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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 Based on archival materials and historical documents, Bodies That Work examines four women who reinterpreted and reorganized the historically divided black female body and positioned it within the body politic: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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1 The Grassroots Network of African American Women: Madam C. J. Walker’s Hair Care Empire



Get rid of the hair fixation …. You have the kind of hair that people in your mother’s and father’s families have had for generations. Strong. Tight. Coiled. It is the kind of hair that you are supposed to have. Hair that’s in your genes. In your DNA.

—Marita Golden, Don’t Play in the Sun (2004)1

“I like the way you wear your hair …. I wish you’d show me how you do it,” said Edith Sampson, admiring the hairstyle of Poppy Cannon, a South Africa-born white journalist, in Rome in 1949.2 Sampson was an African American lawyer participating as a representative of the National Council of Negro Women in a world tour sponsored by “America’s Town Meeting of the Air.” Cannon did not understand Sampson’s intention but soon noticed her “slight touch of embarrassment,” which she attributed to the “ever-present feminine problem” of African American women—their hair.3 When Cannon recounted the conversation to her husband, Walter White, the NAACP’s executive secretary, the blue-eyed, fair-skinned, blonde African American man laughed at his wife’s misinterpretation and said that Sampson’s small talk about hair was just to find out whether Cannon was a colored woman because, for Sampson, hair was a more eloquent indicator of racial identity than skin color.4

This incident reveals that even elite women like Sampson, who became the first African American delegate to the United Nations in the following year, were influenced by ideas about hair that were prevalent at the time....

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