Pioneer of Black feminism Hazel Carby published “Policing Black Women’s Bodies in an Urban Context” in 1992. In the article, Carby document the effects of the Great Migration on Black women. The Great Migration refers to the movement of Black Americans northward in the twentieth century that ushered in social, cultural, and political changes in the United States.
The shift from an agricultural to an industrial economy brought a number of Black women out of the South in the wake of Reconstruction and Redemption. The autonomy of Black women in the post-slavery garnered a response from the dominant society Carby describes as a moral panic. During this time, through the figure of “Blues women,” narratives about Black women’s sexuality portrayed them as a dangerous and pathological group in need of social control.
How Progressives Police Black Womanhood
Black women get treated as a social problem in need of reform. These attitudes come from the middle class who made an effort to enforce progressive ideology to solve the “problem” of sexually free Black women:
There are deep fears being expressed in this passage in which the exploitation of black women is only one concern among many. These fears haunt the entire narrative and are also embedded in Kellor’s account of young, black migrating women: fears of a rampant and uncontrolled female sexuality; fears of miscegenation; and fears of the assertion of an independent black female desire that has been unleashed through migration.1
For instance, social reformer Frances Kellor wrote an article in 1905 about Black women that perpetuated the pathology of Black sexuality. Kellor contended Black women needed protection since they did not have spouses. As a result, Kellor claimed, Black women become prostitutes because of their unwillingness to work hard.
Black Middle-Class Women and the Politics of Respectability
Members of the Black middle-class people also endorsed this perspective, identifying the mobility of the urban Black women as a weakness to the race. Black women in urban environments challenged belief in women’s self-determination and thus threatened the moral order. Members of the Black middle class targeted the working class as wayward. These beliefs encouraged the formation of institutions and technologies to police Black women.
Jane Edna Hunter was one such woman. Hunter felt motivated to help these women as a result of how she herself became a migrant. Estrangement from her mother and a forced marriage inspired a passion in her to who she deemed helpless women. Hunter started an organization that encouraged Black women to be domestics for their social and moral redemption. She used various surveillance tactics against working-class Black women in a means to restrict their sexual agency:
The fruit of Hunter’s labors and the institutionalization of her maternal role into that of a matriarch is the formation of the Working Girls’ Home Association, which later became the Phillis Wheatley Association, with Hunter as president. The Phillis Wheatley Association was the equivalent of the “controlled system of lodging houses” that Kellor recommended in her report, but under black not white control.2
Carby argues Hunter attempted to present a maternal framework to replace the patriarchal power she saw as harmful to Black women’s lives. With this maternal power, she targeted vice districts. During the era of the Great Migration, vice served as the social problem that most defined the moral crisis of the era. In these vice districts, women lived in brothels.
Hunter’s belief this maternal framework could save Black women relied on the notion these women and their sexual behavior represented a lack of good citizenship. One of her targets was the dance halls and nightclubs where Black women participated in blues culture. Hunter describes these spaces as animalistic and uncivilized.
Overall, the Black middle class considered dance halls as a threat to their communities. They treated these spaces as pathological forms of leisure and entertainment in need of social control. At the time members of the Black urban community and migrants had to live next to these vice districts.
How Popular Media Portrays Black Women’s Sexuality
Hunter desired to present working-class Black women in domestic labor as an alternative to the blues lifestyle. Social reformers perceived dance halls as spaces where sexual depravity occurred. In particular, they feared “social demoralization” that would deteriorate the black urban community.
Carby notes that novelists like Claude McKay and Van Vechten helped reinforce this belief in the literature about sexual and class politics of urban Black life. The emergence of Black masculinity at the time also helped reinforce a notion of respectable Black citizenship for the moral order and blues women represented their potential downfall.
Middle-class women in novels got presented as culturally and ideologically distinct from working-class Black women. Furthermore, they were presented as having a disdain for sexual promiscuity. In contrast, blues women got portrayed as responsible for the alcohol, drug, and sex abuse Black men experienced during the era. Claude McKay’s novels presented Black men as being morally superior to working-class Black women as well.
Blues Women: How Working Class Black Women Changed the Culture
Restrictive covenants prevented Black middle-class people from integrating into the suburbs white people resided in. Black women workers either had the option of working as domestics or laundresses. Vaudeville troupes offered Black women an alternative as it allowed poor Black women to travel and perform, thus helping them to reject domestic work.
For example, Josephine Baker got abused by her white female employed when she was eight years old and decided to quit and become a dancer when she was thirteen. Thus the political economy of the era contributed to the circumstances where Black women entered sex work.
Another woman, Alberta Hunter, also started dancing and singing at 13. In contrast to the maternal protection Jane Edna Hunter claimed to offer, Alberta saw the prostitutes in the clubs as a maternal figure who provided for, nurtured, and protected her. Thus the distinction between the politics of pleasure and respectability existed then too.
Black women were central to urban blues culture as performers. Rather than the black middle-class legends of literature and art, blues culture developed in the working class. The Great Depression-era then represented a contested time between the Black middle class and working class. In many ways, blues women represented a form of upward mobility. As physical mobility increased so did the shifting of sexual and gender attitudes. Black women in the blues culture helped create a network of Black migrations that allowed them to disrupt social relations of the urban migration.