Consumerism, Protest, and Underground Economies in African America | Newberry

Consumerism, Protest, and Underground Economies in African America

Friday, October 24, 2014

3-5 pm


Panelists: Traci Parker, University of Chicago; Elizabeth Schroeder Schlabach, Earlham College
Center for American History and Culture Programs
Gender and Sexuality Seminar

“Rethinking Southern Sit-In Movements: Black Worker-Consumer Alliances and Constructing a Modern Black Middle Class”
Traci Parker, University of Chicago

In the 1950s and 1960s, African Americans, fixated on democratizing consumption and employment in the marketplace, staged sit-ins in southern retail establishments. This paper argues that advancing blacks’ relationship with consumer capitalism hinged on worker-consumer alliances. At the center of these alliances were African American women. As customers, they mobilized their purchasing power to dismantle racial barriers in labor, consumption, and urban landscapes. As lunch-counter waitresses and later saleswomen, black women leveraged their position as insiders to support protests and provided first-class treatment to customers of color. As a result, this paper contends, worker-consumer alliances provided the material basis for the emergence of a modern black middle class in the twentieth century.

“The Policy Game: Women and Gambling on Chicago’s South Side, 1930s.”
Elizabeth Schroeder Schlabach, Earlham College

Among Chicago’s black workers, the Great Depression was unduly severe. While some women mobilized for gains in legitimate economies as laundresses or domestics others made ends meet by going against the middle class ethic of respectability and turned to gambling. Although gambling was often associated with masculinity and existed in exclusively male spaces, such as barber shops and saloons, Chicago’s South Side women were important participants in gambling—known as the “policy game” in Bronzeville. Being illegal, policy operated outside of the law and outside the bounds of feminine respectability. Yet, policy persisted as a capital and cultural resource for women, generating a livelihood for some and harsh criticism from many others. This presentation examines the gendered sphere of policy gambling by investigating the variety of mechanisms patrons used to beat the odds and hit it big. Furthermore it evidences the degree to which Bronzeville gamblers relied on African American women and their female image to “divine” winning numbers through private consultations, church service readings, dream books, and derivative objects or talismans. This paper explores a disturbing visual culture of black female mediumship and how the community’s reliance on them helped bridge a harsh segregated world with the hopes and messages from the next.

Respondent: Keona Ervin, University of Missouri

Cost and Registration Information 

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