During the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, Americans struggled to define democracy, fought to end slavery, attempted to assert their statehood on a global stage, and wrestled with the meanings of citizenship. As the nation debated what it meant to live freely, African-American women experienced the epitome of unfreedom; nevertheless, they articulated advanced theoretical interpretations of freedom, racial injustice, and women’s rights. Historians, Africana theorists, and feminist scholars have rightly framed nineteenth- and twentieth-century black women as key actors in the ongoing struggle against white supremacy. Yet, as they emphasize black women’s roles as doers, they often neglect their roles as thinkers. I study nineteenth- and twentieth-century black women’s political thought in order to reveal how they have debated and given meaning to concepts including liberty, equality, and power. My research aims to historicize black women thinkers in order to illuminate how they advanced political movements, shaped modern institutions, and defined the American national identity. Collectively, my projects foster a fuller understanding of the range of actors and ideologies that have shaped black political thought, furthered black liberation, and promoted women’s rights.
(Re)defining Radicalism: The Rise of Black Feminism and the Politics of Respectability, 1831-1895
“(Re)defining Radicalism: The Rise of Black Feminism and the Politics of Respectability, 1831-1895,” argues that nineteenth-century black feminists were progenitors of black radical thought because they advocated for black citizenship and self-determination. It further contends that certain black women actively subverted and negotiated the politics of respectability, or middle-class expectations of women’s proper behavior, in order to offer innovative arguments for black and women’s rights. By contesting the politics of respectability, black women offered new possibilities for black people’s autonomy and freedom.
"(Re)defining Radicalism" employs the speeches, published work, and personal correspondence of Sojourner Truth, Maria Stewart, Mary Ann Shadd Cary, Frances Harper, Ida B. Wells, and Anna Julia Cooper in order to describe how their individual contributions promoted the construction of a shared, early black feminist tradition. Some women, like Truth, rejected traditional notions of women’s propriety, which demonstrates that early black feminists were not uniform in their interpretations of the value of respectability. Others, like Cooper, emphasized black women’s respectability in order to argue for their education and political participation. In recognizing the subversive power of black women’s engagements with the politics of respectability, it will be possible to redefine radicalism and recover the centrality of nineteenth-century African American women to the formation of black radical thought in the United States.
Black Male Feminism and the Evolution of Du Boisian Thought, 1903-1920
W. E. B. Du Bois consistently offered visionary analyses of racism in the United States. Yet, his early claims are largely applicable to black men alone, as is demonstrated by his 1903 The Souls of Black Folk. Seventeen years later, “The Damnation of Women,” a chapter from Du Bois’s 1920 Darkwater: Voices from Within the Veil, exemplifies his ability to use intersectional approaches to discuss black women’s oppression. This article illustrates how Du Bois’s relationship to black feminism evolved from 1903 to 1920. First, it argues that his writings from the early 1900s largely focused on black women’s representation and their social marginalization, while his work from the late 1910s onward also critiqued the structural elements of black women’s oppression, particularly their economic exploitation and lack of political rights. Second, the article contends that black women’s writing and activism at the turn of the twentieth century radicalized Du Bois and catalyzed the shift in his political thought. It concludes that black women’s political activity at the turn of the twentieth century motivated Du Bois to embrace an incipient form of black male feminism.