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Sensuality (AtoZ Challenge 2016 – Jazz Age Jazz)

Sensuality (AtoZ Challenge 2016 - Jazz Age Jazz) The line the blueswoman had to thread in the 1920s was very thin, between the commodification of her body and the possibilities popularity gave her to make her true voice be heard (1920s, primitivism)
The blueswoman gathered in herself most of the controversial issues of the time. She was a modern kind of woman who knew how to use her sensuality wisely #jazz #jazzmusic #jazzhistory Click To Tweet
S - Sensuality (AtoZ Challenge 2016 - Jazz Age Jazz)

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.

Josephine Baker was a dancer and singer who became wildly popular in France during the 1920s. She also devoted much of her life to fighting racism
Josephine Baker

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.

Bessie Smith was an American blues singer. Nicknamed the Empress of the Blues, she was the most popular female blues singer of the 1920s and 1930s
Bessie Smith

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)


  • durba dhyani
    Posted April 22, 2016 at 05:42

    Loved listening to Bye Bye Blackbird 🙂 A wealth of info in your posts!

    • Post Author
      Posted April 22, 2016 at 14:35

      Happy you enjoyed it. And htanks so much for stopping by 🙂

  • Tasha
    Posted April 22, 2016 at 10:35

    I can’t imagine what it must have been like walking that line and trying to keep everything in balance. That their voices come to us from the past is a testament to their ability and their passion.
    Tasha’s Thinkings | Wittegen Press | FB3X (AC)

    • Post Author
      Posted April 22, 2016 at 14:39

      Chapman’s book, that I referenced above, is really interesting in that regard. The Twenties were times where women were conquiring more freedom and where African Americans in general were advancing in many fields. Still, being a black woman was a very different expereince from both the others. It was really a work of balancing desires, expectations and actual possibilities.

  • Sophie Duncan
    Posted April 22, 2016 at 12:52

    It’s a tough line to walk for any woman in show business between objectification/exploitation and that independent spirit, but the addition of the colour of their skin gave these blueswomen a whole added dimension to face.
    Sophie’s Thoughts & Fumbles | Wittegen Press | FB3X

    • Post Author
      Posted April 22, 2016 at 14:41

      As Chapman explained really well in her book, being a black woman in a time when women and African American men were advancing in many field, was a very though expereince.

  • Kathleen Valentine
    Posted April 22, 2016 at 19:13

    I have always found her very fascinating and very, very brave. She did well for herself but she put up with a lot, too.

    Meet My Imaginary Friends

    • Post Author
      Posted April 22, 2016 at 21:12

      Apparently, that was the case for many blueswomen.

  • Megan Morgan
    Posted April 23, 2016 at 14:22

    She’s probably not wholly considered jazz and she’s way after this time period, but I love me some Etta James! This is going to sound weird, but if you’ve ever listened to Hozier (who is a guy) he reminds me so much of Etta James…even though he’s a guy!

    • Post Author
      Posted April 25, 2016 at 08:03

      I do know Hozier. I’ve never heard Etta James. I’ll have to seek her out 🙂

  • Sir Leprechaunrabbit
    Posted April 24, 2016 at 18:54

    Black singers had a lot going against them, but so did any minority that wanted to make a name for themselves.
    That fine line has been around for far too many years, and still exists for some today. For a very few, they were able to make (and continue to leave) their mark.
    And a few others I am certain I have forgotten; but could they step up and perform under those standards back then, now?
    It would be an incredible sight to see any of these ladies sing!!

    • Post Author
      Posted April 25, 2016 at 08:07

      As Chapman explains beautifully in her book (Prove it on Me), the position of black women in the 1920s was truly particular and probably unique, due to social situation within and without their community.
      The entire concept of ‘mothering the Race’ (that I didn’t touch here, but was central to their social role) put black women in a very complex position in a time when women in general were gaining more freedom.

  • Celine
    Posted May 4, 2016 at 13:56

    I can’t imagine what it must have been like, treading that tightrope and trying to balance all these different aspects. It makes you realise how amazing someone like Josephine Baker was and what a fantastically strong woman she was to have not only done well out of the world she lived in, but remained an icon right up to our time!

    • Post Author
      Posted May 4, 2016 at 16:40

      The position of black women in America in the Twenties was really a hard, difficult, tricky one. I just scrapped the surface with this article.

  • Brian Hastings
    Posted February 19, 2019 at 09:28

    I just enjoyed reading this one. I heard a jazz band in Arlington and they inspired me to dive into the world of classic jazz music. Keep sharing more.

    • Post Author
      Posted February 19, 2019 at 18:34

      Hi Brian. So happy you enjoyed this. Jazz is such a fascinating form of music. I loved writing this series. I loved the research.

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