This is one of those rare weeks when what I am teaching in my intro-level course “American Civilization Since 1865” undergraduate class overlaps nicely with what is being discussed in my “Gender, Race and Urban Space” graduate class. In the former, I am addressing turn of the century reform efforts, hardening attitudes toward race and sexuality in an urbanizing America, and the United States’ growing empire that includes acquisition of Puerto Rico. In my graduate class, we are turning to Eileen Suarez Findlay’s study of Puerto Rico in roughly the same period through 1920 and Victoria Wolcott’s look at Detroit in roughly the same period, but particularly between the First and Second World Wars. In both cases, the eyes of judgement are often on women, especially working class women of African descent whose every movement is subject to inspection. The determined ways of some such women are put on display in “Black Bottom,” a song by the Georgia-born Ma Rainey, a blues singer who migrated north to Detroit as a means of enhancing the quality of her life. Even if the black elite had no use for her blatant references to sexuality via song (or the behavior of their brethren in the city’s Black Bottom community), she did what she had to do to survive as did other blueswomen including Bessie Smith who is featured in the video clip below.
The same was true for some Afro Puerto Rican women, among them, ones who faced judgement for walking without a male chaperone or engaging in bomba dancing. An example of such dancing can be seen in the video below about 7:22 minutes in.
Earlier this week in my Am Civ class, I showed Janet Jackson’s “Made for Now” video as a way of pushing my students’ thinking on what empire looks like. I love Janet, but I cannot help but see all kinds of narratives about sexuality, respectability as well as imperialism in this video, which is posted below.
The Super Bowl wardrobe malfunction certainly showed how she has been on the unfortunate end of judgement. She remains an American who happens to be a black woman rightly concerned about respectability after marrying and having a child with a wealthy Muslim man born outside of this country. In the “Made for Now” video she is not only asserting her ongoing relevance as a performer, but as a human being bearing some measure of complex power that poses tensions with the women in Wolcott and Findlay’s books.
Both books are thickly written and may present some challenges in an interdisciplinary class, but I look forward to seeing how the graduate students push through the reading and moreover, how they makes ties between the experiences of the women they encounter this week and ones earlier met in this course, among them the women in writings by Hazel Carby and Stephanie M.H. Camp as well as Imani Perry’s bio on Lorraine Hansberry. The city should by now emerge as a very animated space. It is also a complex one where some of the most unlikely face all sorts of trials that rarely stand entirely in the way of those same individuals reaching for more. How do we find meaning in the similarities and differences between these historical actors’ experiences?