This week I had my first opportunities to meet the students in my two Black Feminism and the Civil Rights Movement courses, the first offered in the English Department at the City College of New York on Monday, and the latter on Thursday via the English Department, Women's Studies and American Studies at the CUNY Graduate Center on 34th Street and Fifth Avenue. I had wrestled with the question of how to begin the course for as long as possible and then finally settled upon beginning by reading Paula Gidding's crucial study of black feminist history, When and Where I Enter: The Impact of Black Women on Race and Sex in America (1984).
I chose to begin with this book in order to provide us with a history of issues of gender and sexuality in the lives of African American women. I believe that Gidding's book is particularly instructive in acquainting its reader with the story of how black women rose from the degradation of enslavement to occupy a leadership role in the pursuit of feminist issues and concerns in American public life, long before women had won the vote, and before most white women began to challenge their own enslavement to the pedestal and the cult of true womanhood.
Giddings begins her book (which has subsequently been reissued with a new introduction) by focusing on the responses of two leading early 20th century race women, Ida B. Wells and Mary Church Terrell, to the same lynching in Memphis Tennessee of Thomas Moss and two friends on March 9, 1892.
Moss and his friends had started The People's Grocery Store, which took business away from a white store owner who had once had a monopoly on black customers. Given the tenor of the times, in which violent unilateral responses by whites were socially acceptable in reaction to any manner of self-assertion or self-protection by blacks, a white mob attacked the store. Moss and his friends rallied their neighbors to protect their property. In the process, three whites were shot. Moss and over 100 blacks were arrested. Blacks stood vigil outside the jail to prevent a lynching until word was received that all of the white victims would survive their wounds. Mistakenly, it was assumed that a lynching was no longer imminent. In the early morning hours, Moss and his friends were taken from the jail and brutally slaughtered.
Terrell, who had been raised in Memphis and was a friend of Moss, went with Frederick Douglass to directly appeal to President Harrison to condemn racial lynching in his annual address before Congress, which he failed to do. Ida B. Wells, who was then living in Memphis, and a journalist, would find Moss's lynching particularly instructive in terms of reaching the conclusion that there was no substance afterall to the popular claim of the time that black men were sexual barbarians (owing to the unusual lustfulness of their women) particularly prone to rape. As a pillar of the black community, Moss was above such suspicions. Moreover, Wells had undertaken an in depth study of lynchings which brought her to the conclusion that most lynchings had nothing whatever to do with sex or rape, and that successful blacks were particularly targeted.
Giddings goes on to trace the roots of the stereotypes about black mens as sexual savages to their origin in the sexual stereotypes about the black woman as a justification for their brutal treatment as slaves. She introduces into her narrative the writings and stories of the early black feminists Maria Stewart, Harriet Jacobs, Harriet Tubman, Sojourner Truth, and Frances Harper as she documents the debates over the 15th amendment, which ultimately gave the right to vote to black men, as well as the failure and withdrawal of Reconstruction's enforcement.
We will take up discussion of these materials in our next class meeting. I will endeavor as well to incorporate discussions of the cultural achievements and efforts of black women, particularly in religion, music and art, to address and articulate their resistance to their oppression. Included herein: a list of potentially relevant works.
Paula Giddings, When and Where I Enter: The Impact of Black Women on Race and Sex in America. 1982.
Part 1--Slavery and 19th Century: Related Topics:
Toni Cade Bambara, editor. The Black Woman: An Anthology, Signet Classics 1970.
Gerda Lerner, ed. Black Women in White America: A Documentary History. Vintage 1972.
Words of Fire: An Anthology of African American Feminist Thought edited by Beverly Guy Sheftall, The New Press 1995,
including essays by Maria Stewart, Sojourner Truth, Frances Harper, Anna Julia Cooper, Harriet Tubman, Harriet Jacobs, Sojourner Truth, Mary Church Terrell, Ida B. Wells
NARRATIVES AND BIOGRAPHIES
Marilyn Richardson et al, Maria Stewart, America's First Black Woman Political Writer: Essays and Speeches. Indiana UP 1987.
Nell Painter, Sojourner Truth: A Life, A Symbol. Norton 1997.
Margaret Washington, Sojourner's America, University of Illinois Press 2009
Jean M. Humez, Harriet Tubman: The Life and the Life Stories. University of Wisconsin Press 2003.
Kate Clifford Larsen, Bound for the Promised Land: Harriet Tubman, Portrait of an American Hero. Ballentine Books 2004.
Harriet Jacobs, Incidents in the Life of A Slave Girl, Written by Herself: With Related Documents. Bedford St. Martin's 2009.
Jean Fagan Yellin, Harriet Jacobs: A Life. Basic Books 2005.
Harriet Jacobs Family Papers. University of North Carolina Press 2008.
Eizabeth Keckly, Behind the Scenes, or Thirty Years a Slave, and Four Years in the White House, 1868.
Jennifer Fleischner, Mrs. Lincoln and Mrs. Keckley: The Remarkable Story of the Friendship Between a First Lady and a Former Slave. Broadway Books 2003.
Frances Smith Foster, A Brighter Coming Day: A Frances Ellen Watkins Harper Reader.
Deborah Gray White, Editor. Telling Histories: Black Women Historians In The Ivory Tower. The UNC Press 2008.
Annette Gordon-Reed, The Hemingses of Monticello: An American Family. Norton 2008 (concerning Sally Hemmings and her relationship to Thomas Jefferson)
Angela Y. Davis, Women, Race & Class Random House 1981.
Rosalyn Terborg Penn, African American Women In The Struggle for The Vote, 1850-1920. Indiana University Press 1998.
Deborah Gray White, Aren’t I A Woman: Female Slaves in the Plantation South (Revised Edition) 1999.
Nell Painter, The History of White People. Norton 2010.
Kate Clifford Larsen, An Example for All the Land: Emancipation and the Struggle Over Equality in Washington, D.C. UNC Press 2010.
Kirsten Pai Buick, Child of the Fire: Mary Edmonia Lewis and the Problem of Art History’s Black and Indian Subject, Duke UP 2010.
Henderson and Henderson, The Indomitable Spirit of Edmonia Lewis: A Narrative Biography: A Narrative Biography by Harry Henderson and Albert Henderson. Esquiline Hill Press, Milford Ct. 2012.
Charmaine A. Nelson, The Color of Stone: Sculpting the Black Female Subject in Nineteenth-Century America. University of Minnesota 2013.