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Bodies That Work

African American Women’s Corporeal Activism in Progressive America

Tami Miyatsu

Bodies That Work describes the redefinition of the invisible, fragmented, and commodified African American female body. In Progressive America, black women began to use their bodies in new ways and ventured into professions in which they had typically not been represented. They were bodies that worked—that labored, functioned, and achieved in collective empowerment and that overcame racial, ethnic, and class divides and grappled with the ideas and values of political, financial, and intellectual leadership, thereby dispelling the ingrained stereotypes of womanhood associated with slavery. Based on archival materials and historical documents, Bodies That Work examines four women who reinterpreted and reorganized the historically divided black female body and positioned it within the body politic: Sarah Breedlove Walker, or Madam C.J. Walker (1867–1919), an entrepreneur; Emma Azalia Hackley (1867–1922), an opera singer; Meta Warrick Fuller (1877–1968), a sculptor; and Josephine Baker (1906–1975), an international performer. Each reshaped a different part of the female body: the hair (Walker), the womb and hands (Fuller), the vocal cords (Hackley), and the torso (Baker), all of which had been denigrated during slavery and which continued to be devalued by white patriarchy in their time. Alleviating racial and gender prejudices through their work, these women provided alternative images of black womanhood. The book’s focus on individual body parts inspires new insights within race and gender studies by visualizing the processes by which women lost/gained autonomy, aspiration, and leadership and demonstrating how the black female body was made (in)visible in the body politic.

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I could not imagine publishing a book of my own when I entered into a Ph.D. course at the University of Tsukuba, Japan, four years ago just after failing to gain a thesis-based Ph.D. degree: I could not find my way out. This book is, in fact, the third dissertation-length thesis I have written in the past 20 years. Decades ago, I submitted a 200-page thesis just to finish a Ph.D. course (without being granted a degree), which took me four years. The thesis was about the family and community in Toni Morrison’s early works. Working as a college instructor, I wrote the second, which took me seven years to finish. It reviewed motherhood in women’s antebellum slave narratives. After I failed to gain the degree with that endeavor, I decided, this time, to enroll in a Ph.D. course again. Working as a full-time instructor, I started a new project at Tsukuba in 2015. I was nervous about studying alongside much younger students. The only goal I set on that first day at Tsukuba was to hone my academic research skills under the guidance of distinguished professors.

The four years at Tsukuba turned out to be more wonderful than I had expected. In a huge, rural—yet also very international—campus at the foot of Mt. Tsukuba, I spent an incredible time—the most exciting, inspiring, and fruitful time that I had ever experienced in my academic career. I am very much indebted to my advisor, Etsuko Taketani,...

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