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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 Based on archival materials and historical documents, Bodies That Work examines four women who reinterpreted and reorganized the historically divided black female body and positioned it within the body politic: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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2 Vocal Cords Vibrating against Black Codes: The Socio-Musical Activism of E. Azalia Hackley

 

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Black music … is not an artistic creation for its own sake; rather it tells us about the feeling and thinking of an African people, and the kinds of mental adjustments they had to make in order to survive in an alien land.

— James Cone, The Spirituals and the Blues: An Interpretation, 19921

“Genius draws no color line,” the Secretary of the Interior, Harold L. Ickes, said in his introduction of Marian Anderson, a prominent African American contralto, to the audience of more than 75,000 people gathered at the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, D.C., on Easter Sunday, April 9, 1939. The moment was a significant one in American history as the first time a singer broke the color line.2 The performance was made possible by Eleanor Roosevelt. The First Lady had taken a firm stand by resigning from the Daughters of the American Revolution (DAR) after the organization refused to allow Anderson to perform at the DAR-owned Washington’s Constitution Hall because of her race. In 1956, Anderson wrote about the historical role she had played on that day in her memoir, My Lord, What a Morning: An Autobiography: “I had become, whether I liked it or not, a symbol, representing my people.”3

Anderson’s American dream is a story that is well known to scholars of African American culture and history. What is less well known is that she was a protégée of E. Azalia Hackley (1867–1922), one of the earliest...

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