- Prove It on Me: New Negroes, Sex, and Popular Culture in the 1920s by Erin D. Chapman
If an image can convey the gist of Prove It on Me, it might be of a young urban-dwelling African American woman walking the knife’s edge that separated the emancipatory possibilities of American culture during the 1920s from the suffocating constraints of both inherited ideals and emergent modernism. Erin Chapman handily dismisses any notion that the era of the New Negro emancipated black women from patriarchal, racial, or economic exploitation. Her tightly organized and tautly written book reminds readers of the simultaneous persistence of the older forms of oppression and emergence of new forms of exploitation during the Roaring Twenties.
Chapman makes her case by complicating familiar images of the “modern” women of the twenties. For several decades after the twenties, the [End Page 156] “flappers,” “jazz babies,” and “Gold Diggers” of the era were dismissed as little more than timid and light-hearted cultural rebels who eventually assumed roles as conventional wives and mothers. More recent investigations have taken the “flapper” generation much more seriously. Flappers, scholars have revealed, did much more than flirt with bohemian rebellion and sexual freedom. By drawing on stylistic cues from the urban lifestyles of single working women, they found inspiration and courage to throw away their corsets, wear short, revealing dresses, bob their hair, smoke cigarettes, drink prohibition alcohol, and upset inherited sexual mores. When they did so, flappers created the rudiments of twentieth-century youth culture. Some black women performers like blues singer Ma Rainey strayed even further from convention; they made the most of the opportunities afforded to them by the Great Migration, commercial mass culture, and the urban milieu to achieve unprecedented cultural prominence and commercial success.
Chapman readily acknowledges these developments even while she highlights the cultural obstacles that hindered many African American women who tried to follow Rainey’s lead. Chapman locates the obstacles to black women’s self-determination in many of the cultural expressions that other observers have pointed to as evidence of the New Negro. Oscar Michaeux’s much-studied Within Our Gates (1919), for example, provided Chapman with a compelling illustration of how the era’s most influential black filmmaker imagined heroic New Negro men assuming their appropriate role as patriarchal protectors of African American women. Beyond a searing indictment of white hypocrisy and barbarism, Micheaux’s film is a harbinger of the masculine-centered New Negro ideology of the twenties. Chapman draws an explicit parallel between the comfort and protection that Dr. Vivian, the movie’s New Negro archetype, offers Sylvia Landry, the movie’s protagonist, and the new antilynching strategy of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. In both arenas, the message was clear: the battle against ignorance and racial oppression was man’s work.
The pages of Opportunity magazine, the journal of the National Urban League, bolster Chapman’s argument. Stressing the need for rational analysis and modern research methods, the social scientists whose work filled the journal and inspired its message were the real-life analogues of Dr. Vivian. They stressed especially the importance of black women’s maternal roles within the context of robust patriarchal families. The challenges confronting black women wage-earners were of concern only to the extent that they impeded women from assuming their appropriate maternal duties. New Negro progressives, Chapman contends, consequently “obfuscated the need for the redress of black women’s particular oppression” while accentuating the plight of black male breadwinners (55).
Further complicating the challenges that black women confronted during the 1920s was the deeply contradictory “sex-race marketplace.” [End Page 157] (Regrettably, no precise definition of the “sex-race marketplace” is provided.) Fantasies of blackness, sexuality, and femininity were rife in the consumer culture of the era. Advertisements for records and beauty products, publicity photos of starlets, novels, and other expressions of consumerism manifested contradictory images of racialized sexual promiscuity and domesticity, empowerment and caricature...