Course Profile: Nineteenth-Century Black Women Speakers & Writers

November 27, 2017

“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.'” ~Anna Julia Cooper, A Voice from the South (1892)

Anna Julia Cooper, author of A Voice from the South, was one of the most important writers, activists and educators of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. However, it wasn’t until recently that scholars began appreciating her contributions more thoroughly. Cooper was not simply an important activist—a keystone in a long history of community outreach and a respected speaker in women’s circles and clubs—she was also a serious scholar whose theories were appropriated by others—sometimes without citation.

For this particular session of Koritha Mitchell’s English 7851: Seminar in Critical Approaches to Black Literatures, students read selections from both Cooper’s A Voice from the South and Southern Horrors by Ida B. Wells. Students reviewed Cooper’s history as a writer and an activist, focusing on her scholarly creations. Cooper was, in particular, known for her heavy advocating for the education of women, especially women of color. However, it was not until recently that Cooper has been credited for the theoretical work that she undertook. Male writers, including W.E.B. DuBois, often quoted her without attribution, according to historian Brittney Cooper. Such actions erased her contributions, damaging the residual knowledge contemporary scholars hold about not only her theorizing, but who she was.

This form of critical approach to dissecting the work of a Black, female scholar who endured the socio-political shifts of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries is essential to understanding the course as a whole. As students made connections between the readings, the class began to develop an idea of who Cooper was wholly; not just an activist, writer, or scholar. For instance, the class discussed the fact that she reared five adopted children. Cooper was revolutionary, eloquent, and even, at times, a little problematic.

Cooper’s somewhat problematic ideas are evident in some of her work; those in which she discusses in the most traditional ways the experiences of people less privileged than she was—the impoverished, disabled and non-heterosexual. Cooper often stated that once Black women were equal in status with all of those who had formerly oppressed them, society would finally be completely inclusive and equal in opportunity and outcome for its members. This understanding of Cooper’s theory is particularly relevant in recent years as scholars of feminist thought began to embrace ideologies of intersectionality when analyzing scholarly work. Prior to the growth of the field of gender studies, it was a common thought that gender and race were the two main categories of identity that caused a member of society to lack certain privileges.

By Michaela Corning-Myers