Research on the Leading Edge

The Hall Center will provide copies of Harris's book, Sex Workers, Psychics, and Numbers Runners, in advance of her visit to be read prior to the event by KU faculty and graduate students. Please RSVP to this event by April 16 at and confirm that you wish to attend and would like a copy of the book.

The next scholar to participate in Research on the Leading Edge will be LaShawn D. Harris, Associate Professor of History, Michigan State University, who will lead a discussion of her first monograph Sex Workers, Psychics, and Numbers Runners: Black Women in New York City's Underground Economy (University of Illinois Press, 2016). During the early twentieth century, a diverse group of African American women carved out unique niches for themselves within New York City's expansive informal economy. Harris illuminates the labor patterns and economic activity of three perennials within this kaleidoscope of underground industry: sex work, numbers running for gambling enterprises, and the supernatural consulting business.

Mining police and prison records, newspaper accounts, and period literature, Harris teases out answers to essential questions about these women and their working lives. She also offers a surprising revelation. Harris argues that the underground economy catalyzed working-class black women's creation of the employment opportunities, occupational identities, and survival strategies that provided them with financial stability and a sense of labor autonomy and mobility. At the same time, Harris shows, urban black women strove for economic and social prospects and pleasures, and in the process experienced the conspicuous and hidden dangers associated with newfound labor opportunities.

This workshop is part of the Hall Center’s “Research on the Leading Edge” program, which brings visiting scholars to campus who have published, or who are working upon, research that is boundary shifting within the humanities and humanistic social sciences.

No formal presentation will be given by the guest scholar. An interdisciplinary panel of KU faculty members will critique the book, prior to the author’s response and a general discussion by all participants.

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