It isn’t hard to see why one of the most controversial figures of the Roaring Twenties ended up being the black woman who sang the blues.
The blueswoman gathered in herself most of the controversial issues of the time. She was a modern kind of woman. Like the flapper, she sought freedom of expression and self-determination. She was a black woman subject to the dehumanisation of Primitivism, and she was a show-business woman, trapped in the new modern consumer society.
It wasn’t an easy balance.
On the one hand, the blueswoman had the strength and character to create herself. Her talent, ambition and audacity helped her become prominent and visible inside the very competitive show business, and her deep roots in African American tradition asserted her cultural character.
But on the other hand, this alone wouldn’t have been enough. The Twenties liked to celebrate a person’s personality but also privileged the exotic and an open display of the body and one’s sexuality. The blueswomen certainly didn’t hold back from it.
Although the blueswoman was indeed, partly, her own creation, especially in the shifting of genre and sexual mores discussion, she was also a product of the imagination of the primitivist’s mind. She was a particular manifestation of the New Negro.
The blueswoman was then both an actor and a victim of her circumstances, a position she fought against with every possible means.
In the 1920s, Josephine Baker became extremely famous by playing the Primitivism game. Far from being opposed to the commodification of the black female body, she exploited white eroticization by basing her shows on racial stereotypes.
Ma Rainy, who was famous for her many affairs with both young men and women, sang songs – often written by white men – that played on the theme of the sexually aggressive woman, a stereotype that came down to black women from the time of slavery. The black female body as an object, originally in slavery, then in minstrel and vaudeville shows, must be kept in mind when considering how black performers succeeded on national stages.
The most significant power of the sex-race marketplace was its ability to wholly obscure the distinction between real, human black women and their glamorous, exotic, erotic representations. Blusewomen were aware of this, and if in some respects they accepted it in return for fame, in others they used that fame to make their voice be heard. Once they had allowed stereotypes to make them visible, they used that visibility to forward a more authentic view of themselves.
Not an easy balance at all.
Ogren, Kathy J., The Jazz Revolution. Twenties America and the Meaning of Jazz. Oxford University Press, New York, 1989
Chapman, Erin D. Prove It on Me – New Negros, sex and popular culture in the 1920s. Oxford University Press, New York, 2012
Westerns Libraries – The Politics of Black Sexuality in Classic Blues (PDF)