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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 Based on archival materials and historical documents, Bodies That Work examines four women who reinterpreted and reorganized the historically divided black female body and positioned it within the body politic: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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3 Mutilated Womb, Violated Motherhood: Mary Turner and Meta Warrick Fuller’s Sculptural Protest



Meta Vaux Warrick is a young Philadelphia mulatto girl, whose expression in statuary of strange and original thought led Rodin—the celebrated, unique Rodin—to give her his special attention and a great deal of his valuable time during the three years of study she spent in Paris.

—“Mulatto Girl Winning Fame as a Sculptor,” Courier-Journal, 1903.1

On May 19, 1918, an African American woman named Mary Turner was brutally lynched in Brooks–Lowndes County, Georgia. The NAACP report titled Thirty Years of Lynching in the United States, 1889–1918 describes the incident as follows: “Mary Turner was pregnant and was hung by her feet. Gasoline was thrown on her clothing[,]; and her flesh was set on fire. Her pregnant belly was then cut open[,] and her fetus fell to the ground with a little cry, to be crushed to death by the heel of one of the white men present. The mother’s body was then riddled with bullets.”2 Putatively, 19-year-old Turner was killed because she publicly demanded legal punishment for those who had murdered her husband, Hayes Turner, one of the alleged conspirators in the killing of a white farmer, Hampton Smith.3 “The delicate state of her health, one month or less previous to delivery, may be imagined, but this fact had no effect on the tender feelings of the mob,”4 wrote Walter White, then-assistant secretary of the NAACP, in the September 1918 issue of The Crisis.

The news of Mary...

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