Date of Degree

9-2020

Document Type

Thesis

Degree Name

M.A.

Program

Liberal Studies

Advisor

Christopher Schmidt

Subject Categories

African American Studies | Africana Studies | Literature in English, North America, Ethnic and Cultural Minority | Other Feminist, Gender, and Sexuality Studies

Keywords

African American Literature, black feminism, sex work, prostitution, sexual labor

Abstract

This thesis provides a close reading of Ann Petry’s The Street (1946) and Louise Meriwether’s Daddy Was a Number Runner (1970) by analyzing how these two black women authors wrote about sex work and black women sex workers in their novels. Black women writers in the mid-twentieth century were reluctant to write about black women’s sexuality as a result of discourses of racial uplift that rejected the white supremacist stereotype of the hypersexual black woman. While not the focus of their novels, the inclusion of sex workers in their fictional narratives provide a complicated representation of a particular form of black women’s labor experience within the segregated urban environments of 1930s and 1940s Harlem. Black women’s participation in the urban sexual economy during the twentieth century is often ignored and rejected because of the history of forced sexual exploitation and violence inflicted on enslaved black women during slavery. These two novels reveal the impact that institutionalized racism, segregation and discrimination had on the economic opportunities of urban black communities, focusing on black women whose options lay within domestic labor and sex work. This analysis reveals the nuances behind black women’s paid sexual labor and its importance in academic literary criticism.

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