December 24, 2022 • By Christine Pasalo Norland
Queenie: Godmother of Harlem
Queenie: Godmother of Harlem by artist Elizabeth Colomba and writer Aurélie Lévy is a gripping new graphic novel about the Harlem Renaissance that centers Madam Stephanie "Queenie" St. Clair, the policy racket queen of Harlem during the 1920s and 1930s.
Inside the beautifully designed and shimmering hard cover, St. Clair's story unfolds over 152 pages of black-and-white illustrated comics panels, dialogue, and lettering. She is an immigrant from the French Caribbean island of Martinique, a much-loved daughter that is orphaned by the time she is a pre-teen and grows up to rely on her intelligence, savvy, and the support of a close-knit chosen family to build a thriving, underground empire in Harlem. Set during the end of Prohibition, when Italian mobsters began to forcibly take over the numbers operations of Harlem from Black racketeers with the help of politicians and police on their payroll, the reader is compelled to find out: How will Queenie confront this threat?
QUEENIE: GODMOTHER OF HARLEM BY ELIZABETH COLOMBA & AURELIE LEVY. PUBLISHED BY MEGASCOPE / ABRAMS COMICARTS. AVAILABLE JANUARY 17, 2023.
Edited by Charlotte Greenbaum, Queenie: Godmother of Harlem is a wonderfully constructed and nuanced story of independence and what St. Clair risks to achieve it. The main narrative follows Queenie as she manages her network. She checks in with her runners and allies. Makes time to meet with Harlemites seeking help. Sets plans in motion to protect herself from challengers and an obsessed police commissioner.
Intertwined are well-timed flashbacks to St. Clair's youth and young adulthood, and tongue-in-cheek featurettes styled like silent films, the board game Monopoly, and a 1930s women's magazine to explain how the numbers racket operated, the Italian mob's intimidation tactics, and why Queenie's operation was targeted. Famous names and locales associated with the Harlem Renaissance and New York in the 1930s are peppered throughout, which makes me wonder if experiencing the book might be enhanced with an associated Spotify playlist. And, my god, the fashion!
Stellar as Queenie's existence is during the height of her prominence, she lives as a mobster and begins to question how much longer she wants to maintain the lifestyle. Balancing scenes of camaraderie and sharp conversation (during a religious gathering led by Father Divine, Queenie tells her friend, "Men of God impress me. They go for the long con") are moments of grief and desperation, triggering accounts of racial sexual trauma and domestic violence, political intrigue, and references to Quimbois. This juxtaposition developed by Colomba and Lévy sustains and heightens suspense around how St. Clair's story will play out.
Colomba and Lévy leave no doubt that St. Clair was an iconic, astute Black business woman who was routinely underestimated. Their telling shows that St. Clair actively disrupted normative race and gender expectations, and led a lucrative numbers racket for the advancement of herself, her inner circle, and the Black community as a whole. Equally significant is how Colomba and Lévy consider and show Stephanie St. Clair as a human—a Black women who lived empowered as well as on edge. Someone who was calculated while also hampered by doubt, who experienced as much hardship as she did success, who relied on herself as well as on trusted friends.
So it bears reminding that while this narrative is based on history, it isn't a documentary. The graphic novel takes a historiographical approach to interpreting the events, relationships, and motivations of St. Clair, who was notoriously intentional about the mythology she established around her identity—a character trait addressed throughout the book, such as during a photo shoot Queenie commissions for ads she'll run in the Amsterdam News, New York City's influential (and still running) Black newspaper. As such, Colomba's and Lévy's collaborative work offers another avenue for synthesizing the decades preceding and following 1930, including the way Harlem existed beyond the romance of the Harlem Renaissance and St. Clair's role in helping Harlem and its citizens flourish. Don't be surprised if you come away wanting to spend hours Google searching more about Queenie St. Clair and the Harlem of her time. Embrace it, even.
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Queenie: Godmother of Harlem by Elizabeth Colomba and Aurélie Lévy is now available. Published by Megascope / Abrams ComicArts.
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TAGS: ART NEWS