Roundtable on Black Women’s Intellectual History Day 3: The Global Dimensions of Black Women’s Intellectual History

This is the third day of a four part roundtable reviewing the book Toward an Intellectual History of Black Women. We began with Lauren Anderson‘s introduction to the series and Hettie Williamsdiscussion of Parts II and III. In this post, Keisha N. Blain examines two essays in Part IV. Ashley Farmer will continue our discussion tomorrow, followed by responses from Barbara Savage and Martha Jones, editors of the text.

black women intellectualAmong its many strengths, the recent collection, Toward an Intellectual History of Black Women, grapples with the crucial themes of black internationalism and diasporic politics. The editors carefully selected a body of essays that reflect the diversity of black women’s experiences in the United States and other parts of the globe. In this post, I explore two essays in the fourth section of the book entitled “Intellectual Activism,” highlighting the global dimensions of black women’s intellectual history during the twentieth century. Section four, “Intellectual Activism,” begins with a provocative essay about the life and legacy of Funmilayo Ransome-Kuti (1900-1978), the mother of Nigerian activist-musician Fela Kuti. Written by Judith Byfield, one of the foremost scholars of Nigerian women’s history, the essay entitled, “From Ladies to Women: Funmilayo Ransome-Kuti and Women’s Political Activism in Post-World War II Nigeria,” explores Ransome-Kuti’s ideas about women’s rights through a close examination of her voluminous writings and speeches; as well as other records of her activities during the twentieth century.

Historians Cheryl Johnson-Odim, Nina Emma Mba, and Raisa Simola have offered key insights into Ransome-Kuti’s activism and gender politics.[1] However, Byfield’s essay breaks new ground by emphasizing Ransome-Kuti’s ideas, paying particular attention to how she developed these ideas within the political milieu of post-World War II Nigeria. Byfield carefully constructs Ransome-Kuti’s early life, demonstrating how her ideas about gender were shaped by her Christian elite upbringing; Victorian ideals of the late nineteenth and early twentieth century; and the nationalist movement in Nigeria (in which Ransome-Kuti’s husband played a central role). Byfield describes Ransome-Kuti’s involvement in a series of tax revolts, which are reminiscent of the 1929 Igbo Women’s War. What is especially striking about Byfield’s account is her emphasis on the ideological underpinnings that shape Ransome-Kuti’s political activism. Byfield skillfully engages Ransome-Kuti’s writings, identifying the inconsistences, complexities, and nuances. She also analyzes the symbols that appear on cloths and the newspaper of the Nigerian Women’s Union (NWU), the organization Ransome-Kuti helped to establish in 1949. For example, Byfield shows how the images on the header of the NWU’s newspaper reflected the Yoruba concept of Olaju or “enlightenment.” Through these and other rich examples, Judith Byfield’s essay helps to situate black women in Nigeria as key political thinkers in the history of the modern African diaspora.

Funmilayo Ransome-Kuti

Similarly, Barbara Savage, a leading historian of American religion and politics, explores the global dimensions of black women’s intellectual history in her essay, drawn from her forthcoming biography on Merze Tate. In “Professor Merze Tate: Diplomatic Historian, Cosmopolitan Woman,” Savage uncovers the fascinating life and legacy of Merze Tate (1905-1996), a black woman historian of diplomatic and international relations who taught at Howard University from 1942 to 1977. As Savage argues, Tate has fallen into historical obscurity despite her extraordinary life and efforts to construct a detailed historical archive of her accomplishments and activities. Drawing from Tate’s rich personal collection (located at Howard University’s Moorland-Spingarn Center) as well as a range of other primary sources including oral histories and historical newspapers, Savage argues that Tate was one of the few African American scholars who was not only concerned with domestic racial issues but also maintained a global vision.

Indeed, Tate can be counted as one of the historians who understood that the condition of black men and women in the United States was—to borrow a phrase from the title of Robin D. G. Kelley’s seminal article—“but a local phase of a world problem.”[2] Savage’s work, therefore, builds on a growing body of scholarship on black historians and intellectuals including those written by Kelley, August Meier and Elliott Rudwick, Ralph Crowder, Francille Rusan Wilson, Pero Dagbovie, and Stephen G. Hall.[3] By foregrounding the ideas and experiences of Tate, Savage’s essay captures the significant role black women played in shaping the field of history. Moreover, Savage highlights how Tate blazed a trail for others to follow. Tate was not only the first black woman to earn a graduate degree from Oxford; she was also the first black woman to earn a PhD in government from Harvard and the first black woman to join the Department of History at Howard University. During her 35-year tenure at Howard, Tate traveled extensively across the globe to diverse places such as Egypt, India, Singapore, Thailand, and Switzerland; and produced an impressive body of scholarship in diplomatic history. As her scholarly works reveal, Tate was attentive to the challenges facing people of color in the United States and other parts of the world. For example, Tate’s 1943 article, “The War Aims of World War I and World War II and their Relation to the Darker Peoples of the World,” brought attention to the injustices facing “darker peoples” including people of color residing in Africa and Asia. Significantly, Tate was also a staunch proponent of women’s rights and dedicated much of her time to improving conditions for women faculty at Howard.

Merze Tate
Merze Tate

Collectively, Barbara Savage’s essay on Merze Tate and Judith Byfield’s essay on Funmilayo Ransome-Kuti exemplify how black women intellectuals shaped various national and global discourses and contributed to numerous social and political movements of the twentieth century. Each author offers valuable insights and draws on a range of primary and secondary sources to support their arguments. Both insightful narratives also raise questions concerning these two black women intellectuals’ relationships and political connections with other women in the Black Diaspora. How were Ransome-Kuti’s ideas influenced and/or shaped by her political work and engagement with other black women intellectuals involved in the global struggle for black liberation and women’s rights? For example, Ransome-Kuti communicated frequently with well-known black women intellectuals of the era including African American educator Mary McLeod Bethune and Amy Ashwood Garvey, the Jamaican-born co-founder of the Universal Negro Improvement Association (UNIA). Similarly, in her essay on Merze Tate, Savage takes readers on a fascinating journey of Tate’s extraordinary life and travels but offers few details about Tate’s collaborations with others. Beyond her speaking engagements and studies abroad, how did Tate engage in black internationalism in these various spaces/locales? As a “cosmopolitan world traveler,” what kind of networks did Tate forge with black men and women in other parts of the globe? Addressing these diasporic networks and exchanges better situate Tate’s and Ransome-Kuti’s rich ideas within a larger global discourse on women’s rights, gender politics, and black liberation during the twentieth century. 

These observations aside, both essays are beautifully written and deftly argued; and provide invaluable insights on the global dimensions of black women’s intellectual history. Each essay would make a wonderful addition to undergrad and graduate course syllabi on a range of topics including Intellectual History, Women’s and Gender Studies, and the modern African diaspora.

[1] See Raisa Simola, “The Construction of a Nigerian Nationalist and Feminist, Funmilayo Ransome-Kuti,” Nordic Journal of African Studies Vol. 8, no. 1 (1999): 94-114; Cheryl Johnson-Odim and Nina Emma Mba, For Women and the Nation: Funmilayo Ransome-Kuti of Nigeria (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1997).

[2] Robin D. G. Kelley, “‘But a Local Phase of a World Problem’: Black History’s Global Vision, 1883-1950,” Journal of American History 86 (1999): 1045-77. Kelley paraphrases a statement from W.E.B. Du Bois.

[3] See August Meier and Elliott Rudwick, Black History and the Historical Profession, 1915-1980 (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1986); Ralph L. Crowder, John Edward Bruce: Politician, Journalist, and Self-Trained Historian of the African Diaspora (New York: New York University Press, 2004); Francille Rusan Wilson, The Segregated Scholars: Black Social Scientists and the Creation of Black Labor Studies, 1890-1950 (Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 2006); Pero Dagbovie, The Early Black History Movement, Carter G. Woodson and Lorenzo Johnston Greene (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2007); Stephen G. Hall, A Faithful Account of the Race: African American Historical Writing in Nineteenth-Century America (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2009).

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Keisha N. Blain

Keisha N. Blain

Keisha N. Blain, a Guggenheim and Carnegie Fellow, is Professor of Africana Studies and History at Brown University. She is the author of several books—most recently of the National Book Critics Circle Award finalist Until I Am Free: Fannie Lou Hamer’s Enduring Message to America (Beacon Press, 2021) and Wake Up America: Black Women on the Future of Democracy (W.W. Norton, 2024). Follow her on Twitter @KeishaBlain.

Comments on “Roundtable on Black Women’s Intellectual History Day 3: The Global Dimensions of Black Women’s Intellectual History

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    I am impressed by the range of work on the internationalist vision of black female intellectuals. Barbara Savage’s recovery of the work of Merze Tate is an important intervention for scholars working on black historians as well as African American historiography. The paucity of work on black female historians is a critical lacuna on the field. Moreover, Tate’s engagement with globalist concerns linked to Hawaiian sovereignty and nuclear disarmament anticipated critical engagements with these issues in Noenoe K. Silvia’s Aloha Betrayed: Native Hawaiian Resistance to American Colonialism (2004) and Jacqueline Foertsch’s Reckoning Day: Race,Place and the Atom Bomb in PostWar America (2013).

    • Keisha N. Blain

      Thanks for this note, Stephen. I share your excitement about the amazing work being done in the field. Your forthcoming book will further enhance our understanding of black women’s intellectual history.

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    Thank you for this discussion Keisha. I have a couple questions. First, you note that Byfield’s essay situates Ransome-Kuti as a key political thinker in the history of the African Diaspora. Is this Byfield’s formulation, or your own? And should we consider those thinkers from African countries as part of a tradition of Diasporic thought? Of course there are similarities between the experiences of blacks around the globe, but the long history of forced (or voluntary) migration produced very different ideological, political, and social contexts that some might argue preclude African thinkers from being seen as part of this intellectual tradition.

    • Keisha N. Blain

      Thanks for this question, Chris. To my recollection, Judith Byfield does not describe Ransome-Kuti as a “key political thinker in the history of the African Diaspora.” These were my words in order to emphasize the importance of Ransome-Kuti’s ideas outside of the context of Nigerian history. And this is partly why I asked those questions about diaspric networks because I think we must be attentive to connections between the local/national and international. My comments were also reflective of my own concerns about the ways in which much of the scholarship on black intellectual history is so U.S.-centered. I especially like this new anthology on black women’s intellectual history because it includes a range of voices including African women.

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