Prove It on Me: New Negroes, Sex, and Popular Culture in the 1920s

By Erin D. Chapman | Go to book overview

CHAPTER 4
Solidarity, Sex, Happiness,
and Oppression in the Words of
New Negro Women

“Within her soul,” award-winning social worker Elise McDougald declared of the New Negro woman, “she knows little of peace and happiness.”1 Although McDougald purported to speak for the great cross-section of African American women in her essay “The Task of Negro Womanhood,” she only reliably represented those whom she praised and of whom she considered herself a part—the strivers who were integrating business, the trades, and industry and those who toiled on behalf of the race in teaching, nursing, and social work. These words thus intimated her own anxiety and dissatisfaction, her own unhappiness. Indeed, viewed from the perspective of this forlorn, revealing sentence, McDougald’s entire essay bespeaks a certain amount of veiled pain. Her tone becomes decipherable as false optimism, strained hope.

With this remarkable essay, published in Alain Locke’s landmark 1925 collection The New Negro, McDougald inserted a black woman’s voice among those of the largely male New Negro literati who were establishing themselves as the arbiters not only of black artistic talent but also of the correct, race-serving representation of the modern African American subjectivity. McDougald’s essay duly praised those New Negro women whose professional or industrial pursuits seemed to confirm the race’s departure from the subservience and backwardness of past generations. Thus, despite the unfulfilled need for “peace and happiness,” McDougald declared that “the New Negro woman is courageously standing erect, developing within

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