“Mind, soul, body, and race” : Black women’s purposeful exercise in the age of physical culture, 1900-1939




Purkiss, Ava

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This dissertation investigates how and why physical exercise, and more generally physical culture, became constitutive of black womanhood in the early twentieth century. The modern physical culture movement was a mostly-white health campaign that began at the turn of the twentieth century and declined during the Great Depression. Physical culturists espoused a philosophy that individuals had full control over their bodies and that exercise enabled Americans to live long and robust lives. While the scholarship on American health, sport, and other kinds of physical culture is plentiful and the historiography on black women is rich, they both leave unanswered questions about black women’s interaction with the movement. This project unifies these two seemingly unrelated bodies of literature and shows that black women carved out their own space within Americans’ quest for physical perfection. It advances the literature by making three novel contentions: 1) physical culture intensified African American public health and eugenic discourse; 2) purposeful exercise served as the basis for black women’s stigmatization of fatness; and 3) physical education became integral to black civic education. As the movement grew nationwide, black women gained a keener understanding of the health, beauty, and recreational advantages of exercise, as well as the larger stakes of citizenship that coincided with black physical culture. Considering their investment in this fitness zeitgeist, this dissertation argues that black women used physical culture to literally and figuratively shape their bodies and thus, they created a new vision of fit black womanhood. Mind, Soul, Body, and Race demonstrates that despite racism, sexism, and exclusion from fitness institutions, black women actively participated in exercise programs at a time when physical fitness bore new socio-political meaning. Through public displays and private acts of purposeful exercise, black women contested widespread representations of themselves as lazy, disease-ridden, unattractive, and unfit for citizenship, and sought to define their bodies and redefine black womanhood.



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