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

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

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

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

Synopsis

In the wake of the Great Migration of thousands of African Americans from the scattered hamlets and farms of the rural South to the nation's burgeoning cities, a New Negro ethos of modernist cultural expression and potent self-determination arose to challenge white supremacy and create opportunities for racial advancement.

In Prove It On Me, Erin D. Chapman explores the gender and sexual politics of this modern racial ethos and reveals the constraining and exploitative underside of the New Negro era's vaunted liberation and opportunities. Chapman's cultural history documents the effects on black women of the intersection of primitivism, New Negro patriarchal aspirations, and the early twentieth-century consumer culture. As U.S. society invested in the New Negroes, turning their expressions and race politics into entertaining commodities in a sexualized, primitivist popular culture, the New Negroes invested in the idea of black womanhood as a pillar of stability against the unsettling forces of myriad social and racial transformations. And both groups used black women's bodies and identities to "prove" their own modern notions and new identities. Chapman's analysis brings together advertisements selling the blueswoman to black and white consumers in a "sex-race marketplace," the didactic preachments of New Negro reformers advocating a conservative gender politics of "race motherhood," and the words of the New Negro women authors and migrants who boldly or implicitly challenged these dehumanizing discourses.Prove It On Meinvestigates the uses made of black women's bodies in 1920s popular culture and racial politics and black women's opportunities to assert their own modern, racial identities.

Excerpt

They said I do it, ain’t nobody caught me
Sure got to prove it on me.

These are the words of Gertrude “Ma” Rainey, renowned blueswoman of the New Negro era. Rainey’s is a blues of defiance, challenging mainstream mores of decorum, gender, sexuality, and racial solidarity. Her song dares the listener’s condemnation, invites and then dismisses disapproval, and in doing so evinces a modern individuality and commitment to self-determination. The blueswoman both admits and denies any culpability—the lyrics of her song relate that she engages in genderbending acts subversive to the moral, racial, patriarchal, and social status quo, but the chorus refrain challenges the listener to “prove it on” her. The burden is on society to prove the singer has broken the law or caused injury or damage—indeed, that she has done anything wrong at all. She knows she is not completely free, but she acts independently anyway. She refuses to care what they think; she does what she likes. In the face of social and moral condemnation, this New Negro woman determined to shape her own identity and fate.

All over the country, in rural hamlets and the sprawling cities, for white as well as black people, the New Negro era was lived to the rhythm of ragtime, jazz, and classic blues. The women performers, like Ma Rainey, who first recorded the blues, made “race records” one of the first commodities that were created by African Americans and then sold back to black consumers through white-owned and white-operated recording companies and national distribution networks. Recorded blues and the . . .

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