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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 Based on archival materials and historical documents, Bodies That Work examines four women who reinterpreted and reorganized the historically divided black female body and positioned it within the body politic: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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The year of Frederick Douglass’s death, 1895, marked the beginning of a chaotic era in the history of racism against African Americans in U.S. politics.1 The ostensibly monolithic black discourse of anti-racism collapsed with the loss of this unyielding leader, orator, and statesman. That same year, Ida B. Wells—a possible heir to Douglass’s activism with her uncompromising commitment to social, political, and financial equality, regardless of race or gender—published a pamphlet titled “A Red Record: Tabulated Statistics and Alleged Causes of Lynchings in the United States, 1892–1893–1894.”2 In this thorough analysis of racial violence, she condemned the prevalence of lynching, stating that “no opportunity [was given to the victimized] to make a lawful defense” in a supposedly “civilized” nation.3 The antagonistic discourse she inspired, however, was soon replaced by the words of a newly emerging leader of African Americans—Booker T. Washington.4 In September 1895, Washington, who had a different strategy from Wells for resolving the institutional racism that African Americans had to incur, delivered an obsequious speech to the Cotton States and International Exposition, held in Atlanta, Georgia, that became widely known as the Atlanta Compromise.5 In the speech, he proposed a new solution to the problem of racism against African Americans in the United States. Despite criticism from fellow African Americans, such as W. E. B. Du Bois (another emerging black leader and scholar and a more ←1 | 2→aggressive spokesperson for black people), Washington’s speech received immediate national and international attention.6

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