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I’ve Got to Make My Livin’

Black Women’s Sex Work in Turn-of-the-Century Chicago

For many years, the interrelated histories of prostitution and cities have perked the ears of urban scholars, but until now the history of urban sex work has dealt only in passing with questions of race. In I’ve Got to Make My Livin’, Cynthia Blair explores African American women’s sex work in Chicago during the decades of some of the city’s most explosive growth, expanding not just our view of prostitution, but also of black women’s labor, the Great Migration, black and white reform movements, and the emergence of modern sexuality.

Focusing on the notorious sex districts of the city’s south side, Blair paints a complex portrait of black prostitutes as conscious actors and historical agents; prostitution, she argues here, was both an arena of exploitation and abuse, as well as a means of resisting middle-class sexual and economic norms. Blair ultimately illustrates just how powerful these norms were, offering stories about the struggles that emerged among black and white urbanites in response to black women’s increasing visibility in the city’s sex economy. Through these powerful narratives, I’ve Got to Make My Livin’ reveals the intersecting racial struggles and sexual anxieties that underpinned the celebration of Chicago as the quintessentially modern twentieth-century city.

344 pages | 15 halftones, 10 maps, 9 tables | 6 x 9 | © 2010

Historical Studies of Urban America

Black Studies

Chicago and Illinois

History: Urban History

Women's Studies


I’ve Got to Make My Livin’ is a splendid study of the historical interplay of city space, race, class, gender, and sexual politics during the industrial era. In this engaging work, Cynthia Blair creates a compelling portrait and persuasive argument for black women’s participation in the underground sexual economy.”

Elizabeth Clement, University of Utah

“A compelling study of the development of commercialized leisure and the shifting racial geography of early twentieth-century Chicago. . . .painstaking in its research.”

Social History

Table of Contents

List of Illustrations and Tables
Introduction: “A Class We Have Barely Mentioned”
1           “The Sources of Courtesanship”: African American Women’s Wage Work, the Informal Economy, and the Search for Independence
2           Working the Prostitution Economy, 1870–1900
3           Race and the Spatial Boundaries of Respectability
4           Race and the Reconstruction of the Urban Sex Economy, 1900–1915
5           Leisure Culture and the Commercialization of Black Women’s Sex Work, 1900–1920
6           Rage and Rescue: African American Anti-Vice Reform Strategies
Epilogue: “This Way of Livin’ Sure Is Hard”
            Notes  Bibliography  Index


American Studies Association: Lora Romero First Book Prize

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