoked pot with Josephine Baker...but the marijuana didn't affect her performance. Never." (p. 295) 

According to Leshing, Baker "had this gorgeous gold loving cup made for Buddy and the band, a trophy, like an Academy Award, with our names engraved on it. And it was filled with marijuana. She gave it to us after the last performance at the Strand [the New York club at which they were appearing in March 1951]." The authors speculate that Baker may have first smoked marijuana with her lover Georges Simenon, who used to mix hashish with tobacco in his pipe, or with the Prince of Wales in Paris, in the days when he would come to Le Rat Mort had to be taken out "feet first every night--dead drunk and stoned," according to another lover, Claude Hopkins.

Baker adopted more children than Angelina Jolie and was decorated by France for her work for the Resistance. See a video of Baker's famous banana dance.

Two other African-American dancers who rose to prominence and are associated with marijuana are Lucille Armstrong and Maya Angelou.  Modern tokin women include Whoopi Goldberg and Queen Latifah.

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