Roundtable on Black Women’s Intellectual History Day 1: Introduction

black women intellectualToday marks the beginning of a six day roundtable on the new collection, Toward an Intellectual History of Black Women, edited by Mia Bay, Farah J. Griffin, Martha S. Jones, and Barbara D. Savage. Today I am introducing the series. Hettie Williams will post tomorrow on Parts 2 and 3, Keisha Blain will follow with her post on “ The Global Dimensions of Black Women’s Intellectual History,” a consideration of the essays in Part 4, and Ashley Farmer will conclude the AAIHS portion of the roundtable with her essay, “Activist Intellectuals,” which also engages Part 4. During the next two days, Dr. Savage and Dr. Jones will respond to our posts.

Toward an Intellectual History of Black Women, comprised of 320 pages and fifteen chapters, has been gestating for over thirteen years, beginning with a conversation among the editors over dinner, out of which thirty scholars gathered at Rutgers University in 2002 for a working group hosted by Rutgers to conceptualize the way forward. From there, historians and literature scholars formed a “collective,” which Columbia University’s Center for the Study of Social Difference agreed to house and support. The text is composed of fifteen essays spread over five parts: “Diasporic Beginnings,” “Race and Gender in the Postemancipation Era,” “Redefining the Subject of Study,” “Intellectual Activism,” and “The Long View.”

Several questions arose for me as I sat down to introduce this roundtable on a book that is field-creating and field-defining. My questions may seem like something an advisor might ask their graduate student, (that is indeed when I first began to ask these questions), but I continue to ask them after practical experience in the administration of two new societies attempting to reinvigorate and/or invent fields (S-USIH and AAIHS). My questions are

When is it necessary to start a new research field? What might the disciplinary effects of starting that new field be? What about the implications for established and burgeoning academic societies? What justifications do we offer for founding a new field when speaking to scholars who already agree with us, with scholars who must be convinced about the validity of our subject, and with administrators trying to decide where finite budget resources should be directed?

The editors begin to answer some of these questions in the opening essay, where they establish just how limited the research on black women as the creator of ideas has been. In footnote seven, they list the absence of black women from two foundational intellectual history anthologies: David Hollinger and Charles Capper’s The American Intellectual Tradition (Oxford University Press, 2005) and Linda K. Kerber’s Toward an Intellectual History of Women (University of North Carolina, 1997). I would add that while there is now a sixth edition of Hollinger and Capper’s text (2010), it still has no essays by any women of color. It is still dominated by white men, with a few white women and black men also included. Toward an Intellectual History of Black Women‘s footnote seven continues with a list of six seminal works in black intellectual history that focus on few if any women.

Despite the travesty of this howling silence, I do not think we can take it for granted that filling this gap is justification enough for the text. The editors recognize this and argue that black women as producers of ideas must be written about because they “have provided critical insight into issues of national and global importance” and because their ideas, emerging from lived experiences “at the crossroads of race, gender, and justice,” are “distinctive but often ignored.”

And yet, as I thought about the introduction, I found myself wishing I had a more concrete idea from it of what the editors believed that distinctive contribution was. Why, for instance, should we have a text on black women’s intellectual history, mostly but not solely focused on the US, stretching across more than two decades, rather than, say, an intellectual history of slavery that includes black women’s voices as one of many? Or a history of modernism in the early twentieth century that includes blues lyrics and Zora Neale Hurston?

What, in other words, might be included in a course proposal that would convince an entire liberal arts college that a course in black women’s intellectual history was worthy (an exercise each of my new courses engage in)? Or, for an example even closer to home, would the editors and authors suggest forming a new society and blog that focuses only on Black Women’s Intellectual History or would they find a suitable home at AAIHS? Why, in fact, did we founders of AAIHS feel the need to create it rather than finding space within older, more established scholarly organizations like ASALH, the OAH, or the new and influential Society for U.S. Intellectual History, itself born out of a listserve and a blog?

The editors provide an answer to some of these questions by noting that the realm in which black women operated, a place of self-education where they had to battle “with both sexism and racism,” is in part what makes black women’s history unique. They answer my questions further in the form of more questions that the essays in the collection begin to answer and that they encourage future writters to tackle as well:

  1. What forms do ideas take?
  2. What are their modes of expression?
  3. Under what conditions may ideas be produced, and where should we look for them?
  4. What is the relationship between lived experience and the production of ideas?
  5. And what happens when ideas exceed or break apart social or analytic categories?

I would add to those questions—who is black, who is a woman, who are intellectuals, and what are ideas?

To elaborate:

1. Is there something profound in discussing the African Diaspora as a whole or is there too much diversity within that Diaspora to hold a field together?

2. In terms of who is a woman, why do the editors raise racism and sexism, but not gender-identity discrimination or homophobia? Is Nancy Kelley a woman they’d include in future work? Is thinking about the boundaries of identity groups distracting or useful in general and for your work in particular?

Nancy Kelley at Joe's Deluxe in Chicago, 1940s.
Nancy Kelley at Joe’s Deluxe in Chicago, 1940s.

3. With regards to the intersection of intellectuals and ideas—all people have ideas, but I would argue not all people are (or would want to be) intellectuals. Which, then, would the editors include in this field? How do they grapple with the challenge facing all intellectual historians, but especially those of a marginalized people who were outlawed from learning to read for centuries? Can intellectual history be written from material objects (like quilts or pots) or does it require text? If it requires text, can it only be developed from text by a black woman or is it possible to recover black women’s ideas from the ways others, usually those in positions of power and with many misconceptions clouding their knowledge, wrote about them and their ideas? How do we recover the ideas of a group of people known for dissembling in order to protect their precious sense of self from systems designed to usurp them of their dignity?

I had intended to speak to Part 1 of the book as well as the introduction, but I think I will leave this here. I want to emphasize that I am overwhelmingly enthusiastic about what this work represents and the foundation it has laid for future scholars and teachers. Let this collection provide the wind at our back as we create classes, develop dissertation topics, put together conference panels and calls for papers, and define new positions in our departments.


Lauren Kientz Anderson

I am an Assistant Professor at Luther College in Decorah, IA. I graduated with a PhD from Michigan State University in 2010 and then had a post-doctoral fellowship at the University of Kentucky from 2010-2012. My research and teaching interests are Black thought in the interwar era, Black Internationalism, Black Women’s History, the global anti-apartheid movement, and LGBT history. My first book, “Speaking to the World: Black American Women and Global Interracialism, 1918-1939″ argues that “interracialism” was one of the most important political theories of race relations in the interwar era. It was based on the simplistic idea that if elites interacted, systemic racism, including violence and lynching ,would end. The rare scholars who discuss interracialism suggest that it was a white-led phenomenon, but the book focuses the discussion on black women’s support for and critique of interracialism. In addition to interracialism, the work analyzes black internationalism through these same black women. I assert that when black women engaged joyfully in religion and played with their identity abroad, they defied Michael O. West’s contention that the black international was defined by struggle. The work incorporates material from over twenty archives in the United States and Europe. You can explore aspects of my argument in my article, “A Nauseating Sentiment, a Magical Device, or a Real Insight? Interracialism at Fisk University in 1930.” I also have an article about my global anti-apartheid course in the Spring 2014 issue of Radical History Review and have several articles in various stages of the publication journey. For my course syllabi, the latest information about my publications, conference papers, and links to my posts from two years as a regular contributor to the Society for US Intellectual History’s blog see my academia profile. In my free time, I paint and do a bit of creative writing while attempting to balance my aged cat and laptop.

Comments on “Roundtable on Black Women’s Intellectual History Day 1: Introduction

  • A conversation I had this morning with River Needham. Since others might have also been confused by what I wrote in question #2 above. I asked them if I could post it here, so others could see what I had intended by that question:

    River: I’m saying this to engage in academic conversation, not to be unpleasant.
    I’m not a fan of language about gender-identity discrimination because it serves to delegitimize trans women as women and trans men as men. (Which while perhaps not what you were intending, is exactly what I felt happen.)

    I try to use language like “gender based oppression” or “gender discrimination” to include sexism and transphobia.

    LKA: That’s why I sent it. I wasn’t sure if what I wrote worked. I’m not sure I understand what you’re saying though.

    River: It comes across as though you’re asking if trans women are actual women, or woman-lite, or actually just men in dresses.

    I think you are asking about how a hypothetical new discipline might engage with black trans women, but the question I heard was “are black trans women actually black women at all?”

    An assumption being that if black trans women are women they would be engaged.

    LKA: ahh no, that’s not what I meant, though I realize now that that is how it definitely came across. My question was historical more because at that time the documents make no distinction between drag queens and transwomen (most evidence we have is in newspaper coverage of entertainers, all of whom were called “female impersonators,” no matter what their internal identity. Also, there weren’t as many names for internal identities). So how do we write about them? Do we update our language or not, given situations when we dont have enough documents for their internal identity? What is historical best practice?

    River: Oh. Yeah. I did not get that it was historical at all.

    • I also wanted to add that I had also intended question #2, in addition to asking what are the ways to talk about different kinds of women historically, to ask about what the role women’s history has in today’s academic climate. This and other questions I’ve asked in the post might raise earlier questions about whether to merge our work with established disciplines or create new disciplines (or have joint-appointments in two fields). Pragmatic questions are very important–I am funded to attend about one conference a year (dependent on travel costs), so which do I choose? I have to pay all organizational membership fees myself (my college doesn’t cover that unless I am presenting at the conference)–so which memberships are essential and which would be nice? We all have limited resources. Where do I spend the time I have to contribute to the structures of a discipline, internal and external to a college?

      In addition to practical questions, I am also asking who we include in black women’s history to raise the questions about how to talk about people who write at length about their race and female-ness and those that write only occasionally and those that write not much at all.

      • It is important to acknowledge that recent work in African Anerican historiography and intellectual history acknowledges the seminal role played by black women. A Faithful Account of the Race ( 2009) centralizes black women as important creators of the black historical tradition. No serious student of black historiography could fail to do so.

  • I just wanted to say that i’m definitely looking forward to the roundtable. I’ve enjoyed reading the book, and I know plenty of my colleagues at S-USIH will be reading with great interest as well.

  • I am especially pleased with Barbara Savage’s piece on Merze Tate. We need more work on black women historians, an extremely important but neglected group of intellectuals.

    • Dr. Hall,

      Please read Dr. Keisha Blain’s section of the roundtable tomorrow, in which she discusses the Merze Tate chapter as well as your own work.

      I apologize for not doing a more rigorous check of the footnote I mentioned above. I have read your book, but it was several years ago now and I had forgotten important elements and so did not challenge footnote seven.

      The footnote did not seem automatically erroneous to me because in my extensive dissertation primary research into the network connecting the intellectuals that attended the Second Amenia Conference, it was fairly astounding at how *present* black women were in those spaces, even while their peers largely ignored them. You can read about Mabel Byrd’s thoughts about Abram Harris at the conference in her report to J.E. Spingarn, but not Abram Harris’ thoughts about her. From Harris’ reports, you would assume he was the only one serving on the findings committee, rather than Byrd and Anna Arnold (Hedgeman) also contributing. It can be dicey pulling these stories apart when Harris and his contemporaries have extensive archives, while Byrd and Arnold Hedgeman have only bits and pieces of their papers housed here and there, mostly as letters sent to men like Du Bois and Alain Locke. I’ve heard that Arnold Hedgeman has something of an archive at Wilberforce, but emails, phone calls, and a letter went unanswered. I am slowly finding more and more on Byrd, but it’s taken almost ten years to track down her ideas and even then, I find it necessary to leave some wide open interpretations because of how few sources there are to help contextualize the handful of her publications.

      However, despite my assumptions, best practice would have been to rigorously confirm anything I agreed with in the text. I appreciated your comment and will return to your book.

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