African American Women: A Corrective Force In History

That African American Women have been a powerful social force in the struggle to end oppression-slavery and Jim Crowism- is indisputable. History show that beginning with the long period of enslavement, black women were in the vanguard in resisting the degradation and dehumanization attendant to American slavery, which included forced separation of children from their mothers. Sojourner Truth spoke for all black mothers when she declared: “I have borne thirteen children and seen most of them sold off into slavery and when I cried out with my mother’s grief, none but Jesus heard me.”

African American Women resisted the notion that black were slaves, both in the political and existential sense. Inasmuch as a woman’s identity, during the age of slavery in America, was defined by her roles in the family, and; slavery undermined the basic concept and structure of family life. The effort of black women, however, to form families and perform the obligatory duties of mothers was a way of redefining their identity in the face of conditions which were at variance with conditions supportive of family life. Thus, the act of forming families was an act not only against slavery, but an affirmation of the identity of black women.

To be sure, the roles which black women played during the period of slavery and segregation- some imposed and others of free will-defined their concept of womanhood and gave them a much greater appreciation of the roles of women outside of the family ,and which challenged the limited roles which women- white women in particular- were expected to perform. Sojourner Truth, in her memorable statement Ain’t I A Woman, affirm the expanded and equal roles of black women: Truth asserted, “I have plough and planted, and gathered into barns, and no man could head me. And ain’t I a woman? I could work as much and eat as much as a man- when I could get it- and bear the lash as well! And ain’t I a woman?”

Building on the foundation and legacy of their foremothers, African American Women of the late 19th century and the early 20th century self-consciously defined their mission as cultivating, growing and saving the “race”. In 1916, Mary Church Terrell, one of the first African-American women to earn a college degree, echoed W.E.B. DuBois call for a talented tenth which would guide and save the race. Terrell, recognizing the historical burden placed on the shoulders of black women thundered:

We have our own lives to lead. We are daughters, sisters, mothers, and wives. We must care for ourselves and rear our families, like all women. We have to do more than other women. Those of us fortunate to have education must share it with the less fortunate of our race. We must go into our communities and improve them; we must go into the nation and change it. Above all, we must organize ourselves as Negro women and work together.

Terrell, Anna Julia Cooper and other black women insightfully tied the progress of African Americans to the role of black women in fulfilling their historical role in society as mothers, wives and “change agents”. These combined roles are what gave black women their special place in history as being a “corrective force”. To advance their mission of improving the conditions of the “race” and changing American society, African American women began organizing themselves in associations and clubs. These women in the words of Anna Julia Cooper believed that it was imperative for black women to step forth to “help shape, mold, and direct the thought” of their age. Seeing themselves as part of a larger meaning in the sweep of history, they decided that they would become the instrument of history and nation-building, presuming the role of actors and creators in the coming of age of African Americans as a self-conscious people. To be sure, they saw themselves as the subjects of history, defining themselves and their mission in their own terms.

The nation-building task which Terrell, Cooper, Wells-Barnett, Patterson and others undertook was during the period in African American history known as the “nadir”. During this period, black people were not responding to racial violence and oppression-peonage, lynching, disfranchisement, race riots, white supremacist ideology, and the racist imperialist expansion of Africa and other Third World nations. In the South, for example, blacks, especially black men, were targeted for violence and intimidation. In the North, black suffered from random acts of violence and the force of racism. In this context and with full knowledge and understanding of the situation, black women proclaimed the advent of the “woman’s era” and came forth with a plan to uplift the “race” based on the premise of equality between black men and women. Hence, as scholar and activist Fannie Williams observed, “In our development as a race, the colored woman and the colored man started even.” Put another way, Anna Julia Cooper in her brilliant work, A voice From the South, poetically and astutely wrote: “All I claim is that there is a feminine as well as a masculine side to truth; that these are related not as inferior and superior, not as better and worse, not as weaker and stronger, but as complements–complements in one necessary and symmetric whole.”

Challenged by racism, oppressed by gender, rebuffed by white women’s organization, black clubwomen shouldered the awesome task of racial uplift, insisting that the first step in nation-building was the belief that progress in of black women marked the progress of the race. The vision, work and accomplishments of the black clubwomen of the late 19th and early 20th centuries defined African American women as a corrective force in history. For as national organizer Addie Hunton, National Association of Colored Women, proclaimed: “The [black] woman has been the motive power in whatever has been accomplished by the race.”

Sources;

A Voice from the South, Anna Julia Cooper

A Shining Thread of Hope, Darlene Clark Hine and Kathleen Thompson

Too Heavy A Load: Black Women in Defense of Themselves, 1894-1994, Deborah G

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