Roundtable on Black Women’s Intellectual History Day 6: Martha Jones Responds
by Martha Jones
University of Michigan
This is the sixth and final day of our roundtable reviewing the book Toward a History of Black Women Intellectuals. We began with the AAIHS responses, including Lauren Kientz Anderson‘s introduction to the series, Hettie Williams‘ discussion of Parts II and III, Keisha Blain‘s thoughts on the global arena, and Ashley Farmer on activist intellectuals. Today we conclude the two day response from the editors of the collection, which began yesterday with Barbara Savage’s reply. Today we hear how editing the book transformed Martha Jones self-identity.
Thank you to AAIHS co-founder Lauren Kientz Anderson, and contributors Hettie Williams, Keisha Blain, and Ashley Farmer. When we began the project that became Toward an Intellectual History of Black Women, we did not anticipate finding such an apt community of interlocutors for the edited volume. How things have changed! Ten years ago, we imagined moving toward a field and the exchange of ideas. Today, AAIHS is moving the needle forward by providing a space for open, regular, and sustained analysis. The insightful posts for this roundtable are but one example of how fruitful that effort has proven to be.
No question posed here spoke to me more than that asked by Kientz Anderson in her Introduction to this roundtable: “Who are intellectuals?” This question was that which guided our work from the outset. I hope it isn’t revealing too much to say that, one important sense, crafting a response was not very difficult. Yes, we searched, probed, rethought, and reimagined women of the past as thinkers and producers of ideas. Of course we stretched understandings of genre, and overthrew conventions of sites for and means of production. We looked hard to find black women and their ideas in new and unexpected places. It was work. But it was also easy in that the women about whom we wrote had always been there, waiting for us to hold them up to the light. They were intellectuals even before we set out to write their histories, of that I am certain.
There is, however, another version of Kientz Anderson’s question and it is: “Are we intellectuals?” What happens, I’d like to consider, when we hold up the mirror and ask whether the editors and contributors to Toward an Intellectual History of Black Women are themselves intellectuals? Are we the sorts of producers of ideas that warrant such an esteemed and carefully guarded designation? I’ll pause here to shift voice; I speak only for myself when I say “I’m not certain.” The question led me to make a self-assessment. It turns out that intellectual is a label I cannot don easily. I may term myself academic, professor, historian, or scholar, even doctor in some settings. But intellectual is something I cannot quite call myself. It is awkward, ill-fitting, and when the words pass over my lips – “I am an intellectual” — I immediately feel I am over-reaching.
I was raised to be a doer. It is a quality I likely share with many of the women chronicled in Toward an Intellectual History of Black Women. As a girl, I won the most praise for what I could do, rather than for my ideas. My training as a lawyer put no premium on the production of new thought; my job was to win cases. In my family there were academics – people with university professorships and even one presidency. But even their work emphasized doing. They were clinicians of business, law and medicine, or administrators. I admired them tremendously, but over time my ambition became distinct. My Uncle Frank, himself holder of a chair at MIT, eyed me curiously one day when I talked about becoming an academic historian. He wondered if I wasn’t setting out for uncharted territory. In our family, we were doers after all.
My Uncle had put his finger on something. I was headed somewhere new and signs suggested it was a world of ideas. Then — it was the early 1990s — I saw that place as an intellectual realm filled with men of advanced training, robust C.V.’s, and a gift for public speaking. I was attached to such a circle: Young, black thinkers jockeying around Cornel West, who was just then coming into his own. Most travelled by way of divinity schools or Ph.D. programs, proclaiming to be intellectuals of a direct line that traced back to Frederick Douglass and W.E.B. DuBois. I eventually grew tired of listening. I, too, had things to say. So, I gave up my law practice for Ph.D. study, already confident I could think, speak, and write. Was I becoming an intellectual? The thought never crossed my mind.
Graduate school opened me up. There was a 19th century world of black women doers and thinkers to be studied. I was guided by virtual circle of sister scholars who were my companions during a journey that was otherwise paved with little instruction about black women’s history. Elsa Barkley Brown, Hazel Carby, Sharon Harley, Evelyn Brooks Higginbotham, Darlene Clark Hine, Carla Petersen, Rosalyn Terborg-Penn and Deborah White were among those whose work made sure I knew that there was more to the history of ideas than any canon might reveal. By the time I took the late Manning Marable’s seminar on black intellectual history, I was armed. He took it in stride when I argued that bell hooks alone, formidable though she is, did not do justice to black women’s intellectual history. Confronting Manning, I had thrown down a gauntlet. It was a challenge to myself that finally, years later, Toward an Intellectual History of Black Women has met.
It is more than a decade since Mia Bay, Farah Griffin, Barbara Savage, and I shared a meal and hatched a plan to help open up a new field of study. Back then, I was confident that I was a doer, one who could organize, raise funds, pitch a manuscript, copy edit, and otherwise help see through the collective work of fifteen scholars, from new ideas to essays between covers. I never asked myself if I was an intellectual. I never wondered whether I was somehow part of a long line, one that stretched back to women like Maria Stewart and Anna Julia Cooper and eventually made its way to me. I never asked that question, until I read Kientz Anderson’s essay.
“Am I an intellectual?” Today, the reply that suits me best is this: “I am part of an intellectual community.” This way of recognizing myself as a producer of ideas fits me like a gently broken-in pair of Stephane Gontard shoes (my favorite designer.) It fits me well, and I like it. It is, as we say in the Introduction to Toward an Intellectual History of Black Women, an intellectual identity “black womanhood-style.” I know myself to be an intellectual because I can see my collaborators as such. The collective has drawn me out, inspired my ideas, and given them a ground in which to take root and flourish. Our collaboration has been a mirror in which I see my own reflection. As we have written others’ histories, we have rewritten our own; intellectuals all.
You can follow Martha Jones @marthasjonesum.permission.