Rosalyn Terborg-Penn’s African Feminist Theory and Praxis

*This post is part of our online forum organized by Stephen G. Hall honoring the life and work of Dr. Rosalyn Terborg-Penn, a pioneering scholar in the field of African American women’s history.

Rosalyn Terborg-Penn in front of Anna J. Cooper exhibit at Anacostia Neighborhood Museum 1982 (Smithsonian Institution Archives: Photo by Chris Capilongo)

“Hello Sasha, Reviewed the symposium program online today and saw you will be presenting also. I will see you there.” A few emails and conference meet-ups later, I had learned about several organizations for Black women historians and scholars of the Black experience, the crucial work they do, and why it was important for me to become a part of these communities. Out of the blue, Rosalyn Terborg-Penn had emailed, befriended, and given me lifesaving directions for navigating the American academy as a Black, immigrant, and Caribbean woman studying Black history.

It was not coincidental that Rosalyn had reached out to me. What seemed like an out-of-the-blue email was in fact a cosmic dance of intentions fulfilled. Rosalyn had known of me through the Association of Caribbean Historians (ACH) a few months prior to emailing me about my participation in the feminism and womanism symposium at Purdue University. I was scheduled to participate in an ACH panel which she chaired, but due to visa complications, I had to cancel my participation in the 2009 Guadeloupe conference. Rosalyn understood almost immediately my outsider status; she had lived it and theorized about it.

The Caribbean and South American Diaspora in the United States experience isolation, Terborg-Penn explained, because cultural and identity differences bar immediate integration into Black communities.  “But after years of experiencing social and economic proscription based upon race [migrants] will begin to identify with blacks because of [their] need for a survival network.” Migrants’ experience of threats to their survival and the fragmentation of social life thrust them more directly into America’s metastasized slavery past. Although migrants face similar struggles in their countries of origin, independence masks the “social, sexual, and racial inequalities perpetrated by colonialism.”1 Black rule and Black majority in the Caribbean and Latin America, and indeed Africa, falsely imply post-racist societies. But the economic and social structures of colonialism remain intact, and these regions’ dependence on their former colonizers replicate the inequalities and prejudices of colonial rule. Then, as now, the existential threat racism poses to Africa and its Diaspora demands survival and liberation struggles. Then, as now, the possibility of survival and liberation depends on female networks strengthened by common values.

From the use of research as a “tool of domination” to the outright rejection of Black scholars and Black history, Terborg-Penn further understood how the academy replicated racism and broader social inequalities.2 Would-be-dissertation advisers, publishers, and colleagues, for example, thought her interest in studying Black women’s history was futile. She recalled, “The professor for whom I worked as a graduate assistant at Howard called my topic ‘Micky Mouse’ and suggested that I study something more serious, such as Eleanor Roosevelt.”

From her acute understanding of the struggles to come, Rosalyn volunteered herself as my mentor. Participating in networks, she impressed, would be critical to my survival. Crucial among these organizations were the Association for the Study of African American Life and History (ASALH) and Association of Black Women Historians (ABWH). The sisterhood and community these networks provided made apparent their importance for me personally and professionally, but it would take me years later to understand their ancestral significance and why Rosalyn was so keen that I joined the ABWH in particular. The guiding principles for Rosalyn’s being and her scholarship were those of African Feminism; through her co-founding and life-long work with the ABWH, Rosalyn aligned academic theory with praxis.

Terborg-Penn’s essay, “Through an African Feminist Theoretical Lens: Viewing Caribbean Women’s History Cross-Culturally” is among her most influential work for my intellectual journey. I returned to the article while writing my book as a way of thinking through and beyond gynecological resistance. The concept gynecological resistance comes from the work of several scholars, not limited to Darlene Clark Hine and Kate Wittenstein, Deborah Gray White, Hilary Beckles, Barbara Bush, and Verene Shepherd who argue that the nature and peculiarities of women’s enslavement, that differed from enslaved men’s, gave rise to unique forms of women’s resistance. In this body of work, enslaved women orchestrated and carried out specialized types of resistance, including abortion, infanticide, sexual abstinence, and contraceptive use to resist sexual exploitation. Gendered resistance then was not restricted to women’s roles in revolts and rebellion, generally understood as male led and dominated. Crucially, by refusing to bear and raise children under enslavement, women reclaimed autonomy over their bodies and denied the commodified claims enslavers made on their reproductive ability.

Coinciding with significant scholarship challenging the idea that slavery obliterated memories of an African past, scholars of enslaved women similarly argued that enslaved people’s former lives informed their resistance to slavery. Lucille Mathurin Mair, for example, illustrated that Caribbean enslaved women’s use of particular herbs and mechanical means for inducing miscarriage originated from African sources. African cosmologies concerning the spirit, body, and human form of newborns further permitted infanticide.

Terborg-Penn’s work confirms the crucial importance of looking not only at the transmission and transformation of African cultural values, but significantly, their gendering as well. African women’s cultural values, including motherhood and female communal networks, informed enslaved people’s resistance, though not consistently in ways historians presume. Among Terborg-Penn’s most significant contribution to Caribbean gender history, and in particular my own thinking, is her insistence that we write histories of women and the enslaved from “inside out” rather than “outside in.”

Reflecting on her 1983 University of Stanford conference presentation, Terborg-Penn offers critical insight into what it means to examine the lives of enslaved women “inside out.” In a white-male-led castigation of her presentation, conference participants challenged her selection of Queen Ann Nzinga (Angola), Grandy Nanny (Jamaica), and Harriet “Moses” Tubman as heroines. These women, discussants denounced, were far from honorable. After all, they insisted, Nzinga was a slave trader and Nanny returned runaway slaves to their masters after signing a peace treaty with British colonists. The controversy ended only after St. Claire Drake, also a pioneering scholar of the Black experience, affirmed Terborg-Penn’s argument. These women were heroines not by Terborg-Penn’s rubric; these women were “selected by their own people.” Our work is to understand “their status as heroines in the context of their own culture.”

In my own recent book, I examine childbirth culture as it evolved from the needs of enslaved women. Although enslaved women’s birth cultures resisted slavery, in the context of enslaved women’s daily life, birth rituals were meant first and foremost to assure parturient women of safe deliveries and secure the health and survival of infants. Enslaved women, for example, served as co-mothers, collectively responding to the difficulties of breastfeeding by nursing each other’s children. Performing ritual baths during pregnancy and before and after delivery, caregivers harnessed spiritual power to protect mothers and children.

The social relationships and cultural practices that developed around providing for the needs of enslaved mothers and infants challenge the idea of enslaved people existing solely for the purposes of building the wealth of their captors; they resisted social death. Through childbirth and its associated customs, enslaved women created intimacy, kinship, and culture that affirmed life. To think of maternal care in terms of female networks, co-mothering, and social connections makes the concept gynecological resistance, though important, inadequate to capture the complex lives enslaved people lived.

Enslaved women resisted slavery by limiting their fertility. Yet, to focus on the destruction of the master’s property as the primary mode of a woman-centered resistance is to view enslaved people through a “white filter”: the actions of Africans and their descendants solely responded to “white stimuli.” Facing nearly certain physical and social death, the fight for survival is always political. The paradox of slavery is that the very survival of an enslaved person was a boon to their enslaver. In the case of childbirth, bearing children benefited enslavers, but it also reaffirmed women’s values and was a vital source for building their own communities.

Childbirth was a dynamic space in which enslaved women negotiated communal reliance, gendered intimacies, and developed social bonds. Enslaved women created a network of support that depended on shared values, concerns, and beliefs and was sustained by the common desire to keep children healthy and alive. As anthropologists and an influential thinker for Terborg-Penn, Filomina Steady, explained it, African-descended women’s liberation extends beyond sexual oppression. Through multiple mothering, female networks, and the survival of children, African women and their descendants sought protection and liberation from a host of factors, including the deadly forces of colonialism and enslavement and their variants.

Terborg-Penn’s theoretical insight comes full circle. Female networks were as valuable and vital to enslaved women’s survival as they are to Black women thriving in the academy. Rosalyn understood historically and firsthand the struggles of being Black, woman, and immigrant in America and the academy. By first reaching out to me, and second encouraging survival through female networks including the ABWH, Rosalyn lived her theory as praxis and paid it forward.

  1. Filomina Steady, “African Feminism: A Theoretical Approach to the History of Women in the African Diaspora” in Women in Africa and the African Diaspora: A Reader edited by Rosalyn Terborg-Penn and Andrea Benton Rushing 3-22 (Washington D.C. Howard University Press, 1996), p. 9, 10.
  2.  Ibid, p. 4.
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Sasha Turner

Sasha Turner is Associate Professor of History at Johns Hopkins University. She is the author of Contested Bodies: Pregnancy, Childrearing, and Slavery in Jamaica (University of Pennsylvania Press, 2017). Follow her on Twitter @drsashaturner.