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National Vigilance: Race, Prostitution and Migration in Slavery’s Wake

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Abstract:

In the late-nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, a surge in rural-to-urban migration and European immigration to the eastern United States contributed to a moral panic over a supposed traffic in "white slaves" – innocent young women who had supposedly been forced or deceived into prostitution. During the same period, anxieties about the spread of "yellow slavery" among Chinese women on the West Coast prompted a similar set of racialized concerns about sexuality and migration. Despite the temporal and topical congruity of these two sets of discourses, their historical relationship remains poorly understood. Considered in tandem, they reveal a great deal about attempts to contain the vast geographical space and heterogeneous social makeup of the United States within a cohesive national imaginary.

As growing numbers of women migrated in search of economic security at the turn of the century, they called attention to the instability of prevailing racial, gender and class hierarchies as well as the fragility of regional and national boundaries. Elite whites responded by mobilizing massive public and private resources to manage this flow of bodies and contain their social, cultural and political threat. Despite sharing these motivations, the white and yellow slavery discourses had divergent effects on their subjects. While figuring Chinese women as ignorant victims in need of rescue, the yellow slavery panic located the source of the traffic in Asia, thereby asserting the incompatibility of Asian social and cultural norms with the ideals of a free – white – nation. As such, Asian women were positioned as racial and national outsiders. Inversely, the white slavery panic recouped both the whiteness and the womanhood of "fallen" white women, serving to assimilate the "disorderly" subjects – both native and immigrant – who might have otherwise tarnished the virtues of whiteness.

That these turn-of-the-century concerns about race, sexuality and migration were expressed in terms of slavery indicates a great deal about the persistent significance of the institution to processes of racial and national formation. Both the white and yellow slavery discourses relied for their moral force on the shock of the perpetuation of an institution that had supposedly been vanquished. Perhaps more critically, both sets of discourses drew on the racial stigma of chattel slavery even as they excluded black women from their reform and rescue projects. The "white" and "yellow" modifiers to these turn-of-the-century forms of "slavery" demonstrate that slavery was still understood as synonymous with blackness. What was at stake, then, in the exclusion of black subjects from these discourses of racial and national belonging even as they relied on blackness as their central metaphor for bondage? Why was there no "black slavery" panic over the surge in black women migrants at the turn of the century?

This paper will address these and other questions in an attempt not only to decipher the complex processes of racial, gender and national formation at the turn of the century, but also the ways in which our understanding of these processes has been hindered by historiographical divisions along racial and geographical lines.
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Name: The American Studies Association
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MLA Citation:

Worden, Carisa. "National Vigilance: Race, Prostitution and Migration in Slavery’s Wake" Paper presented at the annual meeting of the The American Studies Association, Philadelphia Marriott Downtown, Philadelphia, PA, Oct 11, 2007 <Not Available>. 2013-12-15 <http://citation.allacademic.com/meta/p186396_index.html>

APA Citation:

Worden, C. , 2007-10-11 "National Vigilance: Race, Prostitution and Migration in Slavery’s Wake" Paper presented at the annual meeting of the The American Studies Association, Philadelphia Marriott Downtown, Philadelphia, PA <Not Available>. 2013-12-15 from http://citation.allacademic.com/meta/p186396_index.html

Publication Type: Conference Paper/Unpublished Manuscript
Abstract: In the late-nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, a surge in rural-to-urban migration and European immigration to the eastern United States contributed to a moral panic over a supposed traffic in "white slaves" – innocent young women who had supposedly been forced or deceived into prostitution. During the same period, anxieties about the spread of "yellow slavery" among Chinese women on the West Coast prompted a similar set of racialized concerns about sexuality and migration. Despite the temporal and topical congruity of these two sets of discourses, their historical relationship remains poorly understood. Considered in tandem, they reveal a great deal about attempts to contain the vast geographical space and heterogeneous social makeup of the United States within a cohesive national imaginary.

As growing numbers of women migrated in search of economic security at the turn of the century, they called attention to the instability of prevailing racial, gender and class hierarchies as well as the fragility of regional and national boundaries. Elite whites responded by mobilizing massive public and private resources to manage this flow of bodies and contain their social, cultural and political threat. Despite sharing these motivations, the white and yellow slavery discourses had divergent effects on their subjects. While figuring Chinese women as ignorant victims in need of rescue, the yellow slavery panic located the source of the traffic in Asia, thereby asserting the incompatibility of Asian social and cultural norms with the ideals of a free – white – nation. As such, Asian women were positioned as racial and national outsiders. Inversely, the white slavery panic recouped both the whiteness and the womanhood of "fallen" white women, serving to assimilate the "disorderly" subjects – both native and immigrant – who might have otherwise tarnished the virtues of whiteness.

That these turn-of-the-century concerns about race, sexuality and migration were expressed in terms of slavery indicates a great deal about the persistent significance of the institution to processes of racial and national formation. Both the white and yellow slavery discourses relied for their moral force on the shock of the perpetuation of an institution that had supposedly been vanquished. Perhaps more critically, both sets of discourses drew on the racial stigma of chattel slavery even as they excluded black women from their reform and rescue projects. The "white" and "yellow" modifiers to these turn-of-the-century forms of "slavery" demonstrate that slavery was still understood as synonymous with blackness. What was at stake, then, in the exclusion of black subjects from these discourses of racial and national belonging even as they relied on blackness as their central metaphor for bondage? Why was there no "black slavery" panic over the surge in black women migrants at the turn of the century?

This paper will address these and other questions in an attempt not only to decipher the complex processes of racial, gender and national formation at the turn of the century, but also the ways in which our understanding of these processes has been hindered by historiographical divisions along racial and geographical lines.

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