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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 Based on archival materials and historical documents, Bodies That Work examines four women who reinterpreted and reorganized the historically divided black female body and positioned it within the body politic: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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4 Performing Savagery and Civility: The Subversive Nudity of Josephine Baker



In Paris. In the Twenties [the 1920s]. We are young. And gay. Hemingway. Picasso. Colette. And me. We ran up and down the Champs-Élysées.

—Dotson Rader, “Down, But Not Out at the Palace,” Esquire, 1974.1

In 1974, the year before her death, Josephine Baker (1906–1975) described herself as being “representative of that period [the 1920s]” and “the only one that’s left.”2 Her words show that she had been haunted, until the very end of her life, by her heyday—the 1920s. During these years, she had enjoyed enormous success with her nude, or bare-breasted, performances in France.3 As a stage performer, Baker “starred annually in revues” at prestigious music halls, such as the Folies Bergère and the Casino de Paris.4 Her period of success and fame began in Paris on October 2, 1925, when she danced “entirely nude except for a pink flamingo feather between her limbs” at the Théâtre des Champs-Élysées.5 Scholars and biographers of Baker, such as Matthew Pratt Guterl, Jean-Claude Baker, and Bennetta Jules-Rosette, have been intrigued by the latter part of her life and career and have discussed her cosmopolitanism, humanitarianism, activism, performing genius, and influence on the divas of today.6 However, this chapter focuses on the implications of Baker’s nude performances from the mid-1920s to mid-1930s because she identified herself as a product of the 1920s and because her nude performances set the stage for her lifelong transformation.

This transformation was...

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