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Sex Workers, Psychics, and Numbers Runners: Black Women in New York City's Underground Economy

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During the early twentieth century, a diverse group of African American women carved out unique niches for themselves within New York City's expansive informal economy. LaShawn Harris illuminates the labor patterns and economic activity of three perennials within this kaleidoscope of underground industry: sex work, numbers running for gambling enterprises, and the supernat During the early twentieth century, a diverse group of African American women carved out unique niches for themselves within New York City's expansive informal economy. LaShawn Harris illuminates the labor patterns and economic activity of three perennials within this kaleidoscope of underground industry: sex work, numbers running for gambling enterprises, and the supernatural consulting business. Mining police and prison records, newspaper accounts, and period literature, Harris teases out answers to essential questions about these women and their working lives. She also offers a surprising revelation, arguing that the burgeoning underground economy served as a catalyst in working-class black women ™s creation of the employment opportunities, occupational identities, and survival strategies that provided them with financial stability and a sense of labor autonomy and mobility. At the same time, urban black women, all striving for economic and social prospects and pleasures, experienced the conspicuous and hidden dangers associated with newfound labor opportunities.


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During the early twentieth century, a diverse group of African American women carved out unique niches for themselves within New York City's expansive informal economy. LaShawn Harris illuminates the labor patterns and economic activity of three perennials within this kaleidoscope of underground industry: sex work, numbers running for gambling enterprises, and the supernat During the early twentieth century, a diverse group of African American women carved out unique niches for themselves within New York City's expansive informal economy. LaShawn Harris illuminates the labor patterns and economic activity of three perennials within this kaleidoscope of underground industry: sex work, numbers running for gambling enterprises, and the supernatural consulting business. Mining police and prison records, newspaper accounts, and period literature, Harris teases out answers to essential questions about these women and their working lives. She also offers a surprising revelation, arguing that the burgeoning underground economy served as a catalyst in working-class black women ™s creation of the employment opportunities, occupational identities, and survival strategies that provided them with financial stability and a sense of labor autonomy and mobility. At the same time, urban black women, all striving for economic and social prospects and pleasures, experienced the conspicuous and hidden dangers associated with newfound labor opportunities.

30 review for Sex Workers, Psychics, and Numbers Runners: Black Women in New York City's Underground Economy

  1. 4 out of 5

    Gabrielle

    Harris should be applauded for the tremendous work she put forth to uncover the lives of black women in the areas of informal and underground labor. She departs from the recent historical fetish to look at the lives of respectable middle class women and shifts our focus to poor women that used their minds and bodies to survive. I am impressed by her use of scant sources to reveal black women's stories that are important although grossly overlooked. This book is accessible to those that don't lik Harris should be applauded for the tremendous work she put forth to uncover the lives of black women in the areas of informal and underground labor. She departs from the recent historical fetish to look at the lives of respectable middle class women and shifts our focus to poor women that used their minds and bodies to survive. I am impressed by her use of scant sources to reveal black women's stories that are important although grossly overlooked. This book is accessible to those that don't like "history" books because Professor Harris attempts to re-tell the stories of the women working as psychics, number runners, and sex workers. Excellent.

  2. 5 out of 5

    Gabriella

    ***NOTE: these reviews are reading responses that are slightly amended from my course assignments for CPLN 624: Readings in Race, Poverty, and Place. LaShawn Harris offers a timely and telling window into the lives of women working in several different avenues of New York City’s early-1900s informal economy. While parts of SWPNR occur in Queens or Lower Manhattan, the true epicenter of the black underground economy was in Harlem, making this book largely focused on one section of the city, and a ***NOTE: these reviews are reading responses that are slightly amended from my course assignments for CPLN 624: Readings in Race, Poverty, and Place. LaShawn Harris offers a timely and telling window into the lives of women working in several different avenues of New York City’s early-1900s informal economy. While parts of SWPNR occur in Queens or Lower Manhattan, the true epicenter of the black underground economy was in Harlem, making this book largely focused on one section of the city, and a highly segregated one, at that. Given our modern understanding of the area, Harris’ description of residents’ annoyance at their neighborhoods’ haphazard integration and usefulness to white New Yorkers seemed all the more ironic. She says that “some African Americans’ annoyance stemmed from the belief that Harlem and other black urban spaces were perceived [by whites] as the ‘devil’s playground, an easy prey for depraved joy-seeking whites.’ ” These perceptions that are eerily similar to modern gentrifiers’ authenticity fetish, which lands them (a bit more permanently) in “exciting” low-income and POC neighborhoods. To begin her book’s discussion of informality and labor, Harris lays down an important note: many women did both under-the-table and above-ground jobs. This duality is important to keeping these stories from becoming overly sensationalized, because Harris’ characters are often just regular women. They faced issues similar to modern ones, such as lousy work environments, scheduling, and compensation from “on-the-books” labor, which incentivized many black women to look elsewhere for work. Today, cities like Philadelphia are passing Fair Work Week legislation and other labor-friendly policies, but there’s still much work needed to legalize “autonomous and flexible labor spaces.” This seems to be the underlying question of Harris’ work: how can modern labor have the flexibility that worked for these underground economies, while providing the stability and just compensation that both the (underground) past and (semi-legal) present gig economies lacked? Another important topic in this book is many female laborers’ “pursuit of purely selfish pleasure or fortune.” As we mentioned last week in class, not everything historic black people did was activism—they often lived regular lives based on their passions and preferences, just as we do today! Many women in the early twentieth-century became involved in the numbers racket, sex work industry, or spiritual consulting business not to put their entire families on their backs, but simply because they preferred it! Harris notes that sometimes, underground work was a way to get out of the drudgery of motherhood—of family and society. While women like Madame Stephanie St. Clair embraced both underground work and racial reform, this was by no means necessary. This pursuit of one’s best option (regardless of legality) extended to many consumers of these services. Many of the underground options were also more accessible to customers: alternative medicine and its informal, culturally-informed prescriptions became more valuable to some than expensive doctor’s visits. Given what we know about the persistence of racial bias in the professional medical industry today, it is completely understandable why many black people refused to believe that legalized medical care was their best option. Harris’ work and research on black female workers share many great lessons about the value of underground, informal economies. In current practices in planning, healthcare, and labor policy, we would be wise to listen to her.

  3. 4 out of 5

    Jessica

    While Harris treats participants in the underground economy of New York and those actively avoiding it equally, her balanced treatment allows readers to feel sympathy for the striving and middle classes and better understand their motivations. While respectability politics clearly drove many of the actors profiled by Harris, it is also apparent that many of the people that shunned or expressed disapproval with informal labor were also concerned about their safety and those of children in their n While Harris treats participants in the underground economy of New York and those actively avoiding it equally, her balanced treatment allows readers to feel sympathy for the striving and middle classes and better understand their motivations. While respectability politics clearly drove many of the actors profiled by Harris, it is also apparent that many of the people that shunned or expressed disapproval with informal labor were also concerned about their safety and those of children in their neighborhoods. Sex Workers, Psychics, and Numbers Runners asks that we reevaluate our approach to the middle class. Instead of viewing intra-racial conflict as a battle for assimilation, perhaps it is more useful to approach these conflicts as contesting space. While the middle class clearly disdained many aspects of poor, urban life, both Banking on Freedom and Sex Workers, Psychics, and Numbers Runners highlight the ways in which the middle class was willing to make use of money from the same people and activities they disproved of. Much like the fluidity of public and private, Harris points to a similar permeability between the middle and lower classes. If members of the middle class were willing to play the numbers—whether for fun or to improve their precarious position as members of the middle class—it is likely necessary to maintain a more open mind when discussing and studying black middle-class ideology.

  4. 5 out of 5

    Tiffany

    Extremely interesting academic read. I honestly knew little about the underground economies of black New York women in the first third of the 20th century. It was alarming how some of the descriptions of cop brutality hasn’t changed in 100 years and we are still dealing with it.

  5. 4 out of 5

    Margaret

    Well researched and articulate. Being an academic book makes it hard to read at time but incredibly informative. Highly recommend to anyone who wants to learn more about the diverse history of New York city’s economy and the disenfranchised groups that contributed.

  6. 5 out of 5

    Ayanna Dozier

    Sex Workers, Psychics, and Numbers Runners: Black Women in New York City’s Underground Economy is an informative read about Black women’s lives in the early 20th century, especially those who fall outside of the framing of “respectability politics.” LaShawn Harris’ book rigorously utilizes archive research to flesh out the narratives of Black women living on the edge of precarity through fugitive means. Harris is successful in using research to situate how and why Black women were disenfranchise Sex Workers, Psychics, and Numbers Runners: Black Women in New York City’s Underground Economy is an informative read about Black women’s lives in the early 20th century, especially those who fall outside of the framing of “respectability politics.” LaShawn Harris’ book rigorously utilizes archive research to flesh out the narratives of Black women living on the edge of precarity through fugitive means. Harris is successful in using research to situate how and why Black women were disenfranchised by the state in addition to crafting compelling narratives around several key figures like Geraldine Chaney, Lessie Ware, and the extraordinary Madame Stephanie St. Clair. Harris is less successful in masking her contempt for non-“respectable” jobs, like sex work, as there are numerous distracting commentaries about the trade that appear throughout the book. For example: “Family members, close neighborhoods, and local reformer warned women about the pitfalls and limitations of informal work. In addition, local newspapers’ publication of stories about underground female workers’ tragic deaths and assaults and police arrest and jail convictions served as cautious tales for city women. But for some women, individuals desire for economic stability, material consumption, and personal pleasures compelled them to dismiss the advice from loved and concerned ones and ignore the countless stories about fallen urban women” (49). What this quote illustrates is that, despite the sympathy the author has for Black women’s fugitive statuses in society, Harris evokes the cliché that “there’s always a better job than sex work,” and that many women who participated in this trade wanted “excessive” lifestyles or were sexually abused. The book suffers from this as it fails to make key connections between white supremacy and the lack of job opportunities for Black women with the eroticization of Black women’s bodies. While the book is wonderful read, if only for readers to learn about Madame St. Claire alone, these added commentaries leave a bad after taste as they try to undermine Black women’s fugitivity status while discussing their status as a fugitive people.

  7. 4 out of 5

    Candice

    Good read. There are few books on women laboring in these particular professions. It was a fascinating read.

  8. 4 out of 5

    Marissa Knaak

  9. 4 out of 5

    Killian

  10. 5 out of 5

    Terrion

  11. 4 out of 5

    Natalie

  12. 4 out of 5

    Kathryn S. Wilson

  13. 5 out of 5

    Keisha N. Blain

  14. 4 out of 5

    Ruth Ann

  15. 4 out of 5

    Johnisha

  16. 5 out of 5

    Holly

  17. 5 out of 5

    David

  18. 5 out of 5

    Kristyn Scorsone

  19. 5 out of 5

    Kate Forner

  20. 4 out of 5

    Olivia Brown

  21. 5 out of 5

    Clay

  22. 4 out of 5

    Rebecca

  23. 4 out of 5

    Gary

  24. 5 out of 5

    Michaela Lewalski

  25. 5 out of 5

    Salonee Bhaman

  26. 4 out of 5

    Christina

  27. 4 out of 5

    Chantel Katharina

  28. 5 out of 5

    Tracy

  29. 5 out of 5

    Fay

  30. 5 out of 5

    Reede

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