Tricksters, Biographies, and Two-Faced Archives

Alberta Hunter performing at U.S.O. show., c. 1941-1949 (NYPL)

In 2015, precisely 31 years to the day of her death, blues and cabaret singer Alberta Hunter was inducted into the Memphis Music Hall of Fame. I sat beside my mother, a blues lover who never misses a chance to dress up and step out, and prepared to enjoy the show. When the time came, our chagrin turned to horror as no Black woman had been specifically chosen to claim Hunter’s award and speak lovingly of the artist who had called herself a child of Memphis. A posthumous, backhanded slap. Because Hunter had no living relatives, country and blues singer Tracy Nelson accepted Hunter’s award on her behalf, singing “Nobody Knows You When You’re Down and Out” for the woman who had carried the spirit of Memphis to Chicago, across the ocean, and back again. It was a sad song, beautifully offered.

Hunter deserved to feel the weight of that metal bouquet while she was still flesh and breath. She was last home in 1978, six years before her death, for the premiere of Alan Rudolph’s film Remember My Name to a full audience at the Orpheum Theatre. She had composed the score, and was reveling in the embrace of a city that she had once called home. Years after her last homecoming, the city that was finally, fully remembering her name still failed to properly celebrate her life.

Alberta Hunter’s archival practices and theorizations of her own life offer an additional dimension to our understanding of how a range of Black women have used practices of hiding, tricking, and obscuring towards the end of resistance.

Alberta Hunter was an international blues and cabaret singer born in spring 1895 to a family of modest means and high aspirations in Memphis, Tennessee. Her father, a Pullman porter, died shortly before her birth, leaving her mother and grandparents to care for her. Having grown up in a home with hardworking women, young Alberta adopted their work ethos while quietly nurturing higher ambitions. She fled to Chicago at 15 and began a career in music that would eventually mark her place in the blues canon. Though she meticulously preserved artifacts from each stage of her public life, her story faded into obscurity between the 1950s and the 1970s. But, after a chance encounter in 1977 led to a several-year comeback career, the octogenarian Hunter used her return to publicly cement her legacy.

Hunter was the quintessential Great Migration blues mover, traveling what would become a well-worn and well-studied path of Black migrants, and getting by on her talent, wit, and ability to change with the wind. When Hunter left the Bluff City, she never intended to look back, but she carried every scrap of her Memphis savvy with her to Chicago. She joined a community of women in the Midwest, who were determined to escape domestic labor by making it big in the entertainment industry.

During a stint peeling potatoes in a boardinghouse, she began a nightly ritual of pulling her one good dress around her thin shoulders, imitating a sultry pout, and being promptly shown the exit at Dago Frank’s. She was a young girl playing a woman’s game believing that she would win. Eventually, she did. Hunter blended her Southern charm and bluesy grit to become the South Side Sweetheart, building a career that rivaled women with prettier faces and stronger voices. As sweat rolled between her shoulder blades, she grinned at strangers applauding her through curls of cigarette smoke and understood that, “if you had worked in Chicago and had been recognized there, you were somebody, baby.” This was a chosen life, not one decided by a Jim Crow birth lottery.

Through her blueswoman performances, Hunter embodied both a heteronormative working-class and an interior shaped by her strivings for a private life as a queer Black woman with global sensibilities. The feminine blues aesthetic she highlighted in her public career, complete with the sexually-charged songs and sultry performance style, was a labor requirement for her career, not a fixed part of her personal identity. Furthermore, Hunter eschewed the secrecy and mystery characteristic of blueswomen’s navigations of their personal and professional lives. Making these distinctions herself in public, she opted for a clear distinction between her “real” self, a queer Black race woman loner, and the entertainer she played for financial success.

Alberta Hunter’s two-faced strategy involved recognizing the rules of survival in a white supremacist society and playing the game to her advantage. Whereas many prominent Black women dissembled to protect their position as race women, Hunter’s claim to race womanhood arose out of her interiority. She successfully played a game of self-preservation and later archived it as one of race advocacy. However, she also invited readers in on the subterfuge, in part so we could know who she really was beyond the trickster character. Hunter’s life, characterized by her desire to live as a free woman on her own terms, is fertile ground for re-reading Black women’s history with more of an individual, existential lens. By making her archival process visible, Hunter carefully wrote herself into history as a lay journalist and queer Black race woman, worked with and against the limits of her biographer to ensure her story was told as she intended, and left a blueprint for how to witness and make space for how Black women want to be remembered.

Writing a trickster’s biography is one long game of hide and seek. You have to find what they have hidden in plain sight, respectfully interrogate what they say, and trust them to be the authority of their own experiences. Alberta Hunter’s biographer, and the person she used to make her archive public, was a journalist whose narrative did not always align with her recollections. For instance, he asserted that Hunter’s father had abandoned the family, though Hunter repeatedly told him that her father died shortly before her birth. Her biographer also failed on several accounts to rigorously engage with Hunter’s presentation of her collections, choosing instead to privilege a misreading of city archival records and thereby perpetuate longstanding stereotypes about Black family dynamics.

Despite, and possibly because of, the epistemological gaps in community outsiders’ attempts to chronicle the lives of Black women, we have always archived ourselves and each other. In doing so, we have offered the most comprehensive windows into the interiority of Black womanhood possible to capture in words. I owe a particular debt to Black women who have prioritized creating biographies of other Black women, including Erica L. Ball, Valerie Boyd, Shanna Greene Benjamin, A’Lelia Bundles, Alexis De Veaux, Erica Armstrong Dunbar, Paula Giddings, Farah Jasmine GriffinKali M. Gross, Sheena Harris, Tiya Miles, Nell Painter, and Michelle Scott Hillman. My book, Remember My Name: Alberta Hunter and the Two-Faced Archive, contextualizes Hunter’s archival practices within the long history of Black women’s curated recordings of their lives, from enslaved women to the former first lady of the U.S. I put her archival strategies in conversation with established traditions of theorizing how Black people, and Black women in particular, navigate spaces of racial violence and hostility, including Du Bois’ notion of double consciousness, Hine’s culture of dissemblance, and Shorter-Gooden’s articulation of shifting.

A self-described loner, Hunter developed what I call a two-faced archive, a curation of her public and private selves that turned back and forth on class and sexuality depending on which side she might have been inclined to read. This two-faced archive consisted of a primary, public archive of recorded songs, stage performances, and newspaper editorials as a cosmopolitan blues and race-woman and a secondary archive of formerly private letters, memorabilia, and recorded interviews with her biographer. Remember My Name extends these ideas of navigating two worlds and two realities to a person who embraced and cultivated a two-faced life, not to obscure her interior but to reveal and shape its reception in the historical record. My work attends to Hunter’s trickster intentions and her deliberate archival practices, underscoring the breadth of Black women’s self-curation strategies from the turn-of-the-century to the present, with implications for the future of Black women’s archives.

How we think about what constitutes an archive is in flux, dependent often upon the subject being archived. My work adds to ongoing reconsiderations of how we view Black women’s substantial collections, especially when they are carefully preserved, if not meticulously curated. Professional Black women archivists whose life work has challenged how we engage traditional archives, as well as offered new ways of revealing overlooked ones, has been essential to my thinking.

Alberta Hunter told many stories about her past, and her love of exaggeration and obfuscation makes it difficult to pinpoint the line between fact and fantasy. She built her life on that line. This was Alberta’s story.  Southern seeds planted in Midwestern soil and spread out across the globe. However the veracity of her origin story is measured, the outcomes are real because she kept and showed us the receipts herself.

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K. T. Ewing

K.T. Ewing is an Associate Professor of History at Tennessee State University. She is an alum of Xavier University of Louisiana and a third generation HBCU graduate dedicated to preserving Black cultural and intellectual spaces. Her research interests include Black history, women and gender studies, sexuality, and the influence of blues culture in American society. Her current book project, Remember My Name: Alberta Hunter and the Two-Faced Archive, is a biography examining the life of Alberta Hunter, a twentieth-century blues and cabaret singer from Memphis, Tennessee.

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