For decades, scholarly and popular literature have reproduced multiple stories about an alleged protest that the NAACP organized against the circulation and preservation of St. Louis Blues (1929), a Black-cast talkie that contains the only film image of Bessie Smith. This paper examines how these stories, as pervasive as they are unfounded, are versions of the same myth—one that I formulate as the NAACP protest myth and that, I speculatively argue, originates in the post-World War II years. From censorship boards’ repression of St. Louis Blues in Black movie theaters to Hollywood’s use of W.C. Handy’s 1914 song “St. Louis Blues,” the late 1940s produced a discursive field that promoted the emergence and persuasiveness of the NAACP protest myth. The location of this myth within its original historical context slowly uncovers new stances from which the social life of Smith’s film image can be retraced and examined.

You do not currently have access to this content.