Sensuality (AtoZ Challenge 2016 – Jazz Age Jazz)

Sensuality (Jazz Age Jazz Series) The relationship between blueswomen and jazz was very complicated. They were often victime of the commodification of primitivism, but jazz also gave them the popularity that allowed them to voice their own heart

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It isn’t very 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 her freedom of expression and self determination. She was a black woman subject to the spersonalization of Primitivism, and she was a show business woman, trapped in the new modern consumer society.
It wasn’t an easy balance.

Josephine Baker

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 the personality, but also privileged the exotic and the open display of the body and sexuality… and 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 shaped by the strong imagination of the primitivist’s mind. She was a particular manifestation of the New Negro.

Bessie Smith

Bessie Smith

This position made the blueswoman both an actor and a victim of her circumstances, which she fought with every means possible.
In 1920s, Josephine Baker became extremely famous by playing the Primitivism game. She was not opposed to the commodification of the black female body, rather 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 song – 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. 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 greatest power of the sex-race marketplace was its ability to wholly obscure the distinction between real, human black woman and their glamorous, exotic, erotic representations. Blusewomen were aware of this, and if in some respects they simply accepted it in return for fame, in other respects 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)

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About the Author

I was born, raised and I still live near Verona (Italy), though I worked for a time in Dublin. I started writing fantasy stories as a kid. Today I’m a bookseller who reads fantasy, history, mythology, anthropology and lots of speculative fiction. Somehow, all of this has found its way into my own dieselpunk stories.

14 Comments on "Sensuality (AtoZ Challenge 2016 – Jazz Age Jazz)"

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

  2. 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.
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    • 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.

  3. 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.
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    • 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.

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

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  5. 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!
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  6. 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!!

    • 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.

  7. 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!
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