Roundtable on Black Women’s Intellectual History Day 2: Parts Two and Three

By Hettie V. Williams
Monmouth University

This is the second day of a four part roundtable reviewing the book Toward a History of Black Women Intellectuals. We began with Lauren Anderson‘s introduction to the series. Keisha Blain and Ashley Farmer will continue our discussion the next two days, followed by responses from Barbara Savage and Martha Jones, editors of the text. Today, Hettie Williams contributes a guest post examining Parts II and III of the collection.

black women intellectualThe second part of Toward a History of Black Women Intellectuals focuses on black women in the nineteenth century and the third part contains essays concerning black women’s thought in the twentieth century. Part II is entitled “Race and Gender in the Postemancipation Era” and it contains three essays. These essays include: “The Battle for Womanhood Is the Battle for Race: Black Women and Nineteenth-Century Racial Thought” by Mia Bay, “A Taste of the Lash of Criticism: Racial Progress, Self-Defense, and Christian Intellectual Thought in the Work of Amelia E. Johnson” by Alexandra Cornelius, and “Frances E.W. Harper and the Politics of Intellectual Maturity” by Corinne T. Field. The third part is entitled “Redefining the Subject of Study” and this section includes four essays. These chapters include: “Ann Petry’s Harlem by Farah J. Griffin, “Daughter of Haiti: Marie Vieux Chauvet” by Kaiama L. Glover, “The Polarities of Space: Segregation and Alice Walker’s Intervention in Southern Studies” by Thadious M. Davis, and “Story, History, Discourse: Maryse Conde’s Segu and Afrodiasporic Historical Narration” by Maboula Soumahoro.

Sarah Parker Remond

Bay, Cornelius, and Field offer profound insight into the history of black women intellectuals and their ideas about race and the meaning of blackness through a discussion of political theory and ethnology in the nineteenth century. Bay argues that Maria Stewart through her public lectures presented an “extended definition of black equality” and “transformed the race question by focusing her discussion on race and women.” She also contends that women such as Sojourner Truth, Sarah Parker Remond, and Charlotte Forten engaged the question of race and ideas about blackness through public lectures, reading groups, diaries, letters, and private correspondences. Cornelius carries this theme further by arguing that novelist Amelia E. Johnson wielded the “lash of criticism” in both her novels and non-fiction writings to attack “damaging” notions of black inferiority promulgated by “self-proclaimed experts on the postemancipation condition of the Negro race.” In her essay on Frances E.W. Harper, Field demonstrates how Harper through her public addresses aggressively attacked the notion of black inferiority by developing a counter narrative that actually proclaimed the moral and intellectual superiority of black Christians. These three essays succinctly recover black women’s thoughts on race and ethnology in the nineteenth century as supported through the interrogation of a variety of sources.

The essays by Griffin, Glover, Davis, and Soumahoro illustrate how black women writers made theoretical innovations in literature by challenging, redefining, or inventing “new analytic categories” in their work. Griffin’s essay on activist, reporter, and writer of non-fiction Ann Petry considers how Petry challenged the conventions of social realism by focusing on gender and black women’s oppression in particular while also providing innovative insight into sociological fiction by connecting this tradition to the Bible. Glover’s discussion of Haitian writer Marie Vieux Chauvet as a “pointedly” and unapologetic “non-aligned woman” offers a unique analysis of how Chauvet’s “feminist perspective in her writings” challenged Haiti’s national (masculine) narratives. Davis in her essay on Alice Walker identifies Walker as a central figure in “the move toward an openness and expansiveness in thinking about what constitutes the study of the U.S. South” and how the South is connected to the rest of the United States and “its own southern neighbors.” According to Davis, Walker’s rediscovery of Zora Neale Hurston, her role in the womanist theology movement, and “identifying the significance of domestic art” situate the writer as a pivotal figure in the development of the New Southern Studies. The writings of Maryse Conde are understood by Soumahoro “as an imperative necessity central to the diasporic historical narration” or narratives that help to demonstrate the “blurred exact points of departures and final destinations” of a diasporic people. Conde’s Segu tells the story of the transformation and evolution of an African family from the eighteenth century to the era of European colonialism as a type of “Afrodiasporic narration.”

Part II and Part III of Toward an Intellectual History of Black Women are both pivotal sections of a text that has few limitations. These two sections help to convincingly facilitate the task of recovering the voices of black women in the intellectual history of the African Diaspora though some voices are missing such as that of Toni Morrison. Morrison is mentioned in passing on a few pages in the text and the editors in their “Introduction” do credit Morrison with helping to inaugurate the field of black women’s intellectual history; but, there is no single essay devoted entirely to Morrison’s fiction and non-fiction writings. With two essays in this volume on Walker, and an entire section devoted largely to black women writers in the twentieth century, one would think that Morrison deserves more attention in this text given her influence in the fields of black women’s studies and literary studies more specifically.

Further, a deeper engagement with black women scientists and social scientists is necessary in this volume. Some discussion of black women in the hard sciences such as Kenyan Nobel Peace Prize recipient Wangari Maathai and her role in the Green Movement or Mae C. Jemison’s STEM education advocacy would have given this volume more balance overall. Patricia Hill Collins is the social scientist often credited with advancing the notion of intersectionality that originates with Stewart in the 1830s more than any other social scientist in the twentieth century and this deserves more discussion.

There are several essays on black women social reformers and Christianity in the early African Diaspora in this text but black women conservative Christian intellectuals in the twentieth century are left unmentioned. In fact, black women conservatives in the later African Diaspora seem noticeably absent from this volume. An essay on Mildred Fay Jefferson, the first African American woman to graduate from Harvard Medical School in 1951, and her right to life activism through organizations such as the Value of Life Committee and the Right to Life Crusade would have made an interesting contrast to the discussion of black women and the reproductive rights battle discussed in Part IV.  Despite these very minor limitations, Toward an Intellectual History of Black Women is an excellent work of historical intervention as the two sections discussed in this review attest.

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Lauren Kientz Anderson

I am an Assistant Professor at Luther College in Decorah, IA. I graduated with a PhD from Michigan State University in 2010 and then had a post-doctoral fellowship at the University of Kentucky from 2010-2012. My research and teaching interests are Black thought in the interwar era, Black Internationalism, Black Women’s History, the global anti-apartheid movement, and LGBT history. My first book, “Speaking to the World: Black American Women and Global Interracialism, 1918-1939″ argues that “interracialism” was one of the most important political theories of race relations in the interwar era. It was based on the simplistic idea that if elites interacted, systemic racism, including violence and lynching ,would end. The rare scholars who discuss interracialism suggest that it was a white-led phenomenon, but the book focuses the discussion on black women’s support for and critique of interracialism. In addition to interracialism, the work analyzes black internationalism through these same black women. I assert that when black women engaged joyfully in religion and played with their identity abroad, they defied Michael O. West’s contention that the black international was defined by struggle. The work incorporates material from over twenty archives in the United States and Europe. You can explore aspects of my argument in my article, “A Nauseating Sentiment, a Magical Device, or a Real Insight? Interracialism at Fisk University in 1930.” I also have an article about my global anti-apartheid course in the Spring 2014 issue of Radical History Review and have several articles in various stages of the publication journey. For my course syllabi, the latest information about my publications, conference papers, and links to my posts from two years as a regular contributor to the Society for US Intellectual History’s blog see my academia profile. In my free time, I paint and do a bit of creative writing while attempting to balance my aged cat and laptop.

Comments on “Roundtable on Black Women’s Intellectual History Day 2: Parts Two and Three

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    Thank you for your wonderful post Hettie. In addition to her writings on race and equality that you mentioned, I’ve also found Maria Stewart to be an important religious thinker. This is especially true in her use of the jeremiad and focus on providentialism, two rhetorical strategies employed often by another important early black female writer, Phillis Wheatley, in the 1770s. In doing so, Stewart and Wheatley very creatively adapted sermonic forms characteristic of early Puritans (probably most of whom were fine with slavery) to advance abolitionism, racial equality, and women’s rights.

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