This song was recorded by many blues singers, with Bessie Smith recording her version in 1923 and the song itself becoming the biggest selling race record of 1949. Bessie herself was an incredibly popular singer, selling more records and earning more money than any other blues performer at the height of her popularity: She produced her first album in 1923 and sold a million copies, an incredible success for a black women from a poor background.. She achieved all of this success without compromising her individuality: she often performed wearing elaborate costumes with fringed shawls and dresses, heavy headdresses and jeweled caps, which at the time were deemed inappropriate for black women to wear by many prominent members of the Harlem Renaissance, such as Marcus Garvey . This integrity and refusal to conform to standards set by others is what I think makes Bessie Smith such an important and inspiring artist of the Harlem Renaissance.
The first verse of this song contains the lyrics “There ain’t nothing I can do or nothing I can say/ That folks don’t criticize me/ But I’m going to do just as I want to anyway/ And don’t care if they all despise me. These lyrics show a response to the constraints which were placed on black women during the time of the Harlem Renaissance, both by white and black society. Negative stereotypes of black women had long pervaded American society since the beginnings of slavery, and still carried on at this time. The main trope urban black women were often placed into at this time was ‘the Jezebel’: a sexually promiscuous women. This trope is particularly relevant to Bessie Smith as female blues singers were a key target for being assimilated into this trope, as blues lyrics often contained sexually charged references, and dance halls and cabarets, where blues was performed, were viewed, in the words of William H. Jones as nothing more than ‘sexual pantomimes… similar to many of the ancient and primitive methods of publicly arousing human passion in preparation for lascivious orgies. Female members of the black middle class sought to ‘protect’ working class black women through organisations such as the Phillis Wheatley Association, founded by Jane Edna Hunter , who described the association as “an instrument for the social and moral redemption” of young black women. This quote shows that black women were seen even by members of their own race as inherently corrupt and immoral, in need of redemption. Hazel V. Carby notes that working class black women “could be variously situated as a threat to the progress of the race; as a threat to the establishment of a respectable black middle class; as a threat to congenial black and white middle- class relations…” The tone of this song, however, seems to reject the idea that an individual is responsible for anyone other than herself, and as such organisations like the Phillis Wheatley Association who viewed it as their responsibility to shape the lives of young black girls to fit a certain mold were trespassing onto territory of lives that were not theirs, even if they belonged to the same race.
The idea of a collective race responsibility was prevalent during the Harlem Renaissance. W.E.B. DuBois saw black art as “a new way to challenge Jim Crow” and that through “supporting their (black artists) striving and their achievements” it would give “the lie to the racism that underpinned segregation.” As a result a responsibility was placed on black artists to use their art as a vehicle for black activism. This is problematic as it left black artists in the position of creating their art with the standards and tastes of white society in mind, and placed limitations on what was deemed acceptable to produce. The fear of failing to live up to white standards and forever being condemned to being seen as a stereotype is perhaps what is responsible for the creation of organisations like the Phillis Wheatley Association, yet rather than freeing black women it placed further restrictions on their behaviour and stripped them of their own agency. Bessie Smith refused to take into consideration both the wants of black and white society when it came to the production of her own art. Openly bisexual, known for being drunk, boisterous and openly engaging in casual sex, I believe that through acting for herself and refusing to owe anyone anything, Smith forwarded the cause for the empowerment of black women. I don’t think this advancement would have been possible, or possible so soon, had her and other similar characters of the Harlem Renaissance acted in accordance with W.E.B DuBois’s view, that African Americans must essentially be on their best behaviour; behaviour as deemed acceptable by whites, at all times whenever in front of a white audience. DuBois and Smith, as members of the middle-class and working class, respectively, differed in their attitudes on how to combat the racism of American society possibly due to their class differences. While middle class black men like DuBois often mixed with white middle class society, and placed great importance on intellectualism, Smith avoided this mixing as much as possible, even avoiding actually living in Harlem, and instead living in Philadelphia where the colour line was much more defined. It is likely that as a poor black women Smith faced much more abject cruelty from whites than DuBois did, and this may be why DuBois was much less resistant to white ideals than Smith.
As it can be seen that different individuals in the Harlem Renaissance had different priorities and goals which they sought to gain from the renaissance, it raises the question of whether the concept of the ‘New Negro’ was inclusive enough and able to fit all types of black identity. In some ways Smith can be seen to fit into the concept of the ‘New Negro’ and the lyrics of this song can be seen to express some of the attitudes believed to be held by the ‘New Negro’ as in J. A Rogers view that “The New Negro wastes no time worrying about his colour” , which, as much as was possible, Bessie Smith did not. Yet it seems as if the New Negro is not a concept which allows much room for women, as many influential people of the Harlem Renaissance seemed to create a separate confine of identity for women, as seen in the aims of the Phillis Wheatley Association, and the Black Cross Nurses. While many themes may be found in this song, I think the main tone of the lyrics rejects the idea of placing constraints upon the behaviour of black women, and urges the listener to do as she pleases. Smith’s legacy has influenced many famous singers throughout generations, such as Billie Holiday and Janis Joplin, and she still holds cultural relevancy today as the policing of black women’s body still exists, as can be seen in the non infrequent number of cases where black girls have been threatened with expulsion if they refuse to change their natural hairstyles.
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Hunter, A. (2013). Vanessa Van Dyke Could be Expelled After Having Her Hair Mocked. Available: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2013/11/26/vanessa-vandyke-expelled_n_4345326.html. Last accessed 4th March 2015.
Leeuwen, D. (2000). Marcus Garvey and the Universal Negro Improvement Association. Available: http://nationalhumanitiescenter.org/tserve/twenty/tkeyinfo/garvey.htm. Last accessed 4th March 2015.
Rogers, J, A. (1927). Who Is the New Negro and Why?. The Messenger Reader. 11 (1), 308-312.
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