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1920s - The Women of the New Negro Movement (Book Review)

Updated: Jan 24, 2022

Chapman, Erin D. Prove it On Me: New Negroes, Sex and Popular Culture in the 1920s. New York: Oxford University Press, 2012. x + 114 pp. List of Figures, Acknowledgements, notes, bibliography, index. $31.99


If one should never judge a book by its cover, then let it be said that a book should also never be judged by its length. In Prove it On Me: New Negroes, Sex and Popular Culture in the 1920s, Erin D. Chapman, a scholar of race and sexuality and an associate professor of History at George Washington University, has delivered a concise text where every word and phrase is tightly and succinctly woven to upend the familiar, (and often overplayed), images of the 1920s female in all her flapper girl mythos. By analyzing the visuals of cinema, photography and advertisements, and juxtaposing that analysis with biographies and articles by social activists, Chapman dismisses Roaring Twenties caricatures to understand the previously unclaimed worlds that the New Negro woman had come to occupy. In describing the unique métiers that the New Negro woman would be known for, Chapman narrows the roles down to two distinct niches: ’race motherhood’ and the ‘sex-race marketplace’. Because of Chapman’s razor sharp focus and uncluttered distillation, readers are able to see that, while the New Negro woman occupied these carved out spaces, they were not spaces she was allowed to own, all thanks to a patriarchal circular logic that cinched the New Negro woman in tight, demanding her self-sacrifice in an era that was supposedly brimming with liberation.


Chapman’s choice of title is apropos, as “Prove it on Me” was a song made famous by blues chanteuse Gertrude “Ma” Rainey. In the song, Rainey hints at sexual involvement with a woman while also daring audiences to prove that she was involved in such a taboo liaison. After crooning about folks maybe/maybe not catching her in the sapphic act, she sings:


“Don't you say I do it, ain't nobody caught me

You sure got to prove it on me.”

Chapman provides the context for her choice of title by retelling the story that occurred one night in 1925 when Chicago police arrested Rainey in her home for hosting a so-called ‘lesbian party’. Through the song, Rainey is hinting at and indulging in scandalous behavior while simultaneously telling listeners that they have to prove she did anything at all. Chapman elaborates that the tongue-in-cheek song forces society to try and prove that a woman, (in this case Rainey), deserves a scarlet letter or condemnation of any kind. The audience, meanwhile, can vicariously experience a supposedly naughty thrill, while leaving the Black female singer to handle any disreputable fallout.


Before launching into the essence of who the New Negro woman was, Chapman quickly establishes that the New Negro movement was how the grandchildren of the Reconstruction Era sought to establish themselves as an energetic generation ready to spearhead a renaissance that would be both glamorized and intellectualized. As the Great Migration saw Black citizens from the South move into Northern cities, "the New Negro vanguard connoted a new militancy in their determination to receive respect for their humanity, defend constitutional rights and privileges and participate fully in U.S. society” (7). For the purposes of Chapman’s social and pop culture analysis, what this meant was that New Negroes constituted a force both as consumers and producers of entertainment, while also being commodities. In the marketplace where film, music and storytelling all overlapped, the idea of who owned the entertainment was often not clear. What was clear, however, at least to Chapman, was that the New Negro woman, for all her burgeoning independence and self-determination, was frequently denied equality and a platform that was all her own. Because of this, in the critical interwar period, New Negro women felt “a muted dissatisfaction with the limitations prescribed by race motherhood and a nagging frustration with the oversimplified, extreme, inhumane representations proffered within the sex-race marketplace” (18). In that key sentence, Chapman hits on two pivotal phrases that will center the theme of her text: ‘race motherhood’ and 'sex-race marketplace’. To investigate these concepts, Chapman zeroes in on the areas of film, advertisements and photography - areas of ultimate visibility - to understand how New Negro women attempted to redefine Blackness and independent womanhood.


When talking about the New Negro woman, Chapman uses such telltale words as ‘commodities’ and ‘consumption’. No matter how forward or bold Black women were as singers and actresses, ultimately, they were still part of a package that was controlled by either the white masses or by Black male creatives. In that sense, when a Black woman appeared on the screen or on the stage, Chapman describes a gluttonous audience that devoured the New Negro woman with crude appreciation. One of her first examples is Evelyn Preer, an actress primarily known for her role as Sylvia Landry in Oscar Micheaux’s Within Our Gates, a race film of the New Negro era that is regarded as a response to the violence of the Red Summer of 1919, and to the overt racism and dangerous stereotyping in D.W. Griffith’s Birth of a Nation. Chapman carefully reconstructs Preer’s early days as a vaudeville actress and blues singer, pointing out that she was already well known to audiences when Micheaux cast her in the film. For that reason, Micheaux and “his network of distributers used her name, and more important, her face to draw crowds to this “masterpiece" of a “preachment” against race prejudice” (24). In that sense, Preer, while a star in her own right, was an advertising commodity for Micheaux.


Within Our Gates follows Sylvia Landry, (Preer), as she moves North to become a teacher and fundraises to save a school. Meanwhile, a montage intercuts between her remembering her own rape from years ago in the South, and the ongoing reality of present-day lynching all over America. And yet, despite the film utilizing Preer as its marketable starlet, Chapman is quick to note that the Sylvia character is not treated as the driving force of the story, and that her narrative is expropriated to “announce the arrival of the New Negro - a modern type of black man ready and willing to lead the race out of degradation” (24). No matter where Sylvia is in the story - whether she is in the North or returning to the South - she has a martyr-like obsession for the welfare of her race and a disregard for her own ambitions.


For Chapman, this is positioning the New Negro woman in the constantly self-sacrificing role that is necessary to the race motherhood plot line both on and off the screen. Such a narrative ultimately services the patriarchy, especially as “all of Sylvia’s decisions and actions are motivated by the needs, demands or aspirations of the black men surrounding her” (35). Chapman agonizes over the fact that Sylvia is never celebrated for herself, and that everything she does is for the quixotic advancement of her race as a metaphorical whole. This fictional treatment dovetails the actual treatment of Preer, whose thespian pedigree was used to promote the film, while she herself did not receive a wave of new film offers and was not treated like a Hollywood star. While disheartened by the race motherhood status that the movie reinforced, Chapman does balance that critique by recognizing that “this intra-racial discourse countered the images of servile mammies” (52). In essence, despite the fact that race motherhood created a pigeonholed character, Chapman seems to be saying that it was at least an alternative to the mothering slave-turned-servant whose chummy complacency was used for both comedic purposes and to support the white savior complex.

Chapman takes the deconstruction of the race motherhood concept a step further in such chapters as “Mothering the Race: New Negro Progressivism and the Work of Racial Advancement”. There, Chapman observes that “black women were expected to devote the whole of their energies and talents to the betterment of the race's opportunities through the successful reproduction and training of the next generation” (57). For Chapman, constructing this narrative of being the wholesome mother to the entire race was the counterargument for the particularly horrific bias that black women were hyper-sexed and somehow deserving of the centuries of rape and assault perpetuated by slave owners and later by white men. While Chapman cites such renowned scholars and activists as Ida B. Wells to lambaste the twisted reasons behind the lie that Black men went around raping white women, she also unearths lesser known scholars who used psychological analysis to unveil the hypocrisy of white women and their unfounded accusations.


Chapman introduces readers to E. Franklin Frazier, calling him an architect of New Negro progressivism and highlighting his work with such institutes as the Atlanta School of Social Work and the National Urban League. Chapman credits Frazier with diluting the argument that white men and women put forth about black men supposedly lusting after white women. She credits him with using “explicit psychological jargon to directly accuse white women of so ardently desiring black men that they pretended to have been raped when they had not in fact ever been touched” (59). Essentially, Chapman recognizes Frazier for flipping the script on white accusers. However, even as Frazier dismantles the arguments essential to white supremacists, Chapman points out that he does not go far enough in support of the New Negro woman. The reason is that Frazier recognizes that the omniscient forces of white supremacy are institutional and often beyond the immediate control of any one person, including Black fathers and husbands. For that reason, he drove home his belief that Black men needed to establish dominance where they could. That was why Frazier urged the New Negro woman to elevate the husband and father within the domestic sphere. His reason was because, if “nowhere else, within the families, black men ought to assert themselves as dominant and capable” (65). From there, Chapmen also makes it clear that she is bothered by the fact that Frazier stated that disorganization in the home could derail the Black patriarch from conquering oppressive forces outside his family. For Frazier, this was why the New Negro woman needed to be selfless, to be ”subordinated under men's authority within the family and devote themselves to the welfare of the children" (67). Just as Evelyn Preer's fictional character of Sylvia prostrated herself for the good of the family and the patriarchy, Chapman recognizes that men like Frazier wanted that same trope to play out in real life.


In addition to Frazier, Chapman cites another social scientist, Charles S. Johnson, as being guilty of perpetuating a similar stereotype and oppressive narrative on the New Negro woman, especially through the journal Opportunity: Journal of Negro Life, which was full of New Negro art, political essays and literature. In editorials he wrote during the 1920s, he “identified working women as a curse on the black family” (69). For Johnson, New Negro progressivism would only work if the woman’s energies were funneled into the home once she was married, just as Sylvia did in Within Our Gates. In addition, when single women worked, it was to be understood that “their work was done on behalf of the race” (71). In analyzing what Frazier and Johnson say about the New Negro woman, Chapman repeatedly uses the word 'commodity' and ‘commodified’. She does this to emphasize that the New Negro woman was not a centerpiece of her family, let alone of her own life, and that every part of her was piecemealed for the benefit of her race.

Beyond the mother role, Chapman presents the other extreme of a New Negro woman’s allotted identity in a chapter aptly titled, “Consuming the New Negro: The Whirlpools of the Sex-Race Marketplace”. This time Chapman introduces readers to Ethel Waters, a Progressive Era prototype of the sex symbols Josephine Baker and Dorothy Dandridge. Waters demonstrated her understanding of her role as a sex symbol and provocateur when she wrote the following on an autographed photo that featured her in a glittery, tantalizing gown:


To Carl Van Vechten, Ethel Waters now dressed to go back where I stayed last nite & shake that Thing so 50 million Frenchmen can go wrong” (79).


For Chapman, the fact that Waters chose to caption her seductive photo with a sassy yet self-aware greeting emphasizes that she was mindful of the contradictions surrounding her life as a New Negro woman in the public eye. On the one hand, based on her inscription, Waters was cognizant of her power as a performer and her appeal as someone who could titillate. On the other hand, she knew that her image “also fed the fantasies and predictions of an oppressive, dominant culture with the power to exploit her body and to suppress the independence of her voice” (80). As a performer, she was free of some rules that governed the race motherhood domestic spheres. Yet, as a woman who was active in the sex-race marketplace, she only had power if she stayed alluring. And even then, her sexuality was not her own. The power was wielded by observing males.


Chapman makes it clear that, for a woman to be part of the sex-race marketplace, she had to have an entrepreneurial spirit. To demonstrate that quality, Chapman cites the success of beauty guru and businesswoman Madame C.J. Walker. Chapman points out that, even though Walker prided herself on running a conservative company, the fact that she made her money in products that were part of the beatification process also made her part of the sex-race marketplace. Chapman almost seems amused when she writes about the contradictions within Walker’s company motto and reputation. On the one hand, Walker's company strove to not be associated with the world of vaudeville entertainers and blues women. On the other hand, Chapman argues that, whether Walker wanted to be associated with those women or not was besides the point; Walker’s products allowed a woman to reimagine herself privately and publicly so that, ultimately, the “New Negro woman was not a paragon of respectability constrained by the culture of dissemblance. On the contrary, she sought the limelight and reveled in her visibility” (91). By enjoying the limelight, the New Negro woman was venturing beyond the preconceived notions of domesticated respectability. And if she was using products to alter, amplify and vivify her appearance, she was a definite player in the sex-race marketplace. What is more, she was distinguishing herself in beautifying rituals of individuality, the likes of which ran counter to the previous notions of a New Negro woman living only to promote the patriarchy.


No analysis of the New Negro woman would be complete without recognizing the blues woman of the era. Not only does Chapman discuss the lives of performers, she analyzes advertisements as ways of understanding the person within the sex-race marketplace. In dissecting such advertisements as Whip to a Jelly with Clara Smith and Hateful Blues with Bessie Smith, Chapman emphasizes that the cartoons were as important as the words used, especially as a significant part of the viewership would have been illiterate. Filled with slang and code switching, Chapman recognizes that the language used was part of the sell of the woman who sang seductively about Saturday night troubles and Monday morning errands. In the example of Clara Smith’s Whip to a Jelly, the language and image create a fantasy of a sassy, no-nonsense woman who also owns new domestic appliances, such as the ones the cartoonish Clara Smith is using while she is ‘whipping’ a concoction to jelly. The ad is selling the dual fantasy of nostalgia and prosperity, of femininity and seduction while promising that a woman will whip it good while also looking good. Using Chapman’s lens, this one advertisement features a New Negro woman bringing together the worlds of the domestic race motherhood and the coy sex-race marketplace.



In Hateful Blues with Bessie Smith, however, Chapman notes how the bluesy New Negro woman is depicted in a degrading caricature of the ‘angry Black woman' who is furious over a two-timing man. Chapman points out that the obvious blackface makes the image inexcusably racist while the other elements trap her in both the race motherhood and the sex-race marketplace categories. Because of the blackface, the image as a whole maintains a “racial hierarchy and imbalance of power by returning African Americans to their accustomed cultural place as minstrel comedians and their social place as the stepping stones of white supremacy” (95). While the Bessie Smith advertisement treats the New Negro woman as a farce, it also depicts her through the eyes of white oppressors as her power is stripped amid a cartoonish expression that is meant to amuse the viewer.


Chapman analyzes photographs with the same scrutiny as she does movies and advertisements, again from the standpoint that the photographs are meant for consumption. However, in some photographs, Chapman finds that the New Negro woman manages to seize a sense of self-possession, both by her stance and expression. She also points out that photos provide greater possibilities for women than advertisements, declaring that “this fantastic, deceitful, chimera-filled cultural space was the birthplace of the New Negro woman” (103). While a photographed woman is a participant in the sex-race marketplace, because of the camera, the power shifts slightly in her favor. Chapman proves this by lingering over a 1926 photograph of Josephine Baker. In the image, Baker is backlit while standing on a platform in a studio. She cuts an almost mermaid silhouette as she proudly stands in the nude, a shimmering veil of fabric and a web of pearls as her only covering. Chapman observes that Baker is positioned above the camera and that such a superior posture gives her a statuesque ambiance.



In studying the photo, Chapman realizes that Baker “could be a statue looking down upon smaller humans revering her. She could be a Venus seducing mortal men. The shadow behind her heightens this effect of her superiority” (107). Baker is also not smiling, a fact that, for Chapman, supports the argument that she does not care if she has anyone's approval. While she is an active participant in the sex-race marketplace, she wrests control from the viewer with her confidence. Chapman introduces readers to other stars, such as Nora Holt and Ethel Waters, who have similar photos where the artistry of the postures and the power dominating their gazes makes it impossible to think of these women as being subservient to either the Black patriarchy or the white supremacy narrative. Ultimately, what this does is prove another aspect of Chapman’s thesis that the New Negro woman was constantly employing “a multitude of strategies to control their representations in the marketplace and thus to shape their subjectivities” (113). These moments of dominance, however, make the New Negro woman’s relationship within the sex-race marketplace all the more complex, for just when an advertisement lampoons her, a black-and-white photograph shows her assuming the posture of queen.


Chapman ultimately resigns herself to the fact that the social order of the Progressive Era and the 1920s simply did not know what to do or make of a New Negro woman. And therein lies the degrading paradox that Chapman grapples with throughout her book. Her laser-sharp research and writing stays focused on the narrow categories of race motherhood and sex-race marketplace in order to keep readers focused on how the New Negro woman navigated her way though a world where white supremacy and Black patriarchy made the rules. Every stage of the New Negro woman’s life was about overcoming obstacles as “black women explicitly and implicitly challenged and sometimes even negated the restrictive definition of good and worthy womanhood handed down to them by their elders and imposed upon them by their male counterparts” (150). As the New Negro woman faced old-fashioned impositions from seemingly all sides, it is no wonder that she gravitated towards the newer mediums of art photography, film and blues music, if only to reshape the perimeters society girded around her.

Perhaps what stands out the most in Prove it on Me is that Chapman is not concerned with legislative agendas or civil rights successes and setbacks. She is interested and mesmerized, (and makes readers equally interested and mesmerized), by the women in the public eye, in the gray places between domestic purity and theatrical vampishness. It is also refreshing that Chapman is a historian who is fine with communicating her irritation regarding the fact that Black women were forced to choose between the self-sacrificing reality of motherhood and the ephemeral liberation of sex symbol. Readers may even grind their teeth upon finding that stereotypes and boundaries of the 1920s have not gone anywhere, and that a New Negro woman would recognize the oppositional forces that seek to censor Black women in today's entertainment. Still, thanks to Chapman's diligence, the New Negro woman is finally given righteous attention, after being told for far too long that her only acceptable options were that of mother or coquette, both of which promised, but never delivered, happiness and independence.

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