Belabored Professions: Narratives of African American Working Womanhood by Xiomara Santamarina

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I reviewed this academic book for Women: A Cultural Review back in 2008 (19.1), and here are some excerpts from that review:

“This week the online news source, MSN, reported that Americans continue to be split on the merits of Black History Month; some see it as awareness-raising, others regard it as another guilt-driven distraction from more serious issues confronting the black community. But many see the bigger problem lying in the American public’s general ignorance of history. As Daryl Michael Scott put it, ‘Stop asking whether there’s too much black history and start grappling with the fact that there’s too little American history’.”

Examining the autobiographies of Sojouner Truth, Harriet Wilson, Eliza Potter, and Elizabeth Keckley, Santamarina views their labor as symbolic, cultural, social, and economic capital ‘through which these women try to make visible the symbolic surplus value they claim to have generated’. Contradictory nineteenth-century attitudes about women’s labor caused both black and white women to protest the devaluation of their work and assert their entitlement to the independence their wages afforded them. These women insist on publicizing, rather than apologizing for, their oft-devalued and invisible work, a move that conflicted with the middle-class imperatives of the abolitionist movement. Simultaneously degendered by slavery for performing physical labor yet treated as sexual chattel, and caught within structures ‘more committed to economic and middle-class expansion than to equality’, the labor of black women was viewed as a symptom of their racial degradation. Their agricultural labor jeopardized the status and masculinity of black men, who were increasingly excluded from skilled trades and professional classes, and self-sufficient black women undermined male authority. At the same time the reforming ‘uplift’ black community sought to decouple race and menial labor, inadvertently contributing to the conflation of the low status of physical labor with those who embodied it. The more black women workers enriched the nation, the greater the incentive to exploit them. Yet in Santamarina’s view, black leaders were blind to this dynamic .

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