Ma Rainey’s Black Feminist Claiming of Her Sexuality
Ma Rainey, considered the mother of blues in many ways birthed a black female sexuality that is confined by neither respectability nor sexual depravity. In her song “Prove it on me” and many others, Rainey proclaims her sexuality proudly and shows how black women practice freedom within a society intent on oppressing and confining them to harmful controlling images.
Blues singers disseminated a Black feminism that celebrated emotional resilience and sexual pleasure, no matter the source” reads the summary of the documentary T’ain’t Nobody’s Bizness : queer blues divas of the 1920s. “ Gertrude Ma” Rainey, as a queer woman of color, used her songs such as “Prove it on Me” to express a sexuality that both the white patriarchy and heteronormativity tried to erase.
Rainey makes her intention of honesty and pride evident through lyrics such a “Folks say I’m crooked/ I didn’t know where she took it/ I want the whole world to know” (Rainey). Specifically, her use of the word “crooked” informs the listener that many people in her society view homosexuality as wrong, but her use of “folks” honors that this idea of wrong is placed on her by society. Therefore, the lyrics allow Rainey to reject the homophobia she has experienced and express her desire to be proud of her sexuality
Similar to how Rainey was harmed by heterosexual pressure, white society over sexualized black woman and tried to make them into temptresses for consumption. However, Rainey refused to be sexual on their terms and rejected their stereotypes. She instead dictates her own desires in her lyrics.
The use of blues to communicate with others whose sexuality similarly did not fit within hetero-normative standards allowed for a queer sisterhood that supported eroticism and passion. In a time of struggle between prohibition and bootleg liquor, queer blues singers similarly used the freedom in blues to critic the homophobia and sexual repression of their time.
Sisterhood is clearly evident in the friendship between Bessie Smith and Ma Rainey. In fact, in 1925 when Rainey was arrested for throwing an indecent party with other women, Bessie Smith was the one to bail her out. Similar to the police raids of gay bars and bathhouses, these women’s personal freedom in regards to their sexuality was ripped from them by the state. But their community and resiliency can be seen in the hand that Bessie lent to Ma Rainey.
Although Rainey didn’t perform much in Harlem because she was largely based out of Chicago, she both influenced and was influenced by that revolutionary artistic time period and a piece on queer sexuality within the black community would be remise if it ignored the clubs in Harlem that hosted blues singers, some of which Rainey performed at herself.
Additionally, Ma Rainey in “Prove it on Me” pushes at the boundaries of gender. She states “It’s true I wear a collar and a tie/ Makes the wind blow all the while” (Rainey). The phrase and her gender expression are used by Rainey to in, Black feminist fashion, create a space and identity for her self and decide how others will see her. Most importantly, the repeating lines “Cause they say I do it/ ain’t nobody caught me/ Sure got to prove it on me” (Rainey) exemplifies her fortitude against their desire to persecute and vilify her by sardonically placing the burden of truth on them.
Naming, through “Prove it on Me”, what it means to simply be herself was a radical Black Feminist act because Rainey lived in a time where a black woman being herself was seen as dangerous. Her performances, in which she every motion was dripped in sensuality and her well-known cravings for sex, actively sought to combat the respectability that took away black women’s access to the erotic. She exudes eroticism by combining feeling and sex in each of her songs, specifically in “Prove it on Me” where she celebrates the possibility of positive queer eroticism By centering her sexuality in her songs, Ma Rainey therefore moved from sex object to sex subject and a active instead of passive participant in her desire.
Furthermore, these blues songs allowed for black women to create a narrative that wasn’t based on a imprisoning morality and allowed for a black woman identity free of inhibitions. Blues women such as Rainey, who were seen as wild women, made the conscious decision to name their desire instead of allowing society to label them as overly sexual beings. Like black women before such as Sojourner Truth, Rainey uses her image both in lyric and photo to assert her control over her identity and to make a political jab at the system which prevents from being able to be herself safely.
T’ain’t Nobody’s Bizness : Queer Blues Divas of the 1920’s. Dir. Beverley Guy-
Sheftall. WorldCat.org. N.p., 2013. Web. 14 Apr. 2016.
Rainey, Ma. Prove It on Me. Gertrude “Ma” Rainey. Document Records, 1928. MP3.