Roundtable on Black Women’s Intellectual History Day 5: Barbara Savage Responds

by Barbara Savage
University of Pennsylvania

This is the fifith day of our roundtable reviewing the book Toward a History of Black Women Intellectuals. We began with the AAIHS responses, including Lauren Anderson‘s introduction to the series, Hettie Williams‘ discussion of Parts II and III,  Keisha Blain‘s thoughts on the global arena, and Ashley Farmer on activist intellectuals. Today we start the two day response from the editors of the collection with Barbara Savage’s reply. She chose to respond to each post individually. Tomorrow we will hear from Martha Jones.

Reply to Lauren Anderson’s Introduction

Anderson’s astute questions are among ones we raised with ourselves and with our collaborators from the time we commenced this project to the conclusion of the book.   On whether the creation of a new field is “necessary,” Anderson observes that we answered in the affirmative because we found the expressions of black women’s ideas to be “distinctive but often ignored.”

Her inquiry about the contours of those distinctive contributions can perhaps best be answered by a closer study of the essays themselves. They reveal a rich and variegated set of complicated ideas, themes, debates, and arguments, few of which have otherwise been presented as intellectual history.

The work also demonstrated that assumptions about lack of sources or “dissemblance” do not always hold; nor is there any dearth of sources for intellectual work preserved in writing. A politics of inclusion for black women’s ideas in wider fields is to be wished and would be beneficial, but our faith in that happening was challenged by the very exclusion that led to the project.

That in turn points to the most vexing question: who has the power and the authority to decide who is in, who is out, who and what are important, and who and what are not. Disciplinary fields do this work, and that is one of the reasons we followed that route.

An inclusionary synthesis in a number of fields could emerge more easily if the work of black women intellectuals and evidence of their lived experiences were not just more readily available but also were respected and valued more by those who hold power in other fields.

We see this book as a beginning of showcasing some models and methods, but it also is a heartfelt invitation to others who share our sense of urgency about black women’s intellectual work. There is so much important, fascinating, and crucial work to do. 

Reply to Hettie V. Williams

Williams’ close and attentive reading of the essays in parts II and III of the book provides an insightful and cogent synthesis of some of the distinctive ideas that black women intellectuals have formed and propagated through a variety of writings and speeches in the 19th and 20th centuries. As she notes, the essays chart a variety of ideas about race, blackness, ethnology, racial inferiority and gender inequality, region, nationality, and diaspora.

It is very exciting to imagine, as she suggests, also engaging ideas by black women in the social sciences and the natural sciences, and, I would add, specifically their ideas about race, science, medicine, gender, and sexuality. Not only are black women important thinkers and scholars in these fields, but, with varying consequences, black women also have been the “subjects” of so much social science research, for better or for worse (think of work on black families, as an example).   So, YES PLEASE, to expanding the sites, topics, disciplines, methods, and sources.

As someone also concerned about religion and its importance to many black women, I have argued elsewhere for the importance of attention to black religious intellectuals in all their iterations. One example from the book is Alexandria Cornelius’ essay on Amelia Johnson’s “Christian intellectual thought” which brings the two realms together in an examination of Johnson’s ideas about race and racial progress.

How exciting it would be to identify religiously-inflected ideas held by black women on a variety of topics, including health, reproduction, and contraception. How would those ideas be reflected in questions of racial leadership and gender relations in black institutions, including churches and colleges, or in recurring debates about race genocide or marriage, to cite but a few possibilities.

Perhaps in bringing together Williams’ well-placed plea for attention to the social and natural sciences and her interest in religious ideas, one could imagine fascinating new work in race and environmental history, or on notions of delinquency, crime, and punishment and their public policy implications.

Our work is but a first step “toward” creating black women’s intellectual history. Our hope always was that others will carry the work forward in realms that are most important to them and in ways that we simply could not do as literary scholars and historians and within the limits of one project, one book.

Reply to Keisha Blain’s The Global Dimensions of Black Women’s Intellectual History

Blain’s careful and illuminating attention to the global dimension of this collection mirrors the project’s interest in black women around the world. In addition to the specific essays in the section that she covers for us, the book also includes works by or about other black women in Africa, the Caribbean, and Europe.

Perhaps more to the point, many of the essays highlight interactions among women in Africa and women of African descent in the Americas and Europe. In the course of working together on our essays over time, those connections became even more surprising and compelling.

We also saw how binding and limiting existing narratives of black internationalism are for black women’s ideas, but also of their lived experience as travelers, as students or scholars abroad, as political workers, as missionaries, as laborers.

This calls not just for new work but for a reconceptualization of terms, with leadership or assists from scholars in the fields of political science, international relations, diplomatic history.

Judith Byfield brings all of her learnedness, training, and methodological sophistication to her work on Funmilayo Ransome-Kuti. Her resulting essay points the way forward for others drawn to work on women activists and intellectuals on the African continent.

Just as importantly, she draws clear lines between ideas and the work of activism, mining traditional print sources but deploying the tools of visual cultural analysis as well. The complexity of her subject’s life and work can only be represented with an approach that is grounded and flexible, looking also to the Yoruba concepts that served as inspiration for framing the political work of the Nigerian women she profiles.

Byfield does provide us with the tantalizing evidence of communications between Ransome-Kuti and well-known black women in the America’s like Bethune and Garvey, but Blain is right to ask whether these women thought of themselves as engaged in collaborative work, or how they might have articulated that or taken it in as part of their own political engagements.

Even in this example, these are three very different black women working in very different sites and perhaps with quite different political aims. In what ways could their commitments to helping people in Africa and of African descent rest on a similar intellectual currents, or quite different ones? Specificities that can only emerge from the scholarship of someone like Byfield also really challenge us to think through our own notions of collectivity across regions and nations, even as we yearn for those very real connections.

Merze Tate did not study or write about domestic racial politics or black people in the United States. Her life and scholarly work immediately require us to reconsider categories and expectations often imposed on and/or embraced by black American scholars.

Her work is always concerned with global powers and their treatment of “the darker peoples of the world.” Her geographic interests were first focused on European powers (especially Great Britain) and the mechanisms of coercion they deployed – whether armaments and navies, or the work of missionaries in the Pacific, or corporate railroads in Africa.

The relationship between her work and her traveling are direct, but her lust to travel preceded and then far exceeded her need to do research. Her life of solo travel brought her in contact with black people from Africa and the Americas in far flung spots around the world.

But, to answer Blain’s specific question, Tate’s networks with other black men and women around the world revealed to me the growing numbers of black people who were deployed from the United States to military bases and consulates in the post World War II period. By the time of Lyndon Johnson’s and Jimmy Carter’s presidencies, Tate was hosted abroad in embassies that were led by black Americans and their families.

So in addition to tourists and study abroad, another challenging avenue in studies of black internationalism is that paved by black emissaries of the state, and not just as cultural workers. Black ex-pats receive attention in black global studies, but what of those large, transitive yet permanent communities of black people employed abroad by the US government. Where do they fit in our ideas about black nationalism and globalism?

Reply to Ashley Farmer on Activist Intellectuals

It seems especially fitting that Farmer’s analysis considers so carefully the process of collaboration, both as it found its expression in the project that yielded this book and then in the working intellectual friendship between June Jordan and Alice Walker. Cheryl Wall’s essay on the two forcefully argues for close links between arts and politics in the genre of the personal/political essay as practiced by black women. Although her work focuses on near contemporary figures, it is also the case that the essay form has long provided an intellectual home for black women writers. Jordan and Walker are professional writers/artists but whose political ideas drive their body of work and transform the genre itself.

Law and radical politics are not usually thought of together, or not often enough; we need no clearer example than Florynce Kennedy as profiled by Sherie Randolph. Working at the intersections of nationalism and feminism, Kennedy’s strategic thinking and acting out challenged those around her, but also those of us who study black women’s activism. Old categories of analysis must make room for the lived complexities of black women political workers.

We have said that the work we set out to do in this project could ONLY be done in collaboration with others. That is, the book that emerged was the result of drafting, sharing work, meeting honest critique, redrafting, and then re-discussing. This was a luxury few of us had experienced.

The process of helping one another and watching our work evolve together over time renewed our faith in a kind of “peer review” process that is rare, but that can only enrich our work and our lives as scholars.

Farmer’s use of the term “community” leads me to conclude by asking us to reimagine ourselves as a part of a broad intellectual community committed to black women’s ideas as preserved and lived. We hope that other groups of colleagues and friends, not unlike Jordan and Walker, might bring themselves together in groups dedicated to doing all the work that now calls us forward.


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.

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