Race and Sex in the Wake of the Great Migration
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.1 Rainey’s is a blues of defiance, challenging mainstream mores of decorum, gender, sexuality, and racial solidarity.2 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