International Women’s Day: African American Women Defining Themselves in History

March 8, 2011

Indeed, African American women have been central and essential to the progress and achievement of America and beyond. They too “bathed people at the Euphrates when the dawns were young.” They were at the dawn of human civilization in ancient Egypt; they bore witness to the triumph of the human spirit during the Middle Passage. They refused to be crushed by the dehumanization of American slavery- maintaining families and raising children in this impossible circumstance. In short, from the Middle Passage to the age of Obama, black women have been at the forefront of defining in practice what the unlimited possibilities of womanhood.

We sample four voices:

Anna Julia Cooper correctly points out that black women are a corrective force in history.

All I claim is that there is a feminine as well as a masculine side to truth; [that] Only the BLACK WOMAN can say when and where I enter, in the quiet, undisputed dignity of my womanhood, without violence and without suing or special patronage, then and there the whole Negro race enters with me. Is it not evident then that as individual workers for this race we must address ourselves with no half-hearted zeal to this feature of our mission? The need is felt and must be recognized by all. There is a call for workers, for missionaries, for men and women with the double consecration of a fundamental love of humanity and a desire for its melioration through the Gospel; but superadded to this we demand an intelligent and sympathetic comprehension of the interests and special needs of the Negro.

Alice Walker reminds us that black women have been the central to transmitting both will, hope, and spirit to generations of black people and teachers of a better tomorrow.

How was the creativity of the black woman kept alive year after year and century after century, when for most of the years black people have been in America, it was a punishable crime for a black person to read or write? And so our mothers and grandmothers have more often than not anonymously, handed on the creative spark, the seed of the flower they themselves never hoped to see: or like a sealed letter they could not plainly read.

Toni Morrison speaks to the multidimensionality of black womanhood.

Our history as black women is the history of women who could build a house and have some children, and there was no problem. What we have known is how to be complete human beings. To lose this is to diminish ourselves unnecessarily.

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