Black Women: Redeeming and Regenerating African Americans

March 26, 2014

dr-anna-julia-cooperIn honor of Women’s History Month, the African American Breakthrough Series will feature the writing and voice of Anna Julia Cooper.  Born in 1858 in North Carolina to her enslaved mother, Hannah Stanley Haywood, Anna Julia Cooper spent her lifetime of over a century redefining the limitations and opportunities for women of color in a society set up for their disempowerment and subjugation. Preeminent scholar and educator, Cooper saw the status and agency of black women as central to the elevation of African Americans and the progress of the nation. 

Anna Julia Cooper: Saving the Race

In light of the worsening socioeconomic condition of poor and working class black communities–increased poverty, disintegrating families and family structure, epidemic school failure, sky rocking unemployment, rampant drug use, and drug selling as a means of employment and status, and a growing sense of hopelessness and despair– we turn our attention once more to the voice and intellectual work of Anna Julia Cooper.  Given the oppressive condition of Africans Americans during her lifetime augmented by the unleashing of raw racism and violence, her analysis and writing of the question “What is to be done,” provides an alternative way of thinking about  the current state of black America.

Cooper’s starting point for race redemption and reconstruction begins with a focus and priority on black women.  Putting forth a plan of race restoration and race-building , she advanced what she refers to as the “vital agency of womanhood in the generation an progress of a race.”  Thus, she declares, “the fundamental agency under God in the regeneration, the re-thinking of the race, as well as the ground work and starting point of its progress upward, must begin with the black woman.”

In a word, Cooper sees the black woman as the vanguard for the advancement of blacks in America.  This was a radical and bold statement, especially in light of the dominant male ideology and force in American life at the end of the 19th century.  Yet, she believed this was an invitation of heaven and history.  Given the strategic position that the black woman occupied in black and American life, she observes that the elevation and contribution of the black women would be exponentially greater than black males. Hence, in her signature statement, she astutely notes;

Only the Black Woman can say “when and where I enter, in the quite, undisputed dignity of my womanhood, without violence and without suing or special patronage, then and there the whole Negro race enters with me.”

The identification and call for black women as the vanguard of a nation-building effort in the service of the race is not fanciful thinking by Cooper.  She is keenly aware of the challenges this presented. “With all the wrongs and neglect of her past, with all the weakness , the debasement, the moral thralldom of her present,” she expounds, “the blacks woman of to-day stands mute and wondering at the Herculean task devolving upon her.”  But, she adds, “the cycle wait for her.  No other hand can move the lever.  She must be loosed from her bands and set to work.”

To be sure, Cooper’s emphasis on black women as the advance guard for race recovery and building is strategic, and calls for investment and cultivation of their human potential.  Black women she proclaims are the “mothers of the next generation.”  Moreover, the care, concern , priority and corresponding commitment to invest in the project of elevating black women as a road to race redemption is both honorable and righteous. Given this, black people should embrace the call, “I am my sister’s keeper,” and this commitment, she writes, “should be the hearty response of every man and woman of the race, and this conviction should purify and exalt the narrow, selfish and petty personal aims of life into a noble and sacred purpose.”

Further, Cooper sees a significant role for the black church in pursuit of the sacred purpose of lifting up black women and in making them competent nation-builders who can fulfill their role and responsibility of restoration of African Americans.  Moreover, the task of nation-building begins with young black girls.  Cooper asked: “Will not the aid of the Church be given to prepare our girls in head and heart for the duties and responsibilities that await the intelligent wife, the Christian mother, the earnest virtuous helpful woman, as once both the lever and the fulcrum for uplifting the race.”

Unquestionably, Cooper believes, the future of African Americans is predicated on achieving the elevation of black women.  Cooper constantly reminds those concern with African Americans uplift that “the race cannot be effectively lifted up till its women are truly elevated.  Punctuating this the critical task, she adds: “Our life as a race is at stake.  The dearest interest of our hearts is in the scales…the time is ripe for action.”

Advancing Coopers Thoughts and Ideas Today

Much has been made, and deservingly, so, of the need to focus more resources and attention on helping young black males. President Obama, “My  Brother’s Keeper” initiative, which has drawn much attention, is the latest high profile example of such an effort.  Yet, Anna Julia Cooper argues the opposite, and turns President Obama’s thinking and focus on its head. As noted above, she argues that restoration and regeneration of African American males and females rest on the focus and elevation of black females.  Her argument has potency and merits serious consideration.  For example, consider the following:

  1. Black females headed households is more prevalent than that among any other racial group
  2. Black children are more likely to live with one parent
  3. Poverty rates are highest for families headed by single women, particularly if they are black or Hispanic
  4. 45.8 percent of young black children (under age 6) live in poverty, compared to 14.5 percent of white children
  5.  Children in single-parent households are raised not only with economic, but also social and psychological, disadvantages (, they are four times as likely as children from intact families to be abused or neglected; much likelier to have trouble academically; twice as prone to drop out of school; three times more likely to have behavioral problems; much more apt to experience emotional disorders; far likelier to have a weak sense right and wrong)

Given aforementioned data related to female headed household, and the data that shows African American males overrepresented in almost all of the negative social economic indicators, Cooper’s call for a nation-building project, centered on black women, seems prudent and advisable.

Thus, African Americans, elected officials, policy makers in the public and private sector, would do well to embrace Anna Julia Cooper’s plan and focus for redemption and regeneration of both black males and females . As she so aptly put it: “The past work in this direction has been unsatisfactory we must admit.  That without a change of policy results in the future will be as meager, we greatly fear…  our life as a race is at stake.”


  1. Anna Julia Cooper, A Voice From the South
  2. Economic Policy Institute, The State of Working America
  3.  Jonathan Vespa, Jamie M. Lewis, and , Rose M. Kreide, American Families and Living Arrangements: 2012
  4. National Poverty Center




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