Black Women Public Intellectuals in U.S. History and Culture

Shirley Chisholm announcing her candidacy for the presidential nomination (Thomas J. O’Halloran/Library of Congress)

The field of Black women’s intellectual history has experienced a renaissance in recent years. Works such as Toward an Intellectual History of Black Women and Bury My Heart in a Free Land: Black Women Intellectuals in Modern U.S. History have showcased the considerable interest among historians in the field of Black women’s intellectual history. A Seat at the Table: Black Women Public Intellectuals in U.S. History and Culture shows us the way forward in further deepening not only our understanding of Black women’s intellectual history, but of thinking about greater ideas of what, precisely, counts as “intellectual history.”

The editors of this volume, Hettie V. Williams and Melissa Ziobro, make clear that their edited collection is an attempt to move forward the growing interest in Black women as intellectual subjects in their own right in American intellectual history. As Hettie V. Williams argues in the introduction to the volume, thinking through who is an intellectual in American society is a continuing debate that needs to be more inclusive of Black women. “Terms such as ‘organic intellectual,’ ‘activist intellectual,’ and sometimes ‘public intellectual’ tend to be more applicable when considering Black women intellectuals in the context of US history,” argues Williams.1

The book itself also makes a cogent argument about who is an intellectual in American history by either inserting Black women into intellectual history conversations they were previously left out of, or re-evaluating Black women intellectuals through new and interesting frameworks. Certainly, Part I of the book sets the tone for the rest of the volume, by putting the rhetoric and intellectual practice of Black women in Early Republic and antebellum America in a fresh context. For example, Lacey Hunter re-interprets the speeches and writings of Maria Stewart through the lens of what Hunter calls the “Black women’s jeremiad.” She defines this as “a discourse marked by its use of American revolutionary ideals to centralize the experiences of free and enslaved women in the larger national debates about democracy and citizenship.”2 The follow-up chapter by Hettie V. Williams further deepens our understanding of Black women as intellectuals, looking at Black women as preachers and thinking about their preaching style and substance through an intellectual history lens.

One of the strengths of A Seat at the Table is how the volume deftly deals with different eras of Black intellectual history, situating them both within traditional epochs of American history while also dealing with the subjects of analysis on their own ideological and temporal terms. Section II, titled “Politics and Black Women’s Public Intellectualism” is a prime example of taking Black women leaders who may be well-known to historians (or to the general public, in the case of a Mary McLeod Bethune or a Shirley Chisholm), and treating them as intellectuals. This makes a significant difference in how we see them. For example, Marissa Jackson Sow’s chapter on Shirley Chisholm makes clear that scholars and lay people alike underestimate Shirley Chisholm if they see her only as a politician, and not also as a careful thinker and intellectual on the American left. As Sow writes, she went “beyond popular iconography and mythology about Chisholm and to Chisholm’s intellectual labor—her word-work—to provide dimension to her legacy.”3

To return to one of the themes of the book, re-thinking who qualifies as an intellectual is an important aspect of A Seat at the Table. Lauren T. Rorie’s “She Did it for the Culture” centers Black women visual artists as public intellectuals during the 1920s, again showcasing how important it is to look at historical figures through every lens possible. Hettie V. Williams’ second chapter in the book, on Mildred Fay Jefferson and her role in the pro-life movement, is an example of looking at an often-obscured figure and putting the scholarly spotlight on her. As Williams shifts the traditional scholarly focus from either pro-choice advocates or traditional pro-life subjects such as Phyllis Schlafly to a Black woman arguing against abortion, we see the culture wars through a different—and, admittedly, fresh—lens.

Every chapter and section of A Seat at the Table is fascinating, but section IV, about Black women in the armed forces, might be the most ground-breaking. The chapters themselves make clear that, traditionally, intellectual history tends to leave out members of the armed forces as worthy of study in that realm. But it is clear that the military has played a major role in Black American life—and definitely so in intellectual history. The book, as a whole, is worth reading and sitting with. The field of American intellectual history has never been more vibrant as it is now. The continuing study of Black women intellectuals will keep the field fresh and healthy for years to come. A Seat at the Table is a reminder of that.

  1. Hettie V. Williams. “Introduction,” A Seat at the Table: Black Women Public Intellectuals in US History and Culture. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 2023, p. 6
  2. Lacey Hunter, “Maria W. Stewart and Black Women’s Jeremiadic Tradition,” in A Seat at the Table: Black Women Public Intellectuals in US History and Culture, p. 20.
  3. Marissa Jackson Sow. “More Than An Icon: Taking Shirley Chisholm at Her Word,” in A Seat at the Table: Black Women Public Intellectuals in US History and Culture. p. 125
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Robert Greene II

Robert Greene II is an Assistant Professor of History in the Department of Humanities at Claflin University. Dr. Greene is the incoming President of the African American Intellectual History Society, chair of the AAIHS 2024 Conference, and is also the Publications Chair for the Society of U.S. Intellectual History. He also serves as Chief Instructor for the South Carolina Progressive Network’s Modjeska Simkins School of Human Rights. Along with Tyler D. Parry, Dr. Greene is the co-editor of Invisible No More: The African American Experience at the University of South Carolina(University of South Carolina Press, 2021). He is also working on his first solo-authored book, examining the role of Southern African Americans in the Democratic Party from 1964 through the 1990s. Finally, Dr. Greene has published several articles and book chapters on the intersection of memory, politics, and African American history, and has written for numerous popular publications, including The Nation, Oxford American, Dissent, Scalawag, Jacobin, In These Times, Politico, and The Washington Post. Follow him on Twitter @robgreeneII.