Patron Saint of Self-Invention: An Excerpt from Alice Randall’s Black Bottom Saints

We’ve got a real treat for you today. Alice Randall’s ingenious new novel Black Bottom Saints — our First Editions Club pick for August — is, as our own Ann Patchett calls it, a “tour de force.” And we’ve got an entire chapter for you to imbibe before digging into the entire thing. (Did we mention each saint has their own libation, and each chapter ends with their recipe?)

A tribute to the legendary Detroit neighborhood, a mecca for music, sports, and politics, Black Bottom Saints takes a cue from the Catholic Saints Day Books. On his deathbed, Joseph “Ziggy” Johnson — who had been a gossip columnist for the city’s African-American newspaper and the emcee of one its the hottest night clubs — assembles his collection of 52 saints. Among them there are big names, local legends, and big personalities that passed through, including Dinah Washington, Nat King Cole — and as you are about to see, a fierce performer named Valda Gray.

Read the excerpt below then be sure to order your copy!

Week 12

Twelfth Sunday after Father’s Day

Long before the documentary movie on competitive drag balls called Paris Is Burning and the delicious television series Pose, there were three friends from the Brewster projects who started coming around the school announcing they wanted to become female impersonators. One of the older students new to the school announced that Ziggy would throw the trio out of the building when he heard their plans. Ziggy heard. With a silencing wave of his jeweled right hand, Ziggy loudly reminded everyone present in the dance studio that he had choreographed for the great female impersonator Valda Gray long before any of his current students were born.

The three friends, Tyrone, David, and Levon, kept coming around. One had a sister who could sew. If the Supremes had skirts four inches above their knees, she sewed skirts five inches above the knee and bought contrasting fishnet stockings, plus go-go boots with the tallest heels. Impressed by the trio’s sartorial swagger, Ziggy demanded that the group do what they had been afraid to do: sing for him. They could sing. They could dress. But their faces were rough, even when made up, and the way they moved was all kinds of raggedy. “When you walk, you look like twenty dollars all in loose change.” “You got somebody can fix that?” “Valda Gray.”

When Valda Gray arrived, she immediately renamed the individual artists Jackie, Lee, and Pat. “Those names,” Valda explained, “mean you have to work harder. Call you Mary, Amy, and Ann, and the names do half the work.” Then she pronounced the trio, Trio.

At Colored Girl’s elementary school (St. Philip’s Lutheran) weekdays and at her Grandma’s church (King Solomon Temple) on Sunday, you were a boy or you were a girl. The thing that decided that was whether you had a pocketbook in your panties or a weenie. Everything was set after sex was determined. Whether you got pink or blue clothes. Whether you got a football or flowers. Whether you got an extra math class or an extra art class. On Saturday things were different; at the ZJ School of the Theatre, gender wasn’t just and always about what was in your panties or shorts, or panties and shorts.

At the Woolworth five-and-ten when they were out and about buying makeup for Trio, Valda, who was dressed as she had to dress to enter a store and make purchases, in slacks and sweater and having us call her Mr. Baker, pointed to a case of pink lipsticks. Valda said, “There are as many different ways to be a girl as there are shades of pink. Look at those purples! It’s hard to tell if you should call them pink or blue. People want to think they are pink or blue. Everybody is really purple. Don’t tell your parents I told you that! Don’t tell your parents Ziggy let me take you to Woolworth’s. Don’t tell your parents anything. Most of them are nothing like Ruth Ellis’s parents. Lie!”

Valda Gray was born in Indianapolis and given the name Harold Baker at birth.


Valda Gray

Patron Saint of: Self-Invention, Gender Nonconformists, and Exuberant Living

I have not always wanted what I wanted, without regard to the ways others might assign desire. Want this if you are a boy! Want that if you are a girl! Want this if you are white! Want that if you are Black! Want this if you are mulatto!

Valda Gray taught me to refuse all such instructions. I teach the art of this particular refusal in my School of the Theatre. It is one of my specialties. Female impersonating was Valda’s.

There is a particular, public queer Black world where I have spent a good bit of time, a world largely created by the peerless sun-kissed female impersonator Valda Gray. Valda produced shows, often starring in the very ones she produced. All her shows were solely cast with men performing as women. In the 1930s when I was just starting out in life and in my career, I choreographed for Valda and the amazing talent she gathered around her—Petite Swanson, Carole Lee, Frances Dee, either one of the Dixies (Dixie Jean or Dixie Lee), and Calla Donia.

The first show we worked together, Valda chided me when I referred to her as a him. I didn’t do that again. I wanted her favor and I needed the work. And I liked being a part of the public queer Black world of 1930s Bronzeville—it seemed so shockingly new.

But that was only “seeming.” Quiet as it’s kept, except at Halloween when it’s an open secret and everybody came to the Southside to attend the big drag balls Eddie Plique produced, there has been a public queer Black world for as long as there has been a Black show world—and that goes back to minstrel show days.

I was there when Alfred Finnie was a queer street hustler and gambler who was just getting the big public fun started in 1935 at the first Finnie’s Club Ball. Perhaps what seemed new at the time was the heightened sense of shared intoxication born of exuberant and unfettered public self-presentation.

Actually, there has been a private queer Black world since as long as we’ve been Black in these Americas.

I knew from the beginning what I announced without guilt, guile, or shame in my column: boys will be girls. I’ve known some boys who have been girls since high school. And many of them hung out at the Cabin Inn.

The Cabin Inn, called by some Chicago’s oddest nite spot, by others Chicago’s most unique nite spot, was called by Valda, and by much of queer Chicago, a second home. Eventually, she got put out of her second home and found others, my favorites being Joe’s Deluxe Café and the Club DeLisa. But for as long as Valda produced shows in Chicago, wherever she was putting on the show was the center of the public queer Black world.

Not everything improves over time. Once upon a time, there was less hate for boys who would be girls, and for girls who would be boys, and for girls, period, in our world. It isn’t like us to hate. Valda swore that was true, and it jibed with what I knew. But now that hate is on the rise.

Inside the Bronzeville of my youth, inside our schools, our churches, our barbershops, our beauty shops, our houses, apartments, and hotels, bright lines between what a man does and what a woman does, what a man wears and what a woman wears, how a man talks and how a woman talks don’t exist as absolutely and always polar opposites. Valda believed sepian maids toted ofay distinctions between the pronouns “he” and “she” home to us in apron pockets. In ofay homes, men do one thing and women do another: men swear and women don’t; men like sex and women don’t; he is he, and she is she, and the heshe, shehe that is so much of everyone’s real life goes unacknowledged.

Valda impersonated no one. Valda Gray was always Valda Gray. Always queer, always funny, always sepian, always femme, always fine, always vigorous, always powerful.

Want what you want. When people find it hard to do that, they should meditate on Valda. Discerning your desire is the first business of being human. Tall Valda in a demure gown with a bow at the neck, lithe and lovely, sweet-singing a song, or energetically running her way through all those shows she produced: “Anything Goes,” “Doing the Jive,” “At the Jazz Band Ball,” “Turn on the Heat,” and “Swing Patrol.” So many are forgetting Valda and her most-prized lessons.

Valda fears that part of the price of integrating into the white world is losing a world where men can openly dress as women and love other men if they want, and also losing a world where women are valued. She says the white men hate to be compared to women for two big reasons, and both are ugly. First, they hate women, and second, they think that women are powerless.

Things are changing. At the Cabin Inn we prized eccentrics and individuality. Today, every Negro is being asked to conform, to wear suits and ties or dresses and pumps to the sit-in. Valda doesn’t play that. Golf-sweater and silk-suit-wearing Negro that I am, I prize that. I prize Valda running around this world on heels in dresses, even with Dr. King preaching respectability so hard, so often, so loud, and so silently that somehow, now, it feels easier for me to get married and hide.

Valda doesn’t believe many things are one thing or another. She thinks everything is just like her—mixed. I want my students to know Valda. I want them to know that most important things about themselves are a choice. They can choose their own names. Choose to know and announce their true sex. Choose who they work with. Choose a life of art. Choose to see when politics is failing. Choose to build community. Choose to be as vibrant as Valda. Or not.

My favorite times with Valda are not on the public stage. Our best time was semiprivate and dim lit, those creole card parties of a late afternoon, those times when after working all week it would be someone’s birthday and we would post up far from stage, in our kimonos, twelve or fifteen of us, eating gumbo, drinking cheap brandy, playing spades, and laughing like old biddies and steel-driving men. This was the time to remember the moonlight that had fallen on our shoulders and all the lips we had shamelessly kissed. In these moments we did not talk of caliber, we did not evaluate our performances; we talked of besotted love, of those times we had discovered that bit of boy in our girl, or that bit of girl in our boy, or that we were all-boy, or all-girl, so many delightful variations to be found when you boldly lose yourself in someone else. I can’t tell my students about that. Part of Valda’s power and joy was inhabiting a sensual life.

Alice Randall. Photo by John Partipilo.

For years our female impersonators were in almost every issue of Ebony magazine and in all the Black newspapers all the time without apology or explanation. In Detroit they were in the Chronicle. Some of our best of our Detroit best? Valerie Compton, Priscilla Dean, Princess DeCarlo, Ricky DePaul, Lamar Lyons, and Baby Jean Ray. This, for me, was a sign that ours wasn’t a pink-and-blue world. Our sepian world was many shades of purple, some closer to pink, some closer to blue.

Valda Gray would have had a little something to say to MLK, had she gotten the chance. Valda would have let Bayard Rustin stand at the front at the March on Washington. Others hissed he was homosexual and should be shunted to the side. Others were wrong. Bayard Rustin produced that show, the March on Washington, and he should have gotten to take a more visible bow. We pay many prices to be fully recognized as citizens of these United States. One of them should not be the sacrifices of Valda Gray and Bayard Rustin. And me.

A gesture I loved having seen? Valda snap a perfectly manicured finger and try to call Bayard’s name in her singsong drawl, “You know who I mean, that siddity Quaker colored kid from West Chester, Pennsylvania, with a sweet tenor voice, sings ‘Trouble.’ What’s his name? Bayard Rustin! I knew Bayard then and I stand with Bayard now.”

Where’s the place for Valda Gray in our civil rights dream? Why is Bayard way off to the side when the preachers start arranging the congregation for photos and television coverage? Why is there no place for Valda at all?

If Valda was here, she would say, “Don’t pay him no mind, Zig. After they go in through the front door, one of them runs back to the kitchen and opens the back door for me. Acknowledged or unacknowledged, we always up in the house.”

* * *

Libation for the Feast of Valda Gray:
The Art of Refusal

This riff on a Crimean Cup à la Marmora serves 10. Valda always moved in a crowd.

2 jiggers Jamaican rum
2 jiggers maraschino liqueur
2½ jiggers brandy
1 pint Torani almond syrup
1 bottle (750 ml) Champagne
1 quart soda water

Place all the ingredients in a pretty bowl. Pack the bowl in fine ice. When chilled, serve cold in fancy glasses.

Excerpted from Black Bottom Saints by Alice Randall. Copyright © 2020 by Alice Randall. Excerpted by permission of Amistad Books, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.