restricted access CHAPTER 7. A Rather Bright and Good-Looking Colored Girl: Black Women’s Sexuality, “Harmful Intimacy,” and Attempts to Regulate Desire, 1917–1928
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204 7 a rather bright and good-looking colored girl BLACK WOMEN’S SEXUALITY, “HARMFUL INTIMACY,” AND ATTEMPTS TO REGULATE DESIRE, 1917–1928 Says that she has never prostituted. She was raped when she was 18 years old by a friend who was visiting her sister. Since then she has had sexual intercourse with three different friends but has never taken any money from them. They have sent her presents, and have taken her out to dinner and the theatre often. She says that “in a way prostitution is the worst crime anybody can commit because you have to do things that take away your self-respect.” —Information Concerning Patient, Bedford Inmate #2480, June 23, 1917 The most undesirable sex relations grow out of . . . mingling of the two races. —Report of the special committee to investigate the charges made against the New York State Reformatory for Women at Bedford Hills, 1915 Mabel Hampton’s experiences in Harlem never quite measured up to the popular image of the black neighborhood. Visitors from other parts of the city would go to “the night-clubs . . . and dance to such jazz music as can be heard nowhere else.”1 Elite and middle-class white voyeurs, finding confirmation for their own ideas about the authenticity of primitive black culture , enjoyed Harlem’s “‘hot’ and ‘barbaric’ jazz, the risqué lyrics and the ‘junglelike’ dancing of its cabaret floor shows, and all its other ‘wicked’ delights .”2 As the black writer and activist James Weldon Johnson put it, after “a visit to Harlem at night,” partygoers who practiced slumming believed that the town “never sleeps and that the inhabitants . . . jazz through existence .”3 Hampton’s everyday life was strikingly different from the romanti- 205 Black Women’s Sexuality and “Harmful Intimacy” cized image of Harlem. In 1924, the twenty-one-year-old southern migrant was doing domestic work by day and occasionally dancing in a chorus line at night. She learned to navigate Harlem’s social and cultural complexities as she encountered its opportunities and hardships and faced its pleasures and dangers. The fact that she was sexually attracted to women, rather than to men, intensified the paradox: Harlem offered her real freedoms, but also significant constraints. At the same historical moment when Harlem was touted by white New Yorkers as one of the most sexually liberated spaces in the city, women experienced critical surveillance and their romantic attachments came under intense scrutiny. With the growing popularity of movies, dance halls, and amusement parks, families and community members became more and more concerned about how and with whom young women were spending their leisure time. Reformers and the police attempted to regulate workingclass women’s social lives, especially their sexuality. During World War I, the federal government showed particular concern because of the fear that women would spread venereal disease to soldiers, weakening the armed forces and endangering the war effort.4 Anxieties about working-class women’s sexual behavior influenced the passing of numerous state laws that were proposed by reformers, approved by legislatures, and enforced by police officers.5 During the period that scholars have noted as the earlytwentieth -century sexual revolution, the active pursuit of romance and sex by young working-class women caused their elders unease, in part because these women failed to conform to traditional courtship practices.6 Sexual relations between unmarried persons were eventually criminalized, even if they remained outside the parameters of prostitution. Race and ethnicity influenced reformers’ and criminal justice administrators ’ interactions with their charges. Reformers and the police targeted white immigrant and native-born working-class women for questionable moral behavior, but they generally believed these women could be reformed. Black women, whom whites characterized as innately promiscuous because of their African ancestry and the legacy of American enslavement, were seen as less amenable to rehabilitation. The fact that many African American women lived in Harlem, which was seen as a center of social and sexual abandon, reinforced their libidinous image and inflected police officers’ and criminal justice administrators’ assessments of their culpability in sexual offenses. Young black women, incarcerated primarily for sex-related offenses on charges that included vagrancy, disorderly conduct, and prostitution, URBAN REFORM AND CRIMINAL JUSTICE 206 usually rejected reformers’ concerns and believed they were unfairly targeted . Mabel Hampton contended that her imprisonment at the New York State Reformatory for Women at Bedford for solicitation stemmed from a false arrest. Other inmates recounted their problems with law enforcement and disagreed with the verdict that their...


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Subject Headings

  • African American women -- Employment -- New York (State) -- New York.
  • African American women -- New York (State) -- New York -- Social conditions -- History.
  • Sex role -- New York (State) -- New York -- History -- 19th century.
  • Women's rights -- New York (State) -- New York -- History -- 19th century.
  • Racism -- New York (State) -- New York -- History -- 20th century.
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