Heroines In History: African American Women In All Their Glory

March 20, 2011

Who Will Speak Our Legacy But Us?

You may write me down in history
With your bitter, twisted lies,
You may trod me in the very dirt
But still, like dust, I’ll rise

-Maya Angelou

The epic story of African American women rising from the ash of slavery is still and untold and undervalued narrative in history. Consider that it was illegal to teach enslaved black women how to read and consider that for centuries their humanity was degraded. And yet, less than a decade after emancipation, “unprecedented numbers of African American women,” as Paula Giddings writes, “were attending predominantly white and predominantly black colleges, and aspiring to professional positions deemed out of reach just a generation before. “By the 1880s,” she goes on to state, “the first black women were passing state bar exams to become attorneys, and were the first were the first women of any race to practice medicine in the South.”

Moreover, by the turn of the century, Booker T. Washington’s National Business League reported that here were “160 black female physicians, seven dentists, ten lawyers, 164 ministers, assorted journalist, writers, artists, 1,185 musicians and teachers of music and 13,525 school instructors.” The period saw a virtual renaissance among black women artist and writers. Again Giddings points out France Ellen-Harper and Pauline Hopkins published tow of the earlier novels by black women; Oberlin-educated Anna Julia Cooper published A Voice from the South (1892) a treatise oh race and feminism that anticipated much of the later work of W.E.B. DuBois; and journalist Ida B. Wells, in 1889, was elected the first women secretary o the Afro-American Press Association

Yet, tragically, such achievement within a generation did not inspire an ideology of equality of race and gender, but one of racial difference, the latter being required to maintain white supremacy. What then should we take from this

Out of relative obscurity, a generation of black women, just up from enslavement, and battling a dominant ideology which render them invisible and irrelevant, demonstrated achieved excellence in a variety of professional fields, and in the course of all of this, forged a model of feminism complementary of male/female relationships and supportive of nation building effort of African Americans; thus, making a fundamental contribution to understanding and improving the human condition. Refusing to be muted, by males or females, African American women gave voice to the most important issues their day.

Guiding Principles of Male/Female Relationships: “All I claim is that there is a feminine as well as a masculine side to truth; that these are related not as inferior and superior, not as better and worse, not as weaker and stronger, but as complements-complements in one necessary and symmetric whole“ (Anna Julia Cooper).

Unity of Black Women: “It is to the Afro-American women that the world looks for the solution of the race problem. The first step has been banding of ourselves together, putting our head together, and taking counsel of one another” (Gertrude Culvert).

Black Women as the Motive Force of Nation Building: “The [black] woman has been the motive power in whatever has been accomplished by the race” (Addie Hunton).

Equality of Black Women and Men: “In our development as a race, the colored woman and the colored man started even” (Fannie Williams).

The Centrality of Women to Progress of Blacks: “The status of womanhood is the measure of the progress of the race” (Anna Jones).

On Self-Defense, Self-Determination and Self-Respect: “In the creation of a healthier sentiment, the Afro-American can do for himself what no one else can do for him. The world looks on with wonder that we have conceded so much and remained law-abiding under such outrage and provocation. Nothing, absolutely nothing is to be gained by a further sacrifice of manhood and self-respect. When the white man, who is always the aggressor, knows he runs as great risk of biting the dust every time his Afro-American victim does, he will have greater respect for Afro-American life” (Ida Wells-Barnett).

Black Women as the Vanguard of the Struggle: “We have our own lives to lead. We are daughters, sisters, mothers, and wives. We must care for ourselves and rear our families, like all women. We have to do more than other women. Those of us fortunate to have education must share it with the less fortunate of our race. We must go into our communities and improve them; we must go into the nation and change it. Above all, we must organize ourselves as Negro women and work together” (Mary Church Terrell).

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