- Prove It On Me: New Negroes, Sex, and Popular Culture in the 1920s by Erin D Chapman
Woe to the reader who may determine the criticalness of this book from its apparent small size. Erin D. Chapman’s Prove It On Me: New Negroes, Sex, and Popular Culture in the 1920s is a robust cultural history that illuminates the striking gendered limitations of the politics of racial uplift in the years preceding World War I and the Great Migration. The Great Migration ushered in both New Negro progressive politics and the “sex-race market place” that worked in tandem to confine black women’s sexual and domestic lives to the social matrix of what Chapman calls “race motherhood.” New Negro progressives aimed to “demonstrate African American humanity and worthiness for full socio-political inclusions” in the United States polity of respectability by challenging racist and hyper-sexualized notions of blackness (56). Yet, in the process they simultaneously “participated in the development and dissemination of intra-racial discourse overwhelmingly binding [End Page 500] black women’s identities to motherhood” (57). In Chapman’s formulations of race motherhood, black women were to devote their lives to advancing the race, which meant keeping an orderly home, raising however many number of children, excluding themselves from the workforce, and thus serving as helpmate in the service of her “man’s” political aspirations. The black woman’s own aspirations and desires—whether private or public—were aggressively regulated by New Negro gender ideals of effective masculinity and proper femininity. In an effort to determine their own livelihood, however ephemeral, Chapman argues that black women turned to popular culture to announce their “fully human subjectivity” and desires, to revise proscriptions of black female sexuality that circulated historic social discourses of the fantastically erotic white imagination, and to formulate critiques of respectability ideologically espoused by black progressives, which demeaned their social and cultural values as black women capable of desiring lives outside the confines of domestic patriarchy (146).
The title of her book comes from the iconic and iconoclastic blues woman Gertrude “Ma” Rainey’s indelible refrain in “Prove It On Me Blues” that challenged her audience to justify accusations of her (bi) sexuality—for it was rumored that Ma Rainey engaged in sexual and romantic relationships with a number of women that she toured with. “Prove it on me” functions as a discursive framework to situate and contextualize Chapman’s central concerns: the interplay between the power constructs of race, gender, sexuality, class, capital, respectability, and the manipulation of the black woman’s body as it exists within the snares of these powerful and disempowering devices. Mining ideological discourse, literature, advertisements, and film produced in America’s inter-war years, Prove It On Me highlights various ways that black women’s bodies were simultaneously hailed as expendable objects that necessitated the development of capitalist, cultural, and patriarchal regimes—which constitutes what she calls the “sex-race market place”—yet scapegoated to illuminate the failures of racial advancement in black communities. The sex-race market place was both an actual market place “offering tangible goods for sale and a discursive spaced formed,” Chapman writes, “through and around the arresting images, teasing language, and fantastic territory of modern, popular cultural formations” (7). In the sex-race market place the use-value and meanings provided through tangible goods and intangible ideas were “steeped in racialized and sexualized language,” which all New Negro progressives and white folks capitalized on in the name of financial gains(7). That is to say, as harmful as the race-sex market place and its governing ideas were for New Negroes at the time, they nevertheless participated in this discursive space to garner economic stability. As Chapman continuously reminds her reader throughout the text, a number of these participants were migrants who left the stringent labor conditions and blatant racism of the South in search for brighter and better economic lives for themselves and their families.
Picking up where Daphne Brooks’s critically acclaimed Bodies in Dissent: Spectacular Performance...