Behind and Beyond Biography: Writing Black Women’s Lives and Thoughts

Ada “Bricktop” Smith (far left) seated at table with other women, the New York Public Library Digital Collections, 1920 – 1929 (Courtesy of the Schomburg Center)

“I think of invention as a gift to the reader,” writer and professor Bridgett Davis said. The moment you put a person’s lived experience on the page, she explained, they become a character. And it’s your responsibility to the reader to bring that character to life, fully-fleshed, with a deep interior life that helps readers understand their ideas and the larger social, political, and cultural issues of the day. The group of Black women writers, mostly academics, assembled on Zoom threw up hand clap and heart emojis. Davis’s wisdom about how to develop characters and enliven one’s writing with sensory details would fundamentally transform the way many of the participants approached their projects.

As biographers of Mollie Moon and Queen Mother Audley Moore, we had long been engaging in conversations about how to write about Black women’s thoughts, fears, loves, and desires in gripping and inventive ways. In October 2021, we organized a two-day Harvard Radcliffe Institute exploratory seminar titled” Writing and Publishing Black Women’s Biography in the Time of Black Lives Matter” to bring more writers into these conversations. We selected participants that represented a wide range of ages, professional experiences, and backgrounds, including junior and senior academics, teachers, activists, and independent scholars. We wanted to think collectively about how to write about Black women as thinkers, cultural workers, and mothers through biographies for a general audience and how, once you’ve written the book, to find a publishing home for it.  We also created a resource guide to help us think through these concepts together.

Two of the big picture questions that emerged from our time together were related to form and method. As Bridgett Davis had explained, writing biography was about more than an assemblage of facts; it is a form of storytelling that can yield new theoretical and epistemological frameworks. How far into the imaginative or speculative can a biography lean? Where is the line?  How does an author get at the inner most thoughts of their subject? Likewise, how does one go about finding the prescient narrative at the center of their subject’s life story? In other words, how do you find those elements that can draw in readers across time and space? Those of us who study Black women know all too well the violence of the archive and the ways in which evidence of our lives, our humanity, have been scattered across archives, pushed to the margins, or omitted altogether. We have had to find ways to piece together the fragments of lives and ideas lived by people whom colonial archival logics tell us did not leave papers or whose stories were not worth recovering.

Early biographies by scholars such as Nell Irving Painter, Barbara Ransby, and Paula Giddings have not only helped to define the field of Black women’s history, they have offered a blueprint for how to do this work. Black women life writers today are responding to some of the same questions as our scholarly foremothers. Yet, the groundswell of work over the past twenty years has also led to the need for new paradigms and new questions to ask of the archive. It is this new space of inquiry that has made biography—and life writing more broadly—a powerful approach to recovering the stories, ideas, and ideologies of everyday Black immigrant women to highly-visible political candidates.

The essays in this roundtable take up these questions of subject, form, method, and invention when chronicling the lives, loves, and labors of Black women. Some of these biographers explore Black women who are almost household names. Others labor at uncovering women who the archive and the world have worked hard to erase. Their biographies may be different,  but these writers’  personal connections to their subjects are common.

Anastasia Curwood first came to Shirley Chisholm looking to her as a model for political engagement. K.T.  Ewing’s connection to her subject, Alberta Hunter, is fueled by her recollections of attending Hunter’s induction into the Memphis Music Hall of Fame. For Sherry Johnson, who combines memoir and biography to revive the story of her mother, the process is deeply personal as she learns and unlearns aspects of the woman that raised her. Questions about who was May Ayim? What did she accomplish beyond the Black German movement? And “What was the interiority of her life?” drive Tiffany Florvil’s personal interest in uncovering the life of this Black German activist-intellectual.  Meanwhile, Daina Berry has always been fascinated by Anna Murray Douglass, Frederick Douglass’s first wife and an ardent anti-slavery activist and abolitionist thinker who his biographers “mention but never dwell” upon.

These essays reveal the personal imperatives behind Black women’s life writing and the biographers’ diverse and complex paths to their subjects.

Their motley pathways have produced multiple methodologies. Historians of Black women thinkers and doers have long known that traditional historical frameworks are poor fits for their subjects.  Curwood, for example, must find a way to write about Chisholm, who is widely recognized, yet the actual details of her life are largely unknown. Curwood explains that this “meant that [her] biography was an act of resurrection: of Chisholm’s actual life from the shadow of her symbolic one.” Like Curwood,  Ewing had previous biographical texts to build on as Hunter contributed to her first biography and the creation of her personal archive. The challenge for Ewing, then, is to parse through the archival record of Hunter’s creation and unravel questions of authenticity and authority. She employs the idea of the “two-faced archive” as an approach to uncovering Hunter’s thoughts and contributions and as a way to think through Hunter’s public and private selves.

Berry and Florvil share the challenge of uncovering important but obscured thinkers amid a scant archive. Murray Douglass’s towering husband and, in particular, his second marriage has long cast a shadow over her. Berry must now search for Anna amid the shadows of Frederick, looking to the archival silences to pull out her thoughts and contributions.  Florvil works against the constraints of a limited archive, linguistic barriers, and complex racial relations to document Ayim.  She must look to her complex web of community that included other Black women activists like Audre Lorde and Pauli Marshall, to fully uncover Ayim’s contributions to diasporic liberation theories.

Johnson has perhaps the greatest access to the archive and is herself an archival repository of her mothers’ life. She must now develop a narrative that accounts for her own recollections, those of her mother, and the world they both inhabited. Johnson centers the idea of “self-revision as praxis” to parse through the lived experiences of her mother and create a biography that uncovers the moments in which her mother “check[ed] herself over to tuck in memories where a thread may hang out of place” to explore their meaning.

It is these tucked threads that each of the authors pull out and unravel in their respective biographies. In their refusal to let the confines of genre define their subjects’ lives, these authors introduce or reintroduce Black women thinkers and doers into the public sphere, offer new approaches for biography and intellectual history, and untangle Black women’s diverse and complex trajectories. These essays offer a glimpse into constructing biographies on a range of Black women across time, space, political ideologies, and conceptions of race and invent and invite you into these women’s worlds.

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Ashley D. Farmer and Tanisha Ford

Ashley D. Farmer is a historian of black women’s history, intellectual history, and radical politics. She is currently an Associate Professor in the Departments of History and African and African Diaspora Studies at the University of Texas at Austin. She is the author of Remaking Black Power: How Black Women Transformed an Era and a co-editor of New Perspectives on the Black Intellectual Tradition. Tanisha C. Ford is Professor of History and Biography and Memoir at The Graduate Center, CUNY. Ford is the author of Liberated Threads: Black Women, Style, and the Global Politics of Soul (UNC Press, 2015), which won the OAH Liberty Legacy Foundation Award for Best Book on Civil Rights History, Dressed in Dreams: A Black Girl’s Love Letter to the Power of Fashion (St. Martin’s, 2019), and co-author (with Deborah Willis) of Kwame Brathwaite: Black is Beautiful (Aperture, 2019).

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