Writing Black Women’s Intellectual History

At the recent ASALH conference in Richmond, Virginia, I participated in a roundtable on “Problems and Approaches in African American Intellectual History.” Organized by Chris Cameron on behalf of AAIHS, the roundtable, which included Chad Williams, Martha Jones, and Jared Hardesty, explored some of the central questions and methodological approaches in scholarship on African American intellectual history. This is the transcript of my brief remarks.

"Four portraits of Negro women : A woman from the Virgin Islands" ((Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, Manuscripts, Archives and Rare Books Division, The New York Public Library).
“Four portraits of Negro women : A woman from the Virgin Islands” (Credit: Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, Manuscripts, Archives and Rare Books Division, The New York Public Library).

As many of you know, I am writing a book on black women, nationalist politics and internationalism. My book examines how black nationalist women engaged in national and global politics from the early twentieth century to the 1960s. I’m especially concerned with these women’s efforts to challenge global white supremacy against the backdrop of the Great Depression, World War II and the early Cold War. I am also concerned with these women’s ideas about a range of issues including colonialism, feminism, and internationalism. Many of the women I discuss in my book are members of the working-poor who had limited formal education.

A few years ago, I delivered a talk based on this project before a group of mostly historians. At the conclusion of my talk, a white (male) senior scholar started off by asking me to further explain why I had referred to these women as “theorists”— a term that clearly made him feel uneasy. I explained, as best as I could, that there was nothing especially novel about the term. Indeed, a theorist is one who simply theorizes or crafts ideas concerning a range of issues. He persisted to ask me to explain further, noting that he understood Karl Marx, for example, to be a theorist but felt like I was simply trying to exaggerate these women’s significance and influence by labeling them “theorists.”

Maybe they were activists. But, certainly not theorists. Somehow he had missed the point of my entire presentation—carefully crafted (or so I thought) to demonstrate exactly how these women theorized black internationalism, often forging idiosyncratic political philosophies that drew on (and at times departed from) a range of political figures including Marcus Garvey and Noble Drew Ali. We went back and forth for several minutes until his colleagues grew exasperated by his line of questioning and jumped in to redirect the conversation.

It would only be hours later, on the flight back home, that I would fully grasp the meaning of his questions and perhaps the motives behind them. His questions brought to the surface an underlying tension about how we often view intellectuals. Perhaps this scholar only saw white men in this light. But, if he did factor in black people, he might have argued that W.E.B. Du Bois was an intellectual worthy of study, or maybe C.L.R. James.

His uneasiness with my portrayal of black working-class women as anything other than “activists” underscores a persistent problem that continues to characterize scholarship in US and global intellectual history. I would argue that in some ways, it is just as salient in black intellectual history. Often we accept the notion that intellectuals are the ones with lots of letters behind their names. Oftentimes they are the elites. And oftentimes they are men.

How might our understanding of black intellectual history deepen if we centered black working-class and impoverished women? What would happen if we carefully considered their ideas, their visions of the world in which they lived, and their proposed solutions for addressing societal problems? Could we take seriously the political ideas of black women with limited formal education or perhaps no formal education at all? Are they equally worthy of our attention? Are they equally worthy of our admiration?

These are the kinds of questions that animate my work. And as I reflect on this panel’s theme of “problems and approaches to the study of African American intellectual history,” I think about the black working-class and impoverished women who were not only activists but also theorists and intellectuals. And this point is key: They didn’t simply act on a whim, but they carefully thought about their actions and they carefully devised strategies and tactics. They proposed solutions, they offered critiques, they challenged others—all the while resisting many of their contemporaries who dismissed their contributions on account of their education and social standing.

For some people, these women’s ideas still don’t matter. That should not surprise us—especially not in this moment in our nation’s history. But, all of us sitting in this room understand that their ideas matter and for that reason, we persist to do the work even despite the challenges we face in the archives and beyond. I believe we have a duty to ensure that the voices once silenced in our history are finally heard.

Black intellectual history has never been simply a field of study. It has always been a direct challenge to the social order—inside and outside of the academy. Black intellectual history maintains that the ideas of those who are marginalized and vulnerable in our society do matter—whether or not we agree; whether or not it makes us uneasy.

I am excited to be a part of a new generation of scholars, standing on the shoulders of so many others who take seriously the ideas of black men and women in U.S. and global history and are committed to telling their stories to anyone willing to listen.

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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 “Writing Black Women’s Intellectual History

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    Appreciate your Research and Scholarship on the Intellectual contributions of Black Women…Needed as well are the Voices of Black Women Veterans fighting for freedom for America and fighting for justice for themselves. Hear their voices and see them in Formation during all major and minor campaigns, wars and conflicts. These Black Intellectuals have fought against being invisibile, marginalized, Criminalized, sexually assaulted, improperly discharged, undervalued and omitted from the pages of military history. Black WomenVeterans writing history through our service and sacrifice to a nation that grants us little honor, recognition, or acknowledgement.

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    How do you deal with the question about how we value the theoretical now? I’m asking this, because I’ve faced this question in a different context. Here’s an example: you’re discussing artisans who use sophisticated systems of symbolic meaning in their work. There’s a tendency to say “They aren’t just artisans, they master abstract ideas.” But one response to this is: “What’s wrong with being ‘just’ an artisan? By what standard is it ‘better’ to think abstractly, rather than technically, about the material?” And one question I’ve heard is: Are we trying to make these artisans more like us, more like modern academics, so that we can place their work at the top of our hierarchy, where labor and craft are on a lower rung than theory and abstraction? I’m not saying that you are employing that hierarchy, but I’m wondering how you deal with its existence.

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