Roundtable on Black Women’s Intellectual History Day 4: Activist Intellectuals

This is the fourth day of our roundtable reviewing the book Toward an Intellectual History of Black Women. We began with Lauren Anderson‘s introduction to the series, Hettie Williamsdiscussion of Parts II and III, and Keisha Blain‘s thoughts on the global arena. Today, Ashley Farmer continues our discussion, and starting tomorrow we will hear responses from editors Barbara Savage and Martha Jones.

black women intellectualThe creation of Toward an Intellectual History of Black Women mirrored black women’s intellectual pursuits and processes. It began much the same way black women tend to make history, with historians, literary scholars, and cultural critics examining black women activists, intellectuals, writers, thinkers, and doers across nations, centuries, institutions, and spaces. Moving from solitary research to collective meditation, the editors and authors shared notes over coffee, proposed ideas at the Black Women’s Intellectual and Cultural History Collective, and claimed a space for black women thinkers in person and in print. The final volume reflects the organic nature of black women’s intellectual pursuits. Brimming with “fifteen essays” that “examine two and a half centuries of intellectual work,” Toward an Intellectual History of Black Women is a definitive text in mapping black women’s social and political thought.[1]

The fourth section of the anthology examines black women’s intellectual activism. Cheryl Wall’s “Living by the Word: June Jordan and Alice Walker’s Quest for a Redemptive Art and Politics” shows how Walker and Jordan traveled along their individual intellectual routes until their dedication to “the word” and “lifelong quest for a redemptive art and politics” brought them together.[2] Wall documents the relationship between Jordan and Walker, who became friends, fellow writers, and “sisters-in-struggle for civil rights, human rights, and world peace.”[3] While Jordan and Walker were both prolific writers, Wall focuses on their essays. She shows how Jordan’s use of the essay form in “Notes of a Barnard Dropout” and “Civil Wars” functioned as a window into her artistic life and as her intervention into political and social debates. Her analysis of Alice Walker’s essays, “Saving the Life That is One’s Own” and “The Unglamorous but Worthwhile Duty of the Black Revolutionary Artist,” “clarifies the stakes” of black women writers’ artistic production in the political realm.[4] Through the essay format, Walker and Jordan advanced black women’s intellectual tradition of detangling black life and “knotty conversations” about gender and race.[5] They also, Wall argues, “revise[d] the genre of the essay itself.”[6] Ultimately Wall shows us that black women thrive at the intersection of art and politics and it is a key site of their intellectual production. It is their audiences, not black women writer, who tries to bend their pen toward one end or the other.

Sherie Randolph examines how black women developed their political and intellectual influence at “the knot” of race and gender. In “Not to Rely Completely on the Courts: Florynce Kennedy and Black Feminist Leadership in the Reproductive Rights Battle,” Randolph foregrounds Kennedy’s activism as a radical black feminist lawyer. Born in 1916 in Kansas City, Kennedy migrated to New York City at the start of World War II. She earned an undergraduate and law degree from Columbia University and put it to good use in the reproductive rights movement. Randolph details Kennedy’s definitive but overlooked role in Abramowicz v. Lefkowitz, “the first case to use women who suffered from illegal abortions as expert witnesses.”[7] Kennedy introduced this strategy into legal proceedings, marking a transformative moment in the litigation and legislation of women’s rights. She also organized marches and boycotts to rally support for the case and witnesses. Randolph shows how Kennedy “moved seamlessly” between “legal proceedings and political agitation outside the courtroom.”[8] In 1971, she co-published Abortion Rap, a collection of statements from several women witnesses from the case. Kennedy’s chapter, “Black Genocide,” took “aim at black nationalists’ argument that legalizing abortion” was “a white genocidal plot against black people.”[9] “Black Genocide,” and Kennedy’s legal activism more broadly, illustrates the central role black feminists played in developing the women’s rights movement. It also highlights how black women like Kennedy bridged black nationalist and feminist communities to advance black women’s rights. Randolph’s analysis shows us how black women’s intellectual influence was and remains ubiquitous and defies easy categorization. More than simply documenting Kennedy’s activism, Randolph’s work reconfigures the relationship between women’s activism and intellectual history in the postwar era.

Both Wall and Randolph’s essays exemplify how black women engaged in activism in the late 20th century and offer valuable insights into how they navigated political and personal terrains. The authors mine a range of primary and secondary resources in order to assess their subjects’ intellectual and political engagement with the key issues facing African American women in this era. They also raise important questions about how historians and literary critics of this period classify black women’s activism and intellectualism. Wall highlights the falsely inscribed divide between art and politics, while Randolph reorders typical divisions between black and white feminists and between black nationalists and black feminists. Both essays call on scholars to rethink the limitations we put on black women’s activism. They also offer a window into how to reframe black women’s activist-intellectual pursuits.

Towards an Intellectual History of Black Women is not just about documenting black women’s intellectualism; it is also an invitation to reconsider history and literature in light of black women’s central role as theorists and knowledge producers. It’s usefulness lies in how the essays come together in order to reorder ideas about women’s rights, feminism, activism, and the “word” across academic genres and time periods. If, as Wall suggests, black women understood “speaking in one’s own voice [was] a right as well as a requirement for citizenship,” then Part 4 of Toward an Intellectual History of Black Women shows how black female writers, journalists, and lawyers used their ideas an intellectual production for social change.[10] The anthology moves past the question of if women were thinkers to how they framed, wrote, circulated, and advocated for their thoughts and analyses. We have always known black women were creative, smart, and ingenious, but the genius of this collection is the way it foregrounds black women’s intellectual production and influence in new and imaginative ways. Much like their biographers and critics, the black women featured in this volume have often toiled in their intellectual spaces alone. With the arrival of Toward an Intellectual History of Black Women, and the scholarship that it will inspire, both subject and scholar have found community.


[1] Mia Bay, Farah J. Griffin, Martha Jones, and Barbara Savage, Toward an Intellectual History of Black Women (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2015), 3.

[2] Cheryl Wall, “Living by the Word: June Jordan and Alice Walker’s quest for a Redemptive Art and Politics,” in Toward an Intellectual History of Black Women, 215.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Ibid., 224.

[5] Ibid., 230.

[6] Ibid., 217.

[7] Sherie M. Randolph, Not to Rely Completely on the Courts: Florynce Kennedy and Black Feminist Leadership in the Reproductive Rights Battle,” in Toward an Intellectual History of Black Women, 233.

[8]Ibid., 240.

[9] Ibid., 241.

[10] Cheryl Wall, “Living for the Word,”225.

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Ashley Farmer

Ashley Farmer is an Associate Professor of History and African and African Diaspora Studies at the University of Texas at Austin. She is a graduate of Spelman College and holds a Ph.D. in African American Studies and an M.A. in History from Harvard University. Her book, Remaking Black Power: How Black Women Transformed an Era, is the first intellectual history of women in the black power movement. Follow her on Twitter @drashleyfarmer.