My Journey to Becoming a Historian of Black Women’s Activism

This post is part of our forum on “The Books, Archives, and Monuments That Shaped Me.

Black Lives Matter Rally, Toronto, Canada, May 30,2020 (Shutterstock)

My journey to becoming a historian began when I was in the eleventh grade. I was in a rather progressive U.S. history class and one of the only African American history classes taught in Guilford County, North Carolina. By the end of the semester, I had more questions than answers, but I was confident in my desire to major in history. Most of my leisure time going forward was spent reading books like The Autobiography of Malcolm X and Howard Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States to understand the world in which I was growing up. I was infuriated that the history that I had been taught up to that point was extremely distorted by the whitewashed lens through which our national narrative is often told.

I entered undergrad with vague aspirations of becoming a lawyer. However, my professors in the history department at North Carolina Central University instilled in me such a passion for Black history that I decided to go to graduate school. The passion they held for the field of Black Studies broadly provided me with a robust education in the history of the modern African Diaspora. In the department’s Women’s & Gender Studies courses, we read texts like Ula Yvette Taylor’s The Promise of Patriarchy and Rosalyn Terborg-Penn and Andrea Benton Rushing’s edited collection, Women in Africa and the African Diaspora which, for me, amplified all that I did not know about African American history. This experience in college was similar to when I was in high school reading Malcolm X’s Autobiography for the first time. From that point forward, I was committed to the histories of Black women across the African Diaspora. Furthermore, these are the books that have shaped me as an academic:

The Autobiography of Malcolm X as told by Alex Haley

I checked this book out from my high school’s library and was angered that such an important historical figure was omitted from our textbooks. From that moment onward, I became more interested in the historical narratives that were not part of the high school curriculum.

A People’s History of the United States by Howard Zinn

I was introduced to this text in my eleventh-grade history class. From this book, I developed a bottom-up, counternarrative to mainstream U.S. history.

Women in Africa and the African Diaspora: A Reader edited by Rosalyn Terborg-Penn and Andrea Benton Rushing

Terborg-Penn and Rushing’s anthology of essays from the 1983 conference at Howard University, “Women in the African Diaspora: An Interdisciplinary Perspective,” familiarized me with theoretical approaches and research methods in studies on women in the African diaspora. The essays in this collection are formative studies on what was then cutting edge research on the emerging field of African Diaspora women’s studies.

The Promise of Patriarchy: Women and the Nation of Islam by Ula Yvette Taylor

This book furthered my curiosity about the stories of women in Black nationalist circles and the nuances of their feminist politics. I explore the complex intersections of Black nationalism and feminist politics in my own research.

The first two texts listed were my initial introduction to alternate narratives of U.S. history. In many ways, they angered me and intensified my thirst for more knowledge about the histories I did not know. It was not until I was in an undergraduate class called “Women and the African Diaspora” that I read the other texts and learned that there were counternarratives to the counternarratives. By that I mean women and their labor were frequently omitted (or not a central focus) in most of the Black history books I read. Collectively, these four books helped me discover my niche. I knew I wanted to attend graduate school to create new and innovative scholarship on the experiences of Black women activists throughout the African Diaspora. Sooner than later, I will write a book that uncovers the transnational activism of Black women in the Caribbean, Central America, and the United States.

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Kiana Knight

Kiana Knight is a PhD Candidate in Africana Studies at Brown University. Her dissertation, “Translating Black Nationalism: Gender, Language, and Internationalist Politics, 1918-1955,” explores bilingual Black women’s activism in the U.S. and Greater Caribbean. Her work has been featured in Ohio State’s Origins: Current Events in Historical Perspective and Getty Images’ collaborative blog “Picturing Black History” and the African American Intellectual Historical Society’s award-winning blog, “Black Perspectives.” She received a bachelor’s degree with honors in history from North Carolina Central University and a master’s degree in history from the University of Pittsburgh. Kiana’s scholarly interests include Public History, Black Transnational Feminisms, Black Internationalism, and the African Diaspora. In her free time, she enjoys exploring her family’s history, socializing with friends, and practicing yoga. Connect with her on Twitter @kianamknight.

Comments on “My Journey to Becoming a Historian of Black Women’s Activism

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    I enjoyed reading this and relate to your disillusionment with high school curriculum, Kiana. Given your interests, I highly recommend the scholarship of Filomina Steady, and the practice of Afro Flow Yoga. Blessings in your work!

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    I have studied African women history and culture. You have touched on an area that is kept quiet. African women et all created the economic wealth that brought us this far.

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    Thank you, Black Perspectives, for inviting and amplifying the voices of the next generation of up-and-coming historians. It’s a little heartbreaking to know that decades after my high school and undergraduate years, students like Kiana Knight were still having similar experiences of discovering how much history — WHOSE history — had not been taught. But so heartening to read about Knight’s dedication to becoming part of a continuing movement to change the profession.


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