Underground labor allowed many women to sustain themselves and the people and religious institutions that they cared about.
“A diverse cross section of New York black women and girls entered underground employment markets for a variety of reasons.”
In this series, we ask acclaimed authors to answer five questions about their book. This week’s featured author is LaShawn Harris. Harris is an Associate Professor of History at Michigan State University and Assistant Editor for the Journal of African American History(JAAH). Her book is Sex Workers, Psychics, and Numbers Runners: Black Women in New York City's Underground Economy.
Roberto Sirvent: How can your book help BAR readers understand the current political and social climate?
LaShawn Harris: The nation is witnessing and experiencing a seminal moment in American history; a time of uncertainty about the country’s present and future socioeconomic and political trajectory. Moreover, this historic moment – a period where our national leadership routinely threatens American democracy and its institutions, wages a war on the independent press, voices falsehoods, sanctions the mobilization of white supremacy groups, ignores science, and unapologetically strips away the rights of those living and laboring in the country – is one of tremendous economic instability for millions of people. Because of the COVID-19 pandemic and the federal government’s failure to response to the public health crisis millions of Americans and undocumented laborers are jobless, underemployed, and many are receiving some form of unemployment benefits. The instability of the nation’s current labor market and high unemployment rate are reminiscent of the Great Depression and other national economic recessions (early 1980s and late 2000s), raising questions about how economically strapped citizens and marginalized populations afford basis necessities. Sex Workers, Psychics, and Numbers Runners speaks to this issue, situating early twentieth century black women’s narratives at the center of national and local urban economies. Various moments in the book addresses the diverse ways in which many women confronted the challenges of poverty, jobless, labor discrimination, and lack of federal opportunities. Like women of future generations, Depression era women creatively used both formal and informal income generating activities and markets to afford high rent prices, groceries, transportation and to attain labor autonomy and mobility. Monetary earnings from underground labor, such as sex work, street vending, home businesses, and household work at brothels, nightclubs, and speakeasies, allowed many women to sustain themselves; financially care for relatives; and support black socioeconomic and religious institutions that they cared about. Urban women’s labor choices and activities are not a phenomenon of the past. Their public and private labor practices serve as a window into the personal and private lives of contemporary women who are part of modern-day informal economies.
What do you hope activists and community organizers will take away from reading your book?
Sex Workers, Psychics, and Number Runners’ main takeaways include: (1) Women and girls’ participation in New York’s informal economy was precipitated by urban inequalities and personal struggles and aspirations and met with varying levels of success and failure; (2) Women and girls reimagined and actively pursued new socioeconomic and labor possibilities and identities; (3) Informal labor spaces – as locations or sites of opposition to race, gender, class discrimination – facilitated women’s varying opinions about womanhood, racial uplift and respectability, and the use of public and private urban spaces; (4) The need for scholars to interrogate the everyday lives of ordinary citizens; and (5) The importance of engaging interdisciplinary methodologies in documenting twentieth century black women and girls’ fascinating lives.
We know readers will learn a lot from your book, but what do you hope readers will un-learn? In other words, is there a particular ideology you’re hoping to dismantle?
I hope audiences will think about the informal economy in more nuanced ways, untangling popular understandings about underground laborers and their varying motivations for entering quasi-legal and illegal labor markets. Generally speaking, informal economy laborers are imagined as poor, unemployed, and underemployed individuals; those that interpreted informal markets as sites of socioeconomic opportunities and possibilities; and those that bypassed local and state laws and radically pushed pass the limits of acceptable public behavior in order to sustain themselves and their families. While this is certainly the case for many black women, my work underscores that a diverse cross section of New York black women and girls entered underground employment markets for a variety of reasons. Single, married, and widow working and middle-class women including domestic workers, teachers, churchgoers, and homemakers carved out unique spaces for themselves within informal labor sectors. For example, 1930s Harlem sex worker Martha Briggs was a married homemaker. Her entrance into New York’s sex commerce was not precipitated by economic hardship or by spousal death or abandonment. Twenty-five-year-old Briggs’ attraction to sex work emerged from a profound desire and passion for economic independence and sexual pleasure. Selling sexual fantasies in exchange for money also became a viable option for Briggs and others who were indifferent about prescribed ideas of martial and sexual norms, and desired to explore what scholar Mireille Miller-Young calls “illicit eroticism.” Similar to Miller-Young’s insightful examination of contemporary African American female porn workers, some early twentieth century sex workers consciously “choose to pursue a prohibited terrain of [sexual] labor and performance and put hypersexuality to use. Commodifying [their] sexuality [was] part of the strategic and tactical labor black women used in advanced capitalist economies.” Briggs interpreted sex work as a path toward economic independence from her unsuspecting breadwinning husband and as a path toward sexual fulfillment and experimentation.
Who are the intellectual heroes that inspire your work?
Some of my intellectual heroes are individuals that appear in the book. I’m intellectually inspired by (and draw to) those urban working-class black women and girls who left little clues about their interior lives and about their thoughts on womanhood and girlhood, labor, family and love, and respectability; those who lead complicated lives in order to survive and challenge Jim Crow North, white supremacy and violence, and intra-racial conflict; and those like journalist and communist Marvel Cooke and numbers Queen Madame Stephanie St. Clair whose intellectual prowess, no-nonsense attitude, and emotional vulnerabilities were exhibited on street corners, in brothels and penal institutions, in the pages of black newspapers, and in the privacy of their households. Moreover, my past and recent projects are inspired by women and girls who boldly departed from or refashioned normative ideas about racial uplift and respectable politics, economic empowerment, and femininity.
In what way does your book help us imagine new worlds?
Sex Workers, Psychics, and Numbers Runners hopes that readers will think more critically about the world in which we live, as well as interrogate the complexities of varying socioeconomic and political landscapes and cultures that often hide in plain sight. Moreover, the book is useful in showing that imagining new worlds and spaces must involve rendering the historical footprints and narratives of individuals that often go unnoticed or are deemed unworthy of scholarly inquiry.
Roberto Sirvent is Professor of Political and Social Ethics at Hope International University in Fullerton, CA, and an Affiliate Scholar at Yale University’s Interdisciplinary Center for Bioethics, where he directs the Race, Bioethics, and Public Health Project. He is co-author, with fellow BAR contributor Danny Haiphong, of the book, American Exceptionalism and American Innocence: A People’s History of Fake News—From the Revolutionary War to the War on Terror.
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