2006 Letitia Woods Brown Memorial Book Prize.
Colored Amazons is a groundbreaking historical analysis of the crimes, prosecution, and incarceration of black women in Philadelphia at the turn of the twentieth century. Kali N. Gross reconstructs black women’s crimes and their representations in popular press accounts and within the discourses of urban and penal reform. Most importantly, she considers what these crimes signified about the experiences, ambitions, and frustrations of the marginalized women who committed them. Gross argues that the perpetrators and the state jointly constructed black female crime. For some women, crime functioned as a means to attain personal and social autonomy. For the state, black female crime and its representations effectively galvanized and justified a host of urban reform initiatives that reaffirmed white, middle-class authority.
Gross draws on prison records, trial transcripts, news accounts, and rare mug shot photographs. Providing an overview of Philadelphia’s black women criminals, she describes the women’s work, housing, and leisure activities and their social position in relation to the city’s native-born whites, European immigrants, and elite and middle-class African Americans. She relates how news accounts exaggerated black female crime, trading in sensationalistic portraits of threatening “colored Amazons,” and she considers criminologists’ interpretations of the women’s criminal acts, interpretations largely based on notions of hereditary criminality. Ultimately, Gross contends that the history of black female criminals is in many ways a history of the rift between the political rhetoric of democracy and the legal and social realities of those marginalized by its shortcomings.
WHAT REVIEWERS ARE SAYING
“Colored Amazons is a rigorously researched and lively written account of Black women’s circulation through Philadelphia’s criminal justice system in the decades after Reconstruction and offers a compelling history of punishment and of the evolution of racism at the turn of the twentieth century. . . . It would be a wonderful addition to courses on Black women’s history, urban studies, or penal studies.” — Courtney Denine Marshall, Women’s Studies
“[A] must read for those wishing to fully investigate the inner workings of freedom and justice in America. Colored Amazons serves the important purpose of suggesting how much more we have to learn from the way crime and criminalization operate in society. Gross has demonstrated the power of crime as a social prism, and Colored Amazons will both inform and inspire scholars.” — Shawn Leigh Alexander, Journal of American History
“[T]he 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, Canadian Journal of History
“Gross’s innovative work is exceptional for its position in the historiography of black women’s history, brilliant use of source material, and noble application of social history. . . . Colored Amazons is not only for academic audiences but also for public policy analysts, legal professionals, and people who are interested in understanding how the complexities of race, gender, and class affect America’s ideology on crime and prison reform. . . . [It] is a remarkable study.” — Sylvea Hollis, H-Net Reviews
“In this deeply researched account of fin-de-si`ecle Philadelphia, Kali Gross combines social and cultural history. . . . Gross’s arguments are enhanced in the detailed compilation and analysis of arrest, conviction and prison records, especially those from Eastern State Penitentiary. She has mined the tedious, but rich material found in the convict registers, warden’s journals and prison docket books of the most important sites of incarceration to draw a nuanced profile of black female criminality.” — Timothy J. Gilfoyle, Gender and History
“Kali N. Gross’s Colored Amazons . . . is a well-documented study that provides demographic data on the crimes, class, and geographic origins of Philadelphia’s black female population. But this study is also much more. It offers the reader a glimpse into the social milieu of the world in which these women lived, worked, and committed crimes, and it contextualizes it within the discourses of urban and penal reform. . . . Scholars interested in urban studies, criminal justice, African American studies, sociology, and women’s studies will find Colored Amazons essential reading.” — Lillian Serece Williams, Pennsylvania Magazine of History and Biography
“Readers will agree that this book is a valuable contribution to the dialectic surrounding history, politics, and culture. . . . This book will be of interest to persons seeking to understand the impact of the criminal justice system on female inmates, and offers potential remedies for the disproportionate rate of black female incarceration. . . . Kali Gross has presented a well-researched and carefully argued investigation of female criminality.” — Floris Barnett Cash, The Journal of African American History
“While few records survive from inmates themselves, the author effectively deconstructs criminal justice and media sources to recreate the larger context in which they struggled to survive and gain agency. . . . Well researched and written.” — J. Borchert, Choice