Colored Amazons: Crime, Violence, and Black Women in the City of Brotherly Love, 1880-1910.
In Colored Amazons, Kali Gross offers a fresh and insightful interpretation of the meaning of race, crime, violence, and sexuality in post-Reconstruction Philadelphia. Analyzing the historical roots between black female crime and discourses of femininity, Gross helps us to understand how race and gender bias have historically shaped public perceptions about crime and violence.
Without firsthand accounts to inform her research, Gross skillfully combines quantitative data with evidence taken from prison records, trial transcripts, annual police and correction reports, warden journals, and daily periodicals--many of which demonstrate the range of popular sentiment on black women, crime, and violence. Through use of both cultural mediums and criminal behaviors, Gross argues that while most black women repressed their inner turmoil and anger, violent crimes were evidence of those who did not, or could not, overcome the effects of poverty and discrimination. Moreover, the nature of black women's crimes reveals much about their experience with violence.
The third largest American city by 1900, Philadelphia is an ideal site for exploring the complexity of social factors that contributed to black female offending. Known for its Quaker roots and liberal democratic ideals, Philadelphia was not without the racial antagonism that plagued other American cities. Committed to the ideals of freedom and equality, Philadelphians struggled to distance themselves from the prejudicial attitudes and practices that made these ideals impossible to achieve. Thus, as Gross points out, mainstream perspectives on race in the City of Brotherly Love never fully diverged from those held in other parts of the United States.
Topically organized, Colored Amazons begins with a discussion on how race, gender, and sexuality functioned within colonial slave laws that criminalized blacks and established systemic inequalities in the justice system. Using the trial of Alice Clifton, convicted for the murder of her illegitimate child, Gross diagrams how legislation regulating slavery did not simply control the labour of Africans, it mediated broader aspects of their social status and judicial access. For black women, race, gender, and sexuality took on meanings that "inscribed immorality and dishonesty onto black womanhood" (p. 18).
In chapter two, Gross investigates how domestic work, housing, and leisure factored into black female crime. Poverty, alienation, and a web of social bias led some black women, particularly servants, to commit crimes such as petty theft. Such choices, according to Gross, often collided with the moral objectives of black and white reformers who sought to impose bourgeois notions of sexuality and social conduct on urban, working-class black women. On account of the central role played by women in shaping family and community, elite and middle-class black reformers attempted to counter negative attitudes towards African Americans by emphasizing a black female identity based on ideas of respectability, hard work, and sexual propriety.
In chapter three, Gross explores the relationship between black female crime, violence, and their second-class citizenship. The destructive impact of violence against black women, contempt for them within mainstream culture, and a disconnect from the community all served as contributing factors to black female crime. With few avenues of upward mobility, black women used badger theft, whereby they "seduced their victims into assuming compromising positions before absconding with their cash and valuables," as a means to articulate both empowerment and frustration in a society that excluded them (p. 78). In turn, violence became an instrument of power for black women who, without protection, had little confidence in the justice system.
In chapter four, Gross spotlights how popular culture exaggerated black female crime by contriving false notions of illicit sex and danger through construction of the "Colored Amazon." According to Gross, the image and the narrative of the Colored Amazon intensified white anxiety about the growing presence of black women, urban female vice, and their propensity for criminal behavior. News accounts in particular created a space for the public to purchase stories of black depravity, and the sexual aspects of the Colored Amazon caricature provided white male audiences with voyeuristic access to black women's bodies.
In chapter five, Gross examines the scientific notions of hereditary criminality that developed alongside a growing enthusiasm for proof that non-whites were born criminals. Tracing the shift within the penal system which initially viewed individuals who committed crimes as capable of rehabilitation to views about those believed to be inherently criminal, Gross explores how police and prison administrators not only linked criminality to race, but used scientific theories as a means to confirm both the existence and threat of the "habitual criminal." Moreover, Gross shows how the penitentiary became an important tool for creating the moral and legal obedience prison administrators were unable to achieve on the outside.
In the concluding chapter, Gross offers some final observations about black female crime and its repercussions. By covering a topic often ignored and oversimplified, Gross enhances our understanding of the historical roots of racism's impact on public perceptions of crime and its lingering effect upon the African American struggle for justice through the court system. While there is little mention of how local chapters of the NAACP or National Association of Colored Women may have challenged negative representations of working-class black women in Philadelphia, the depth and empathy of Gross's analysis, coupled with her smooth writing style, make this work an outstanding contribution to African American studies, women's history, criminology, and legal Studies. For scholars and graduate students in these disciplines, Colored Amazons is well worth the time and effort.
De Anna J. Reese
California State University, Fresno
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|Author:||Reese, De Anna J.|
|Publication:||Canadian Journal of History|
|Article Type:||Book review|
|Date:||Dec 22, 2007|
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