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The Modern Race Woman: Josephine Baker, Hattie McDaniel, and the Black Press, 1925-1945


During the early twentieth century, the Black press—including newspapers such as the Chicago Defender, the New York Amsterdam News, and the Baltimore Afro-American—became a source for debating and reiterating notions of race, gender, and sexuality. Through the figures of female celebrities such as Josephine Baker and Hattie McDaniel, the writers of the Black press articulated Blackness, Black femininity and sexuality, and older conceptions of race womanhood and uplift. Baker, a theatrical performer who found most of her popularity in France, was positioned as a positive example of Black modernity and success, but also as a potentially negative example of blatant sexuality and Black womanhood. McDaniel, whose Academy Award win for Best Supporting Actress in 1940 presented her a pioneer for Black representation on film, was both praised and harshly criticized for working within a white Hollywood which made little space for Black actors outside of stereotypical, small roles. During a period of upheaval for African Americans, including the Great Migration, the Harlem Renaissance, and continuing segregation and racial violence, the Black press used public figures such as Baker and McDaniel to comment on both a past and a potential future of Black representation in the media.

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