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Professionalizing the Black Female Body: Race, Gender, and Business in James VanDerZee’s Photographs

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Abstract:

During the early twentieth century, photography played a distinct role in African Americans’ lives. African Americans responded to Jim Crow and de facto policies by creating and distributing images that depicted prosperous and culturally refined black bodies to counteract denigrating representations circulating in dominant popular culture and eugenics discourses. They repudiated the evidence of scientific race photography with an alternative visual narrative showcasing the race’s progress. Coinciding with the democratization of the photographic medium, African Americans increasingly relied on photographs to demonstrate individual and collective accomplishments.

During the interwar period, the photography studio, like the home, became an intimate realm in which African American women’s performance and subsequent maintenance as “aspiring” bourgeois citizens was cultivated and maintained. This paper examines African American portrait and documentary photographer James VanDerZee’s photographs of black women in business and entrepreneurial settings. I argue VanDerZee’s photographs fashioned a New Negro womanhood that emphasized black women’s entrepreneurial acumen and financial prosperity over their Victorian, genteel sophistication. The economic and political instability of the late 1920s created a rupture in the African American public sphere and dominant American culture. The instability of the nation-state offered African American women the space to publicly cast a “professional” identity.

VanDerZee’s photographs of Madame C.J. Walker, A’Lelia Walker’s Dark Tower Salon, and four young-saleswomen illuminate Black women’s employment of modern technologies to assert their economic autonomy. As a visual and transportable medium, VanDerZee’s photographed subjects used photography to publicly fashion and circulate images of a “productive” New Negro that associated blackness with economic prosperity and located the black female body in an arena different from club work but also distant from domestic labor, employment frequently privy to the white male gaze. Consequently, the paper explores the ways VanDerZee’s photographs demonstrate early-twentieth-century African Americans’ strategic employment of photography to articulate their vision of racial destiny. Further, VanDerZee’s visual documentation of African American women’s entrepreneurial leadership and economic independence offers an important base for understanding the ways photography shaped the rhetoric of racial advancement as well as the significance of black women’s business ownership.
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Association:
Name: Association for the Study of African American Life and History
URL:
http://www.asalh.org


Citation:
URL: http://citation.allacademic.com/meta/p208408_index.html
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MLA Citation:

Smith, Jacqueline. "Professionalizing the Black Female Body: Race, Gender, and Business in James VanDerZee’s Photographs" Paper presented at the annual meeting of the Association for the Study of African American Life and History, Atlanta Hilton, Charlotte, NC, <Not Available>. 2013-12-15 <http://citation.allacademic.com/meta/p208408_index.html>

APA Citation:

Smith, J. M. "Professionalizing the Black Female Body: Race, Gender, and Business in James VanDerZee’s Photographs" Paper presented at the annual meeting of the Association for the Study of African American Life and History, Atlanta Hilton, Charlotte, NC <Not Available>. 2013-12-15 from http://citation.allacademic.com/meta/p208408_index.html

Publication Type: Invited Paper
Abstract: During the early twentieth century, photography played a distinct role in African Americans’ lives. African Americans responded to Jim Crow and de facto policies by creating and distributing images that depicted prosperous and culturally refined black bodies to counteract denigrating representations circulating in dominant popular culture and eugenics discourses. They repudiated the evidence of scientific race photography with an alternative visual narrative showcasing the race’s progress. Coinciding with the democratization of the photographic medium, African Americans increasingly relied on photographs to demonstrate individual and collective accomplishments.

During the interwar period, the photography studio, like the home, became an intimate realm in which African American women’s performance and subsequent maintenance as “aspiring” bourgeois citizens was cultivated and maintained. This paper examines African American portrait and documentary photographer James VanDerZee’s photographs of black women in business and entrepreneurial settings. I argue VanDerZee’s photographs fashioned a New Negro womanhood that emphasized black women’s entrepreneurial acumen and financial prosperity over their Victorian, genteel sophistication. The economic and political instability of the late 1920s created a rupture in the African American public sphere and dominant American culture. The instability of the nation-state offered African American women the space to publicly cast a “professional” identity.

VanDerZee’s photographs of Madame C.J. Walker, A’Lelia Walker’s Dark Tower Salon, and four young-saleswomen illuminate Black women’s employment of modern technologies to assert their economic autonomy. As a visual and transportable medium, VanDerZee’s photographed subjects used photography to publicly fashion and circulate images of a “productive” New Negro that associated blackness with economic prosperity and located the black female body in an arena different from club work but also distant from domestic labor, employment frequently privy to the white male gaze. Consequently, the paper explores the ways VanDerZee’s photographs demonstrate early-twentieth-century African Americans’ strategic employment of photography to articulate their vision of racial destiny. Further, VanDerZee’s visual documentation of African American women’s entrepreneurial leadership and economic independence offers an important base for understanding the ways photography shaped the rhetoric of racial advancement as well as the significance of black women’s business ownership.

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