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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 Based on archival materials and historical documents, Bodies That Work examines four women who reinterpreted and reorganized the historically divided black female body and positioned it within the body politic: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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Author’s Note


When I studied at KCL in the fall of 1987 was when I first came across Toni Morrison’s works. The Bluest Eye and Beloved were a shock to a Japanese international student majoring in English literature—someone who went to England to learn more about romantic but tragic Victorian novels. The discussions about incest and infanticide soon drove Charles Dickens, Thomas Hardy, and George Gissing out of my mind. Some research questions, which remained unanswered in class discussions, haunted me even when I went back to my country. I was probably too immature (or naïve) to confront these “life” problems. When I returned to college as a graduate student after several years, I majored in American literature, instead of English literature, to grapple with the questions that lingered in my mind from in my younger days. I again asked myself what Pecola had died for and wondered whether Sethe’s “thick” love had worked. To seek out answers, I pored over fiction and nonfiction on “modern” American slavery and its tradition—that is, racism in the United States. In the classroom, I still ask my students the same questions about Toni Morrison’s works, letting them realize how different each answer can be.

Born to Japanese parents in Japan, I am not what is called a “native” researcher, but I have felt a mission to explore African American men and women since I read Toni Morrison’s novels at KCL. Some critics—for example, in ←xv | xvi→anthropology—problematize whether...

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