Whoever states the old adage, “A picture is worth a thousand words” grossly underestimates. So Erin D. Chapman shows in Prove It On Me: New Negroes, Sex, and Popular Culture in the 1920s (Oxford University Press, 2012). Just consider the images of African Americans in US popular culture throughout the 19th and 20th centuries; consider the power they held in defining an entire people, and we know better—pictures evince far more than 1000 words. Chapman explores what happens when African Americans use old sexist-racist images and/or create fresh ones to tout the Negro at the turn of the 20th century as modern and new. Through an examination of advertisements at the time, the author makes it evident that many saw the commodification and consumption of the black female body as essential to achieving goals for racial advancement or self-determinism.
Chapman, professor of History at George Washington University, offers readers something new: she demonstrates the push-pull dynamics of the image-making in the New Negro era. For, as the new public desire for actual black bodies (as opposed to minstrel caricatures) opens space for the nation to view African Americans as human beings, it also allows for the continued dehumanization of those same bodies—particularly those of the African American female body.
As Blueswoman Gertrude “Ma” Rainey demonstrates in the lyrics of her 1928 recording, “Prove It On Me”, to define the self through the use of images is tricky business for who one purports to be in their public persona does not necessarily reflect their private selves. Moreover, in judging “right” versus “wrong” images one must consider the sex-race marketplace where selling and buying is the name of the game—regardless of who is selling to and/or buying from whom.
If you want to learn more about New Negroes and how they used prominent ideas about gender, race and sexuality to sell and consume various ideas and products Erin D. Chapman’s fine book is what you’re looking for.