Black Women’s Activism through History and Poetry

National Youth Poet Laureate Amanda Gorman, September 13, 2017. Photo by Shawn Miller. (Wikimedia Commons)

“Somehow, we’ve weathered and witnessed a nation that isn’t broken, but simply unfinished.” -Amanda Gorman, The Hill We Climb 

Those powerful words were written Amanda Gorman, the Los Angeles-born African American poet who read her poem at President Joe Biden’s inauguration in 2021. Strikingly, those same lines were recently cited in a request to ban Gorman’s poem from a school library in Miami Lakes, Florida.

In the past five years, African American History books and curricula have been under attack by extremists. This includes efforts to whitewash history and ban books that address issues of race or gender or in some cases merely feature Black people or others from underrepresented groups. These attacks on curricula that center slavery and the freedom struggle in our nation’s history (often labeled falsely as Critical Race Theory) are not new. As scholars including Karen Cox and Bethany Bell have demonstrated, they mirror the tactics of the United Daughters of the Confederacy from a century ago.

Likewise, writers like poet Amanda Gorman and journalists like Nikole Hannah-Jones have been in—to use Martha Jones’ phrase—the vanguard of rights activism, but they are not the first to “hurl back defamation” with the written word. For generations, Black women have used their voices to fight back by contextualizing and analyzing racism and white supremacy while asserting their perspective on what it means to be Black in America.

At the turn of the twentieth century, Carrie Williams Clifford, a Black poet, journalist, club woman, and suffragist, used her writing to honor African Americans and their history while also opposing the rising white supremacist myths like the Lost Cause of the Confederacy, which sought to rewrite our nation’s history with a narrative claiming the war was about states’ rights instead of slavery. As an activist, Clifford spent her literary career arguing against cultural reproductions of white supremacist violence in literature, film, and even the United Daughters of the Confederacy’s proposed “Mammy” monument for the Washington Mall. During the 1910s and 1920s, Clifford’s poems appeared in her two books as well as publications like The Washington Tribune and The Baltimore Afro-American, tackling themes of slavery, racism, and historical memory. “We hurl back defamation/Confound theory with fact/Prove, by thought, by word, by deed,/The falseness of the vile attack,” declared Clifford in her poem, “A Reply to Thomas Dixon,” addressed to the author of the Ku Klux Klan trilogy. A decade later, Clifford continued her criticism through verse with the poem “The Birth of a Nation,” in reference to the movie based on Dixon’s novel, addressing the creator as a “rash, misguided fool!” She also penned an editorial denouncing Thomas Nelson Page, another author spreading the Lost Cause narrative and ideas of white racial purity. In contrast, her writing directly addressed the violence of family separation and the sexual assault of enslaved Black women by white men during slavery. Her poems “Black Mammy” and “Mulatto,” explored a legacy she struggled to make sense of in her own family history, while her sonnet, “Tercentenary of the Landing of Slaves at Jamestown, 1619-1919,” placed slavery, emancipation, and the fight against racial injustice at the heart of American history.

Born in Chillicothe, Ohio, in 1862, Carrie Williams grew up in a middle-class home (her father was a barber and her mother operated a hairdressing business) with a love of literature. In 1886, she married William Clifford, who later became a state legislator active in the Ohio Republican Party and the father of her two sons. Carrie Clifford  co-founded the Ohio Federation of Colored Women’s Clubs in response to a moving lecture that activist Mary Church Terrell gave in 1896. Cognizant of the importance of publicizing Black women’s work, Clifford developed the organization’s newsletter, The Queen’s Garden. She also published a collection of speeches and other texts in Sowing for Others to Reap (1900) that not only documented Black clubwomen’s community activism, but also mobilized that historical project as inspiration for the “coming generations.”When the Clifford family relocated to Washington, DC, she continued her activism by joining the Bethel Literary and Historical Society, the Woman’s Christian Temperance Union (WCTU), and the Niagara Movement. She even assisted in the founding of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People’s (NAACP) branch in the District. Clifford was also an active participant in the fight for women’s voting rights and even marched in the first national suffrage parade in 1913. She chronicled Black women’s participation in the march in the NAACP’s newspaper, The Crisis.

During the Jim Crow Era, in 1911 and 1922, Clifford produced two books of antiracist poetry: Race Rhymes and The Widening Light. Inspired by the likes of Phyllis Wheatley, W.E.B. DuBois, Paul Laurence Dunbar, and William Stanley Braithwaite, Clifford’s poems were not only odes to writers and orators she met, read, and admired, but also memorials to significant people and major historical events. She highlighted Black women in her poems “To My Mother,” “Black Graduates,” and “Our Women of the Canteen,” the latter featuring women working in France during World War One. Her semi-autoiographical sonnet, “Mothers of America,” emphasized the shared maternal feelings and sacrifices black and white mothers faced as their sons fought as soldiers in the war. Poems like “Negro Players on Broadway” illustrated Clifford’s status as a middle-class patron of the arts. However, her writings also contended with the difficulty of living in an era in which historical facts were concealed, aspects of Black History were threatened with erasure, and there was a rising tide of violence against African Americans. Many of her poems testified to the litany of attacks against African Americans including verses on Jim Crow laws, the lynching of the pregnant Mary Turner, Black soldiers experiencing racism following their return from the European battlefields of World War I, the Brownsville Affair, and attacks on urban neighborhoods in Atlanta (1906) and East St. Louis (1917). Overall, Clifford’s poetry expressed her concern about the “condition” of the “Negro in America” and asserted her goal to use her words to “change some evil heart, right some wrong and raise some arm strong to deliver.”

Despite this history rife with violence, Clifford never lost hope. Her poetry encompassed a multitude of themes, but she ultimately labored to educate Black children about historical figures like Phyllis Wheatly, William Lloyd Garrison, Frederick Douglass, and Abraham Lincoln–patriotic Americans who fought for Black freedom and citizenship–and to introduce them to role models whom they could celebrate and emulate.

Moreover, her vision of American history that centered African Americans was explosive to the status quo. Poetry might not seem like history, but in Clifford’s hands it was. She was creating a Black woman’s history of the United States through her writing. Her legacy continues today as Black women persist in standing up against historical myths and promoting accurate history. In Vice-President Kamala Harris’ response to Florida’s new educational standards, which suggested that slavery had been beneficial to enslaved people, she argued that in the past “Black women have stood up” against “powerful forces” seeking to “distort history,” which leaves us today with the sentiment that their repudiation is powerful and an important example to follow. Moreover, as Amanda Gorman has explained, our nation is “unfinished,” but in order to access the hope that ongoing project implies, all Americans need to come together in the face of these false histories and, as Vice-President Harris urges, “Let us not be seduced into believing that somehow we will be better if we forget. We will be better if we remember.”

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Cathleen D. Cahill

Cathleen D. Cahill is a professor in the Department of History at Penn State. She is the author of Recasting the Vote: How Women of Color Transformed the Suffrage Movement (University of North Carolina Press, 2020). Follow her on Twitter @CathleenDCahill.