- Centering Sex in Modern American History
American History has undergone a profound awakening, moving from hierarchical and patriarchal studies of white America to broader examinations of race, gender, and sexuality. Scholars increasingly focus on historical actors whose stories typically fall out of the historical record. Although this shift has yet to address adequately the centuries of writing that marginalized black women, queers, and everyday working men and women, the newer works nonetheless exist as a welcome addition to an ever-expanding discourse that seeks meaning in the margins. Despite investigating a variety of avenues— the authors examined here explore prostitution, slumming, interracial marriage and notions of sexual normalcy—a common thread through each text is the provocative, illusive, and ultimately furtive topic of sex, as in the act itself. We know sex sells. We know sex is racialized. We know sex is gendered. We know sex is political. But we still have much to learn about how it functioned in the daily lives of the women and men that sold it, performed it, broke laws trying to legitimize it, and engaged in taboo acts of it.1
Cynthia Blair’s, I’ve Got to Make My Livin’, is the first historical monograph to concentrate on black female sex-workers. To be clear, there are historical studies of prostitution, but few center African American women’s roles save taking for granted that they actively engaged in underground [End Page 203] sexual economies. Despite the volume of works that explore black womanhood, there remains a dearth of historical writing on black female sexuality outside of their exploitation during enslavement and subsequent stigmatization by myths of their purported lasciviousness.2 In this regard alone, Blair’s work is to be commended. She has deigned to wade into troubled waters and she does so without demonizing black women or regarding them purely as victims. Instead she incisively demonstrates how black women used sex work to further their goals of financial independence. She argues, quite effectively, that black female sex work served as a constant negotiation on working-class notions of respectability, individual self-respect, and economic self-reliance—a negotiation, Blair notes, that took place all over the nation during the early twentieth century, though she focuses on Chicago (11).
In mapping transitions in the Windy City’s vice districts, Blair’s research highlights how interracial sex factored into efforts to clean up and replace certain red-light zones, as well as how the political economy of interracial sex fundamentally devalued black women’s sexual service. She notes that even when black and white women worked in brothels of equal status, “black women routinely earned less for their sexual services than white women” (46). Yet black women and black madams often found that these avenues, devalued though they may be, proved more lucrative than the backbreaking and increasingly limited domestic service work to which the vast majority of black female laborers were relegated. Some black prostitutes also worked panel houses and enacted badger games to fleece or otherwise con would-be johns out of greater sums of cash (72–7).3 In fleshing out the dynamics of black sex work, Blair’s discussion moves smoothly between the workers’ struggles for economic autonomy and their clashes with mainstream Chicago urbanites, both black and white. Here she shows that, despite the interracial nature of vice and the ways that white money especially fueled the more...