Mama Black Widow

One of my favorite books is a sordid drama not for those interested in feel good themes. Mama Black Widow by Iceberg Slim (1969)is the tale of drag queen Otis Tilson and his family’s struggles in Mississippi and Chicago over the span of 40 years or so. The book at surface reads as a bad tale of misfortune and is cautionary in its’ tone of aspiring for more, the precariousness of femininity and queerness is heavy as a theme as well. But what redeems Mama Black Widow for me is the grit of Otis or Tilly as she/he will be known. Tilly does not give up despite a constant barrage of bad luck. I am always struck by the imagery of “back in the days”, envisioning the vivid fashion, the story of southern Blacks in the cold North and the presence of Queer culture back then. It’s a rare glimpse in the life led by a Black queer person in the 40s-60s. I first read this book as a teenager looking for my roots as a Black queer, debunking the so called modernity of queer culture. I smiled knowing that people like me did exist back then and they had fire and style and honed this very queer counterculture that breeds a resistance still present to this day. It’s kinda like yea it can suck to be gay or trans at times and I’m gon experience some shit but my truth is my truth. I have no choice but to live with it.

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