PABLO MITCHELL. West of Sex: Making Mexican America, 1900-1930.by M. R. Casas

The American Historical Review

About

Year
2013
DOI
10.1093/ahr/118.3.870
Subject
Archaeology / History / Museology

Similar

Section 10: Surgical Approaches to the Treatment of Heart Failure

Authors:
Heart Failure Society of America
2006

Small Iconoscope

Authors:
Radio Corporation of America (Dept 273)
1949

Mexicans in the Midwest, 1900-1932

Authors:
Matt Garcia, Juan R. Garcia
1997

Text

black femininity to both sex and the market. Chapman argues that the goods themselves, and the fantasies that sold them, were steeped in densely racialized and sexual language that offered possibilities for self-transformation but remained overdetermined by both black masculinism and white racism.

In addition to the productive analytic possibilities of the “sex-race marketplace,” Chapman offers a second tool for thinking through black femininity: the New Negro’s investment in what she calls the discourse of “race motherhood.” A new ideal of black femininity that emerged in the wake of World War I, race motherhood tied black women’s modernity to her role as guardian of the patriarchal black family. Chapman argues that the discourse of race motherhood was a response to the disruptions of urbanization and mass culture, a counternarrative to the marketplace’s imagery of sexy vamps and black divas.

Chapman traces the history of these two formations in four carefully argued case studies. The first chapter, on Oscar Micheaux’s Within Our Gates (1920), analyzes this controversial protest film as a key document in announcing a New Negro determination to counter white supremacist assumptions with new assertions of black character, oppression, and destiny. Evelyn Preer’s role as Sylvia Landry required her to advance the race through her maternal dedication and through fostering black patriarchy. The arrival of the New Negro, implicitly male, coexisted with the “race mother,” whose selfless devotion to black patriarchy was understood as central to race advancement. Preer, in her life off-screen as glamorous icon of the sex-race marketplace as well as her life on-screen as exemplary race mother, represents the twin discourses of black female modernity.

Chapter two more closely examines the formation of race motherhood, while a third chapter explores the sex-race marketplace with further specificity. In “Mothering the Race,” Chapman shows how black race advocates at the forefront of Progressivism, such as E.

Franklin Frazier and Charles S. Johnson, nonetheless crafted an approach that placed “a premium on women’s maternal roles in ideally patriarchal black families . . . and obfuscated the need for the redress of black women’s particular oppression” (p. 55). Chapter three, “Consuming the New Negro,” explores the representation of black womanhood within the commercialized sphere of the sex-race marketplace, with particular focus on advertisements for personal care products (Madam C. J. Walker, Pluko) and blues recordings (Bessie Smith, Ethel Waters). She argues that although black women’s engagement with this marketplace was both “complex and multifaceted . . . simultaneously liberating and constricting” (p. 83), ultimately these representations “contorted the humanity of their living counterparts” (p. 103).

The book’s final chapter explores how historical New

Negro women negotiated the tensions of race motherhood and the sex-race marketplace in their actual lives.

Frances Mary Albrier, Melnea Cass, Jessie Fauset, and

Nella Larsen were all New Negro women who crafted a black female modernity that critiqued the era’s masculinism while asserting a subjectivity distinct from both race motherhood and the marketplace. Despite their bold efforts, Chapman concludes that their work represents a “mere trickle against the tide of combined racism and sexism” that marked the period (p. 150).

Chapman’s fine work is an excellent contribution to a conversation underway about the relationship between the market and black modernity, a discussion unfolding in the works of Davarian L. Baldwin’s Chicago’s

New Negroes : Modernity, the Great Migration, and Black

Urban Life (2007); Jayna Brown’s Babylon Girls: Black

Women Performers and the Shaping of the Modern (2008); and Jason Chambers’s Madison Avenue and the

Color Line: African Americans in the Advertising Industry (2008), among others. It is an exemplary work of cultural history that provides new readings of important historical texts and figures, while offering new analytic frameworks that will influence emerging scholarship in several fields.

ELSPETH H. BROWN

University of Toronto

PABLO MITCHELL. West of Sex: Making Mexican America, 1900–1930. Chicago: University of Chicago Press. 2012.

Pp. xi, 151. $22.50.

If one wants to start a conversation with random strangers, I recommend carrying a copy of West of Sex: Making

Mexican America, 1900–1930; the title is as provocative as the subject matter. Pablo Mitchell mines often ignored legal records to explore the intersections of Mexican American sexuality, law, ethnic identity, and ideas of citizenship. On the surface, his approach is straightforward; each chapter of the book deals with a specific legal case whereby “Mexicans convicted of sex crimes who appealed their convictions produced an archive of sexual knowledge and sexual practices in Mexican communities that is unmatched by more traditional sources on sex” (p. 7). Rather than being a legal history, however, this work expands on how Mexican Americans, especially working-class Mexican Americans, contested and challenged their social, political, and economic inequalities in “the enduring reality of colonial rule in the

West”(p. 12). Mitchell weaves an engaging and thought-provoking narrative using these “Mexican sexual discourses” to exemplify “the contorted civic status” most Mexican Americans occupied in a “hazy area between full acceptance and complete exclusion”(p. 13).

In short, by “highlighting the central place of sexual knowledge in the constitution of American citizenship and colonial order,” and by intertwining the categories of race and sexuality, Mitchell’s ultimate endeavor is to examine “the structuring and contestation of social inequality in American history” (p. 16).

The themes and issues Mitchell attempts to meld and mold are expansive and complex, but by anchoring each chapter to a particular case, location, and time he clearly advances the idea that these cases “point to a legal culture in the Mexican community that was well 870 Reviews of Books