Bessie Shames the KKK

By Stephanie Dickinson

Bessie smith postcard 1 cent

There’ll Be a Hot Time in the old Town Tonight

Raleigh, NC

Bessie Shames the KKK

“During an outdoor performance in North Carolina, the Ku Klux Klan surrounded Bessie’s tent. She confronted them angrily shouting and ordering, “You just pick up them sheets and run!” The Klansmen were shocked. They quickly turned around and disappeared into the night.”


They had disappeared into the night and I felt cocksure of myself. Arthur, I called out. It got darker on the sawdust steps leading me down into the flooded juke joint. Our pay was due and Arthur said he’d be waiting. Last three nights we sang to a packed house. It rained all day and no drainage in the low-lying black town. I gripped my lantern and in my rhinestones and feathers entered the pitch black broken by a narrow tunnel of light. The air thickened and the death smell of the water wafted into my nostrils; the swelter was a six-legged crouching beast. As I climbed down, the stairs angled and light seeped from the peanut-sized stage. Arthur?  The flickering red candles stretched their shadows over the walls, as though they were animals bleeding out. Who had struck matches to the candles? Red torches shimmering in the cave blackness. Urine and smoke.


Some of the tables floated. Like black dresses printed with red sequins. I waded over the dance floor, my whole body listening. Arthur, it’s Bessie. The haze over my eyes—especially the left one—and the cave-darkness of the joint, made it hard to see. My heart raced. I waded deeper into the nightmare water, crouching, one foot then the other. My eyes strained in the murkiness to see. Arthur, I called out. No answer. White-robed creatures rose up in their peaked hats. “Thieves! Show yourself if you’re so damn proud of robbing a black man.”  I was face to face with one of the white shapes. Huge black pupils that had eaten their irises, doors into secret rooms, so deep you could drop into them, and go to the place where there weren’t any pelicans or robins or doves, just dead silence. “Better run, you overgrown evil elf or I’m going to kick your butt.”

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Stephanie Photo - by Lawrence -2

Stephanie Dickinson, an Iowa native, lives in New York City. Her novel Half Girl and novella Lust Series are published by Spuyten Duyvil, as is her noir novel Love Highway. Her other books include Port Authority Orchids, and Heat: An Interview with Jean Seberg, and Flashlight Girls Run. Her work has been reprinted in Best American Nonrequired ReadingNew Stories from the South, and 2016 New Stories from the Midwest.  She is the editor of Rain Mountain Press.

Read more by Stephanie:

Bessie & Ma
Bessie and the Chain Gang
Bessie Takes Aim at Billy Gee
Bessie’s Island Dancer Recalls the Fight for her Life