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Twentieth Century Rural Southern Black Women’s History

I am Cherisse Jones-Branch, the James and Wanda Lee Vaughn Endowed Professor of History at Arkansas State University.   My current research focuses on rural black women’s activism in Arkansas. I happened upon this area of research after I completed my first book Crossing the Line: Women’s Interracial Activism in South Carolina during and after World War II in 2014.  One of the women I discussed was a South Carolina Agricultural Extension Service home demonstration agent, who lost her job because of her Civil Rights activism.  It did not occur to me to inquire what a home demonstration agent was until after the book had gone to press. I decided instead to find out if they existed in Arkansas.  My plan at the time was to learn enough to write a paper for a local conference on race and activism in Arkansas. What I discovered during the course of my explorations is that home demonstration agents were employed by the agricultural extension service nationwide and their job was to ameliorate impoverished conditions among rural people.  In the South however, the extension service was racially segregated until 1964-1965 and black extension agents endured racism in their efforts to aid African American communities. While researching this topic, I co-edited Arkansas Women: Their Lives and Times, published in 2018, which includes an essay, written by Debra L. Reid, on Mary Lee McCray Ray, Arkansas’s first home demonstration agent, hired in 1918.  

Black women have been overlooked in much of the extant historical scholarship on rural women.  When they do appear, which the exception of Mississippi’s Fannie Lou Hamer, they have been discussed in the context of African Americans’ migration out of the South.  Or, they have been portrayed as oppressed and disempowered agricultural laborers. I assert that many rural black women chose to remain in the South where they utilized a locally crafted praxis to foment educational, political, and economic change in agrarian communities.  My third upcoming monograph, Better Living By Their Own Bootstraps: Black Women’s Activism in Rural Arkansas, 1914-1965, explicates their labors around the state but particularly in the Arkansas Delta.  I deconstruct notions of agrarian black women as victims and instead focus on their community advocacy as home demonstration agents, Jeanes Supervising Industrial Teachers, and Arkansas Association of Colored Women members who employed their skills and connections to white leaders to procure much needed resources for rural blacks.  I have reconstructed many of these women’s personal biographies as well as their complex organizational affiliations to unearth the many overt and covert ways they simultaneously challenged oppressive conditions and uplifted black communities in the Jim Crow South. I am hopeful that this work will encourage scholars to examine rural black women as change agents in other parts of the South and throughout the nation.

As of late, I am creating outlines for two book projects.  The first is a biography of Annie Zachary Pike, an activist, farmer, and former politician from the Delta town of Marvell, Arkansas. Ms. Annie, as she is locally known, was/is a large landowner who, in the 1950s and 1960s, hired sharecroppers to work on her land.  She was further, in 1972, the first African American woman to run for the Arkansas State Senate, as a Republican. Ms. Annie has personally asked me to write this book about her life. Doing so will allow me to considerably expand the article I wrote about her in the spring/summer 2018 issue of the International Journal of Africana Studies.  

The second project is an edited collection of essays that will encompass the histories and experiences of rural black women around the nation.  I am particularly excited about this project because nothing of its kind has ever been published. Most edited collections about rural women have only included one black woman’s story, if any at all.  Through this project I hope to engage a wide range of scholars who can speak to rural women’s diverse experiences across time, space, and geography. The research possibilities on rural black women are endless. Their stories are exciting and necessary. And I believe we must do our very best to remove them from the margins of African American, Women’s, and Rural history, exalt them, and paid heed to the very important lessons that they have to teach us.

— Cherisse Jones-Branch, Ph.D.

Towards a Framework of Black Solidarity

My name is Shauna Rigaud. I am a second year PhD Student at George Mason University in the Cultural Studies Department exploring ideas of community and solidarity. In this journey, I see my work examining  two varied, but what I understand as connected, research interests: the representations of black women in the media and the experiences of Caribbean Americans.

The first interest grew out of my master’s thesis, which examined the expression of sisterhood (or lack thereof) in reality television. I worked in the non-profit sector with high school students in my first job straight out of college.  This experience working with high school girls compelled me to consider images of sisterhood. I watched as these young ladies expressed disdain and distrust of girls their age. They wondered how I could join a sorority and saw little value in their friendships with other young women. At the time, it seemed like we were at the dawn of the reality show boom, where behaving badly had become the norm and where the genre began to feature more Black women.  This mix, Black women behaving badly, seemed to be doing work that would prove itself dangerous. Shows like Basketball Wives presumed to feature women as friends, navigating the world of their professional athlete husbands, but for those watching the show, these women could not possibly be friends. Audiences saw a continuation of the loud, angry - and in the realm of reality television - violent, stereotype of Black women. In deconstructing these images, I hope to highlight the very dangerous ways that Black women are presented which reinforce that idea that Black women cannot work together, shattering years of history and theory that would suggest otherwise. In my work, I want to reframe Black female solidarity as a tool for liberation.  

My second interest looks at the experiences of Caribbean Americans, particularly the cultural practices, popular culture and diasporic experiences that create ideas of nationhood and solidarity. As the child of immigrants, I grew up immersed in the food, culture and tradition of my parents. Each summer I traveled to Barbados during the Crop Over season and from my great grandparents’ television, I watched thousands of people draped in feathers, beads and jewels cross the stage on Kadooment day. Once back in the states, my family and I would line the streets during Boston carnival and travel to New York for carnival on Labor Day and I would dream of one day participating in the reveling myself. On carnival day, I was American born, but distinctly West Indian. I believe that these practices and performances allow for a cultural grounding and connection to a homeland that creates community, shared responsibility, and political space.

The piece that binds my interests is this intersecting theme of solidarity. I want to examine the ways in which a collective Black community has historically been imagined, created, forged and solidified in order to understand the ways in which we can collectively resist oppressive systems. Through my work, I see new conversations about sisterhood and solidarity in popular culture; I envision a new archive of transatlantic experiences that tell the stories of first and second generation Americans; and I see the recovery of stories of Black solidarity as a framework for our future.

- Shauna Rigaud

Recovering Black Women in the Archive

My name is Monet Timmons and I am a first-year PhD English student at the University of Delaware. My research interests include 19th- and 20th-century African American literature and historical memory. More specifically, I focus on Black women in the archive, investigating their erasure while simultaneously using an ethics of care to honor the fragments of their lives and voices.

My identity as a Black woman is what brings me to my current research. Recovering  and honoring the lives of Black women lost in the archive aligns with my personal journey to understand myself. Currently I am expanding two projects from the first semester of my program. Utilizing the special collections at the University of Delaware, I perused the papers of Alice Dunbar-Nelson, a late 19th/early 20th-century Creole Black woman activist, writer, teacher, and poet. Before entering the archive, my main objective was to highlight Dunbar-Nelson’s life and work outside of her marriage to Paul Laurence Dunbar. In doing so, I found Dunbar-Nelson was doing this same work when she wrote about her close friend, colleague, and romantic partner, Edwina Kruse, in the unpublished manuscript titled This Lofty Oak. After migrating from Puerto Rico in the late 19th century, Kruse became principal of Howard High School in Wilmington, Delaware in 1881, the only school for children of color in the state. In this research I think about what it means for a Black woman to honor the life and legacy of another Black woman through literature. I also think about the complexities of Black women’s relationships, whether these relationships are romantic, working, or both, and how these Black women educators’ relationships serve Black communities. Lastly, I consider This Lofty Oak as an archive; although unpublished and fictional, we understand Kruse’s career and impact.

The other project I am working on brings me back to my alma mater, Emory University, to a site inhabited by an enslaved Black woman, Kitty’s Cottage. Kitty’s Cottage was “gifted” to Catherine “Miss Kitty” Boyd by her enslaver, Bishop James Osgood Andrew, the first president of the board of trustees at Emory University. Due to pressure from the Methodist Episcopal Church in 1844, Bishop Andrew had to free his enslaved laborers. Bishop Andrew interviewed Catherine offering her freedom in Liberia or the option to remain in Georgia to continue to serve the Andrew family; Catherine “chose” to remain in Georgia. One of my findings for this project includes the movement of the Kitty’s Cottage to a white nationalist site, Salem Campground, in 1939 where it served as a Confederate site of memory until 1993. I am interested in how the white collective memory continues to portray Catherine as a loyal Black woman in pursuit of preserving white supremacist culture and ideology. Moreover, the lack of conversation about the site at Emory today reveals the need to address this history in order to understand our national dialogue of race and memory.

Through both of these projects, I aim to create a public dialogue that reframes how we remember Black women. One of my largest concerns with these projects is remembering to uncover and highlight these stories with care and not perpetuate their erasure or the white supremacist culture that has contained them for so long. I am excited for what this work means for us currently, and what this work means for other Black women in and outside of academia.


African American Agency and the Art Object, 1868 - 1917

My name is Cynthia Hawkins, and I am a Ph.D. candidate in American Studies in the Department of  Transnational Studies at the State University of New York at Buffalo. The title of my dissertation which I will soon defend is African American Agency and the Art Object, 1868 to 1917. My interests are rooted in interdisciplinarity and include 19th century American, and African American history, African American art, museum history and function, race, gender, critical theory, visual art, and culture. Currently, I am the Gallery Director and Curator at SUNY Geneseo.

I  focus my research on how the visual arts have performed as an agency bearing for African Americans during the long 19th century. Of the four cases, studies I examine how student William H. Sheppard was inspired by the curiosity room's art and artifact collection at Hampton Normal School to, as the first African American Southern Presbyterian missionary to the Congo, purchase Bakuba art and donate it to the Normal school's collection. I then asses the ways it was used by the faculty to enable agency in their black students providing a meaningful historical and contemporaneous connection to Africa. The remaining chapters focus on artist Charlotte "Lottie" Wilson  (1854-1914) and  her work as art superintendent for the National Association of Colored Women's Clubs, sculptor Meta Vaux Warrick (1877 – 1968), and the Warrick Tableau (3/4 life size diorama) installation created for the Negro Building at 1907 Jamestown Ter-centennial, and still life and landscape painter Charles Ethan Porter (1847 – 1923). Each of these artists created works of art that the African American public found not only aesthetically pleasing, their works of art also encouraged others, regardless of difficulties, to pursue their own goals. 

To define agency in relation to the fine art object and its reference to capacity, intellectual acuity, and evidence of culture and status,  is a particular challenge because agency is, and has been generally of critical importance in Africa American life. Of interest too is Wilson's sense of her market. By working in a variety of genres, from painting portraits of well-known individuals who were important to African Americans to landscapes and still life painting she, "Lottie Wilson the artist"  (as the press frequently referred to her) ensured a ready audience. 

This dissertation has sparked new research interest, African American participation in the American Institute of the City of New York for the Encouragement of Science and Invention Institute Fairs, (1808-1983). Another is based on Charles Ethan Porter's tenure in New York City after he completed his studies at the National Academy of Design. From 1872 until 1880 Porter lived in Chelsea a New York City neighborhood which was to a great extent was multiracial. This finding has led to my interest in black life post-Civil War through to World War I, and this summer's research will culminate in a course I will teach in the fall.

- Cynthia Hawkins

Diasporic Threads: Black Women’s Artistic Practice and Presence

My name is Sharbreon Plummer and I am a Ph.D. student at The Ohio State University in the Department of Arts Administration Education and Policy.  My work unites multiple areas of interest, including but not limited to: craft, art and social justice, African American art, arts-based research, and Black feminism(s).

As a Black woman, art researcher and practitioner, fiber work and textiles have always piqued my interest, both from the perspective of being a maker and a person reared in the South–a region that has a troubled relationship with the cultivation and exploitation of fiber-related materials such as cotton, indigo, etc. Even with its complex narratives, it is my belief that fiber serves as a conduit for commemoration and reflection of the human experience. When analyzing this medium, I often found myself frustrated with the lack of representation of Black women artists and other artists of color within craft/art histories. So often, I would see fiber art, along with its impact and implications, being discussed primarily through a white, feminist voice. Thus, I felt compelled to investigate the need for Black women’s voices to lead the charge of restorying the analysis and interpretation of fiber work and its connections to our history.

I am dedicated to using my research to contribute to a platform that builds solidarity within a community of artists and women whose work holds relevance in modern society and has continued to serve as an act of resistance, cultural preservation, self-determination and freedom of expression. Within my research, I pose the question: What language and new knowledge emerges when using fiber-based work to explore our shared consciousness and experiences as Black women? Using a Black feminist lens, I am not only critiquing art history and education’s lack of recognition of our ways of knowing and being, but also experimenting with the development of resources and artwork that repositions us within those fields in an equitable way.

One aspect of my research that I’m most excited about is being able to immerse myself in the exploration of the “transdisciplinarity” of Black women. The artists that I’ve been building dialogue with are “janes of all trades” within their own right. From an aerospace engineer turned quilter, to a lawyer that is also an herbalist, artist and educator, these women are the embodiment of the Black female creativity that was (and still is) needed in a world that was not created to nurture and support us. When theorizing about artmaking practices, I would like to see scholars’ conversations and texts shift to be more inclusive of the nuanced narratives that inform what we create. It is my hope that the interviews I conduct can offer a significant contribution to that area. 

Through my preliminary fieldwork, I’ve been introduced to Black women who use contemporary quilting as a means of healing and crafting holistic approaches to wellness. Building on ancestral knowledge and traditions, they develop quilts that can house plants, herbs, and stones to support the promotion of healing for members of their communities that are facing health challenges. These sorts of stories are ones that I feel are so important when combating the Eurocentrism and hegemony of the art world. They emphasize the influence of kinship and community within artistic production, and the beauty of the impact African diasporic practices on material and visual culture.

Afro-Latinx Community Advocacy in the American South

My name is Christy Garrison Harrison. Areas in which I conduct research and teach are history and Women, Gender, and Sexuality Studies (WGSS). I currently teach at Atlanta Metropolitan State College.

As a historian with a certificate in WGSS, my objective has been to insert southern Black women’s contributions—and their quests for social justice—into the historical canon by documenting their political prowess in community organizing. My most recent article, published in the Journal of Georgia Association of Historians, was about civil rights activists Ella Mae Brayboy, Dorothy Bolden, and Pearlie Dove. In “Place as Biography: Atlanta’s Influence upon Ella Mae Brayboy, Dorothy Bolden, and Pearlie Dove’s Activism,” I discuss ways in which birthplace and community affected how the women implemented their activist strategies. While working on a book proposal about Black female activists, discovering tangentially related material raised new research questions.  A different essay began to take shape, one that was based upon studying members of the Afro-Latinx community who were engaged in community activism in the American South, and their efforts to retain their cultural citizenship.

Initial research efforts evolved into two strands of inquiry. The first strand consisted of establishing and honoring a nuanced depiction of the multiple social identities reflected within the American Afro-Latinx community, i.e. Latinegra, Black Latinidada, Afro/Indigenous Latinidada.  The second strand is evolving into identifying how the Latinx community engaged/es in community activism. At this point in the process, I am gathering empirical data on community advocacy and extricating sources that highlight the Afro-Latinx population. In terms of chronology, I am torn between confining the women’s narrative to the late 20th century era, but I feel an inexplicable pull toward including the women of the late 19th century as well.

In hindsight, my initial research enquiry was a bit naïve. My template did not emphasize the discrete influences nationality and colorism have upon members of the American Latinidada community.  The proposed piece was to document how Afro-Latinas were creating modes of agency to either gain or protect access to their civil rights, voting, fair housing, education, and employment within the southern region of the United States.  The research has been expanded to include not just a gendered examination of advocacy, but how these overlapping identities reflect concurrent battles for many social justice warriors. The first is to preserve their cultural citizenship, the second is community advocacy (especially in today’s political climate,) and the third is to fight sexism amidst colorism within their respective communities.

The scope of this work has changed. However, that is the daunting, yet exhilarating part of conducting research on Black women of the Diaspora. It confirms the work is rich, multifaceted, and it validates the need for continual intellectual exploration. Looking forward to sharing the finished project with you.

-Dr. Christy Garrison Harrison, @CCGPHD

Looking Back, Reading Black: Popular Fiction and the Essence Bestsellers List

In honor of Black History Month and in conjunction with the daily book features BWSA is posting on Twitter, we are sharing the most popular works of fiction written for, about, and by Black people from ten and twenty years ago. Reflect with us on the many ways contemporary authors have taken up pen and paper to creatively detail the Black experience (Follow us @blkwomenstudies and see all of this month's book features using #28daysofBWS.)

Pulling from The Reading Blackness Project, I derived this by disaggregating Essence Magazine’s Bestseller’s List for Fiction, which was published monthly and was based on sells information culled from independently owned Black bookstores across the United States. The list and Essence Magazine, more generally, has been committed to centering the needs, thoughts, and desires of Black Women for nearly 50 years. Essence and its Bestsellers’ List are rich data sources for Black Women Studies researchers by providing depth and nuance to the ordinary lives of Black people while also celebrating the best of who we are and what we do.

2009 Hardcover

Midnight by Sister Souljah (appeared 9 times)

Dying for Revenge by Eric Jerome Dickey (appeared 5 times)

Up to No Good by Carl Weber (appeared 5 times)

She Had it Coming by Mary Monroe (appeared 3 times)

2009 Paperback

Queen Bitch (Part 4) by Deja King (appeared 7 times)

The Coldest Winter Ever by Sister Souljah (appeared 5 times)

True to the Game III by Teri Woods (appeared 4 times)

The Someday List by Stacy Hawkins Adams (appeared 4 times)

1999 Hardcover

Milk in My Coffee by Eric Jerome Dickey (appeared 8 times)

Abide With Me by E. Lynn Harris (appeared 5 times)

Blue Collar Blues by Rosalyn McMillan (appeared 6 times)

Something’s Wrong with Your Scale! By Van Whitfield (appeared 4 times)

1999 Paperback

One Better by Rosalyn McMillan (appeared 7 times)

A Do Right Man by Omar Tyree (appeared 6 times)

Sister, Sister by Eric Jerome Dickey (appeared 4 times)

When All Hell Breaks Loose by Camika Spencer (appeared 4 times)

- Dr. Jacinta R. Saffold, @concretestories

Coming of Age in Jim Crow D.C.: Navigating the Politics of Everyday Life

 Black Women’s Studies community, hello!! I’m Paula C. Austin. I’m Assistant Professor of History at California State University, Sacramento. I earned an M.A. in History at North Carolina Central University, and a PhD in History back in my hometown at the City University of New York (CUNY) Graduate Center. I specialize in African American, gender, and urban history.

I am excitedly working on the last edits to my forthcoming book, Coming of Age in Jim Crow D.C.: Navigating the Politics of Everyday Life (due out in fall 2019 from New York University Press). For this project, I mined E. Franklin Frazier’s papers at Howard University for his 1941 book on black adolescent personality development in D.C. Frazier argued that poor and working class young people were being negatively impacted by racial segregation and its attendant poverty and restrictions to resources. To Frazier, their personalities and beliefs about themselves, and thus behaviors and potential contributions to society, were severely at risk, if not already seriously damaged. While calling for an end to Jim Crow, he also advocated black cultural rehabilitation. After spending nearly five years with the (relatively) raw data of the 150 interviews of young people and their families, my research finds that young black, poor, and working class people in the nation’s capital were masterfully aware of and articulate about the incongruities of the city’s (growing global) symbolism of democracy and freedom and its restrictive racial geographies, racist policies, and practices. Coming of Age narrates the everyday lives of young Southwest D.C. residents like fourteen-year-old Susie Morgan and seventeen-year-old Myron Ross Jr.

Additional information available  here  through Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division

Additional information available here through Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division

For example, Susie, who lived in an over-crowded 2 rooms in Clarks Court Alley in 1938, could see the dome of the Capitol building from her street. She shared stories about her movements throughout the city with her friends, dodging police interactions, fights with white boys, and street harassment from black and white men alike.  She articulated disinterest in marriage and could imagine a bright future for herself as a French teacher. She and her friends reterritorialized spaces like the Union Station Columbus Fountain and the Lincoln Memorial reflecting pool as places of leisure and recreation, not only because few were available for and accessible to black children, but also because as Susie herself says, “‘we know we ain’t got no business in there, but that’s why we go in.”

 I happened upon this archive in my search for the names of the individuals who Frazier quoted at length in his Negro Family in the U.S. I wondered who these people were and what else they said. This project works to produce an intellectual history of folks we don’t often think of as intellectuals. Black, poor, and working class urban young people have long been, and continue to be portrayed as not possessive of (nor capable of) interiority. The young people whose voices I try to foreground in Coming of Age stress the generative capacities of an interior life. They were “thinkers, theorists, critics, and commentators,” as one of my anonymous readers said. (Thank you for this whoever you are!!) I hope these black young people’s voices make clear the critical role of ideas in navigating structural impediments to full identity formation and expression, even and especially for young black people.

 - Dr. Paula C. Austin, @ProfPAustin

Defiance Behind Bars: Incarcerated Black Women and Resistance

In my research, I always emphasize the Black woman’s story. Our narratives comprise a perspective that is often left out of literary canon of sociology and criminology. For example, social movement research typically focuses on male leaders and often minimizes the voices of women activists. Protests, sit-ins, marches, books, art, and other methods of resistance have been employed by Black women to fight against racism and sexism experienced daily. There are many pieces on large scale or infamous political demonstrations; however, there has been a segment of Black women that are largely (or virtually) ignored in social movement scholarship, incarcerated Black women. The current (limited) scholarship shows that Black women face specific challenges within the prison system, but what we do not know are the mechanisms employed daily by these women as they fight back against the system while incarcerated.

I admit, I initially ignored this population within my social movement research. It was not in the realm of possible dissertation topics nor did it come across any of my literature reviews. Most corrections literature state similar facts, theories, and statistics*. The majority of incarcerated Black women are victims of sexual and domestic abuse which made them vulnerable to their male partners and more susceptible to be accessories to their illegal activities. Black women are disproportionately represented within the criminal justice system, receive harsher treatment, and are more than two times as likely as white women to be incarcerated. The socioeconomic status of incarcerated Black women prior to sentencing is less than white women. Black mothers are typically the sole providers of their children and many times their rights are terminated while incarcerated.

In spring 2018 during my weekly Inside Out class (a joint class with outside university students and inmates) inside the local jail with Dr. Bahiyyah Muhammad, one inside student, Diane**, shared a story changed the trajectory of my research. Earlier that week, Diane had walked out of a class because the assigned reading contained “nigger” throughout the book. The use of the book was defended by the teacher because it was “classical literature” and she refused to choose another. Diane did not want to participate because she felt that book was insulting and insensitive. Therefore, after her request was ignored, she left the room. She walked out despite the repercussions and penalties that could occur, such as being removed from the class and future programming. She did not see herself as making a grand political statement and she had nothing to gain but could lose a lot. A consequence to her protest was that she was unable to receive a certificate of completion.

By listening to this story, I began to parallel her actions to the acts of resistance which occurred in the Black women’s social movement literature; they demonstrated similar characteristics. First, individual and collect actions can occur because of an injustice experienced. Next, within and outside of correctional facilities, we are socialized in society to follow rules or a punishment will follow. Public political demonstrations can result in police interference or violence. In a facility, hunger strikes, walkouts, or other infractions that are considered inappropriate can result in disciplinary actions such as solitary confinement, privileges being taken away, or physical actions against the inmate. Finally, Black women have used the resources and power they have. Diane only had her body to make a statement and activists use their community connections, economic power, or available platforms to express themselves.

As I frantically made connections between Black women activists inside and outside of prison while listening Diane’s story, I eventually settled on one question: how do Black women resist sexism and racism while incarcerate? Although the inmates are secluded from the world, the rules of society still permeate the walls. When they enter into a carceral space, correctional officers, administration, and the inmates themselves embody and sometimes act upon prejudices related to all social identities. Those prejudices translate to policies, practices, and contribute to the prison culture. Black women have contested their unequal treatment for decades. Although correctional facilities are structured to restrict one’s agency, Black women still find tactics to challenge discriminatory actions. These stories of resistance need to be added to our understanding of Black women’s activism because our story of defiance does not end once behind bars.


-Britany Gatewood

*The following information about incarcerated Black women is included in The Status of Black Women in the United States, however you can contact author for additional resources.

**Names have been changed to protect privacy.



BWSA Launch - You're Invited!

BWSA invites you to a happy hour on Friday, November 9 from 6:30 PM - 8:30 PM at the Westin Peachtree Plaza Atlanta! You’ll have the opportunity to learn more about how to become involved with BWSA and our vision for future growth. RSVPs are requested but not required here. We hope you’ll join us!

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Black Women's Mental Health and Wellness

Greetings, Black women’s studies community! I am Stephanie Y. Evans, Professor and Chair of African American Studies, Africana Women’s Studies, and History (AWH Department) at Clark Atlanta University. I earned a PhD in African American Studies with a Graduate Certificate in Advance Feminist Studies, both from University of Massachusetts-Amherst.

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My current research is mental health and wellness in Black women’s memoirs. Specifically, I am writing about historical wellness in elder narratives. The tentative book title is Joy in My Soul: Healing Traditions in Black Women’s Centenarian Memoirs (Lever Press, 2019). This work builds on my co-edited books, Black Women’s Mental Health: Balancing Strength and Vulnerability(2017, SUNY) and Black Women and Social Justice Education: Legacies and Lessons (2019, SUNY) as well as my first book Black Women in the Ivory Tower, 1850-1954: An Intellectual History (2007). This current research centers discussions of stress and self-care, particularly investigating ways Black women academics experience and write about wellness and the lessons to be learned from life writing of women in their 90s and 100s. I am currently teaching a graduate seminar on Black Women’s Wellness and it is infinitely satisfying.

I love my current research because it builds on my foundation of autobiography as intellectual history and it is immensely practical. Everywhere I turn in the academy—and in the world—I see stress being normalized. My current work looks at historical and contemporary figures who are nonagenarians and centenarians for clues about how Black women can achieve life balance despite the stressors we face.  

Elder narratives by women like Harriet Tubman, the Delany Sisters, Marian Anderson, and Dona Painter reinforce current findings by American Psychological Association and Black Women’s Health Imperative’s IndexUS that everyday activities like prayer, yoga, music, and meditation can impact quality and longevity of life. The most important aspect of my current research is that it comes from personal practice and experiences of personal and professional stress. I used to have a peptic ulcer and was bleeding internally—a condition exacerbated by stress. I was completely unaware of historical healing traditions Black women have used to manage and reduce stress. My life practices of stress reduction (like self-hypnosis, meditation, yoga, listening to music, aerobics) are now paired with my research practice and it is both productive and fulfilling. This work has helped me to have meaningful discussions with colleagues about self-care and to collaborate with like-minded people who value intellectual rigor but who also take life balance seriously. It has also helped me be mindful of how I manage my academic space to dismantle stressful practices in my area and to institutionalize wellness in my department, campus, and professional networks.

- Dr. Stephanie Y. Evans

On the Persistence of White Progressivism

As a black feminist scholar specializing in nineteenth- and twentieth-century African American women’s history, I often turn to the archives in search of the voices of women like Ida B. Wells, a famed anti-lynching activist and journalist. One of the joys of archival research is that it can sometimes take us on detours and unexpected journeys through the past. As researchers, we must be wary of the notorious “rabbit hole,” which can trap unsuspecting scholars in a never-ending spiral away from their intended destinations. But sometimes, stumbling into the unknown can surprise us with the historical context that we never thought we needed. Such was the case when my research in the Ida B. Wells Papers at the University of Chicago Library led me to reflect on the persistence of white progressivism.

 

I happened to read an article, “A Wicked Libel,” written by an unknown author in the May 30, 1892 issue of the Memphis Appeal-Avalanche. The article was a response to a Chicago Inter-Ocean political cartoon by Thomas Nast about how lynchings threaten American democracy. The writer begins by explaining, “Considering the circumstances, the colored race have made wonderful progress in education and in the accumulation of property. With this progress there has sprung up a respect for him among the better class of whites. The chief trouble now comes from the ignorant whites, who begin to see the superiority of the colored people in acquirements. It is largely from this class that the mobs and the lynching come.”

 

Later, the author states, “It is quite true that the press of the South has protested against the lynchings, because justice, working through the courts, is swift and sure in the South. But it is false and wicked to make it appear to the Northern mind, as the Inter-Ocean strives to do, that the lynchings of the South are without cause, and that the hanging of negroes is due merely to a spirit of malevolence on the part of the whites toward the blacks. When an unprotected woman is assaulted, whether the crime take place in New Hampshire, Oregon or Texas, chivalrous men in the neighborhood forget there are such things as courts, and they at once seize a rope. This is human nature, and it is quite the same the world over.”

 

I was immediately struck by how closely the article mirrored ideas that remain prevalent today. First, it established a dichotomy between exceptional black people who are intelligent and rich, and those who fail to meet middle-class standards of respectability. Second, it suggested that “the better class” of whites do not perpetuate racism; rather, violent racists are “ignorant” whites who feel threatened by black people’s social mobility. Third, in spite of evidence to the contrary, the article posited that African Americans can rely on judicial systems to provide justice. Fourth, it asserted that there is a valid reason for extrajudicial killings – whether it be nineteenth-century lynchings, or contemporary police violence—and that such attacks cannot be attributed to white racism. To make an argument to the contrary would be “false and wicked.” Fifth, the article assumed that black men pose a threat to defenseless white women, who, naturally, must be avenged by chivalrous white men.*

 

Although the article initially appears to sympathize with African Americans, its ultimate aim is to defend white people from allegations of racism. Much like in the contemporary moment, when African Americans are frequently accused of “race-baiting” or charged with being “the real racists” for critiquing white supremacy, a seemingly progressive writer was more preoccupied with protecting white people’s reputations than protecting African Americans from real threats of violence.

 

In the course of my research on black women’s intellectual history, my detour proved to be instructive for evaluating the persistence of white progressivism. It also offered important context for interpreting the political climate in which black women’s theorizing and activism took shape. Hidden treasures occasionally appear in the archives. While they may temporarily lead us astray, they can nevertheless help us to understand the historical moments that we seek to engage.

 -        Nneka D. Dennie, PhD

*Similarly, NBC News reports that on Sunday June 27, 2015, Dylan Roof proclaimed “I have to do this because you are raping our women and taking over the world” as he killed nine African Americans in the Mother Emanuel AME Church.

Decidedly Black and Decidedly for Women: The Reading Blackness Project

As a researcher of contemporary African American urban and popular literature, there are few archives to support my work. This dearth has required a reimagining of traditional humanities research sources and a bit of technology. The “Reading Blackness Project” takes a digital humanities approach to understanding the culture that created and supported Street Lit* at the turn of the twenty-first century. After discovering a considerable discrepancy between best-selling African American literature from 1990-2010 and the most celebrated literature of the same period, I digitized the fiction bestsellers list published in Essence magazine from 1994 through 2010. I chose Essence magazine for its commitment to Black women and its best sellers list because it was generated from sales information reported from independently owned Black book stores across the United States. The list was decidedly Black and decidedly for women.

I used the Essence Best Sellers list to help validate the following argument: Street Lit, despite controversy of appropriateness, was the economic backbone of African American literature at the turn of the new millennium. The purpose was to put authors like Sister Souljah and her debut novel, The Coldest Winter Ever in conversation with widely lauded authors like Toni Morrison as a personal act of resistance to the boundaries that keep “canonical” African American literature separate from the inconvenient stories of urban peril in Street Lit. 

The method of data collection Essence magazine employed was paramount to my interrogation of Street Lit texts because most genre texts were initially independently published and sold, which would preclude them from mainstream sales records taken from major clearing houses, big box retailers, and other sales record keepers (like the New York Times Bestsellers List). Essence magazine was able to preserve the story of contemporary Black independent print culture through quantitative data reports. 

Using software that allowed me to disaggregate the list data helped guide what kinds of questions sit at the intersection of Blackness, womanhood, and reading. Specifically, the dataset revealed interesting narratives about how Street Lit books have been packaged and sold. Sister Souljah’s The Coldest Winter Ever, for example, was the longest running title on the fiction paperback chart—appearing a total of thirty-six times or the equivalent of three years and was consecutively listed for twenty-nine months. The book retailed at 35% lower than the average fiction paperback on the list in 2000 (the year of its publication). The Coldest Winter Ever demonstrated that hardcover books with sticker prices of $20 and up were extremely hard to sell to a Street Lit and Hip-Hop demographic. Portable and cheap pulp books that averaged between $5 and $12 flew off the shelves of independent bookstores alternatively. 

Sister Souljah’s success in Hip Hop music and dominance on the Essence list helped to rebuff then emerging notions of the female MCs needing to be oversexualized in lyrics and appearance or Black women authors needing to write solely about friendship, marriage, and God to be successful. She also helped push the boundaries and modes of cultural production Black women could enter after being successful in Hip Hop music by turning to books rather than acting or launching a fashion label. Furthermore, The Coldest Winter Ever helped to establish Hip Hop in print in a way that presented multifaceted Black women characters striving to navigate the Hip Hop cultural terrain.  

As African American literature production progresses through the twenty-first century and technology improves, how African American literature and culture is preserved and interrogated will require innovative avenues to ensure that scholars are able to answer the questions that give credence to the fullness of Black women’s literature. 

- Jacinta R. Saffold, PhD


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Note: 
* Street Lit is a contemporary popular African American literature genre that began in the early 1990s with the technological advances in home computing and personal printing as a creative response to the harsh realities of urban living in America and is a cultural cousin to Hip Hop.

How We Arrive: Jallicia Jolly’s “Arrival” to the Study of Black Women

How do we arrive at what we describe as “truths” we know about Black women? For whom are we speaking and whom is listening when we speak? How does this shape the knowledge we produce, the theorizing in which we engage, and the coalitions we organize?

I came to research on Black women through these questions that signal complex, yet hopeful “arrivals”. These arrivals were shaped by my own lived experiences as a Black woman immigrant from the Caribbean, my early kitchen table dialogues with my Jamaican mother, aunts, sisters, and other-mothers in Brooklyn, as well as the instruction and mentorship of many Black women throughout the academy. This community nourished my arrivals, forming a tapestry of lived experiences, memories,herstories, and labor (emotional, sexual, cultural, and spiritual) that remains intergenerational and that requires the tools of interdisciplinarity and intersectionality. It forms the core of when, how, and where I arrive: my name is Jallicia Jolly – I am a PhD candidate in American Culture at the University of Michigan studying race, gender, sexuality, and health in the lives of Black women in the Caribbean and the United States.

My research interests include black sexual politics, transnational feminist organizing, women of color and Black feminisms, and cultural analyses of HIV/AIDS. My dissertation, “Ill Erotics: The Cultural Geography of Sexuality, Illness, and Self-Making Among Young HIV-Positive Women in Jamaica” foregrounds the embodied experiences of young women living with HIV/AIDS to explore how their sexual lives and grassroots politics inform feminist activism, public health discourse, and HIV/AIDS responses in Jamaica and the broader Americas. HIV-positive Black women’s lived experiences have offered useful insights on how HIV, prevention and inequality among HIV-positive women in the African diaspora and throughout the Americas. More specifically, this intervention is three-fold: 1) to enhance the cultural knowledge on HIV/AIDS and Black women; 2) to inspire new forms of theorization and models of subjectivity that generate new ways of living and organizing that extend beyond U.S. borders; and 3) to understand howillness matters to our efforts to develop expansive visions of black sexual politics and feminist agendas in the Americas and beyond. 

My arrival exists at the crossroads of multiple contradictions and possibilities. It is a space of layered erasures where my Black (Caribbean) womanness thrives at the crossroads of global anti-blackness, the deportation regime, and the torch-passing of empires between British and American imperialists; where the Caribbean sexual subjects I know occupy a tense space in the U.S.’s backyard, or better yet, it’s bedroom, where their bodies and sexualities become staples of national economies; where I explode the boundaries that often invisibilize Afro-diasporic female sexualities from the disciplines of Women’s Studies, Black Studies, and American Studies; where I collaborate with colleagues to transform the idea of the “Americanist” in ways that captures the experiences of Black women living beyond and engaging with U.S.’s porous borders.  

In this space of possibility, fragmentation, and contestation, I shift between “American” and “non-American”, the historical past and ethnographic present, “native” and ethnographer, local and transnational. As I attempt to capture the complex makings of black female subjectivities, I situate my work within the cracks in the foundation and on the margins –a position that uncompromisingly assaults disciplinary conventions as it troubles the boundaries of academia, creating new ways to foster understandings of Afro-diasporic women through local public cultural, historical, and ethnographic work.

I am here because of the women of color womancesters before me. I thrive here because of present the labor and lives of Black women. I remain encouraged because of the calls made by scholars Dr. Nneka Dennie and Dr. Jacinta Saffold to cultivate and institutionalize “a space for black women in academia - as knowledge producers, as cultural creators, and more.”  As I heed this call, I remember the lessons that teach me how to grab my voice. That create a space for me to reimagine political possibilities and alternative sexual futures. That remind me to write my herstories with fierce purpose. That encourage me to not only survive, but thrive in community and with curiosity.

I am here for it.

-Jallicia Jolly

Southern Black Women's Reproductive Resistance

I have been wondering where the black women are since my first Africana class. Our contributions, our intellectual, physical, emotional labor all seem to be perpetually out of sight in the academy. Black women have to be found and it seems that far too often it falls on ourselves to do this recovery work. I have been so grateful for my mentors in the academy– for those whose work centers black women’s legacies and those who take and create space for their students to continue this work. My name is Lindsey Jarrell– I am an undergraduate degree candidate in Africana Studies and Political Science at Davidson College and the Research Assistant for BWSA. 

Currently my research focuses on Southern Black women’s reproductive justice and networks of reproductive resistance. I am attempting to understand the systemic and intersecting oppressions that black women face as our compounding marginalizations result in a multitude of struggles. Much of African American studies that I have encountered focuses on a rhetoric of migration and movement but so many Black people have never had the class privilege and/ or interest in leaving the South. I am considering the ways in which stillness and confinement have been central to the African American experience and thus focus on spaces within the South which have been created to resist the systemic obstacles restricting the livelihood of Black women. 

In the summer of 2018 I was a Kemp Scholar and through the program had the resources to conduct archival research on the roles of homeopathic and conventional medicine in Black women’s lived experiences and reproductive practices. This research allowed me to spend time uncovering the deeply racist roots of American gynecology and the foundations of medical racism which continue to create huge disparities in women of color, especially Black women’s, birth outcomes, breastfeeding, and access to affordable and equitable healthcare. 

The opportunity to conduct a nuanced examination of the foundations of reproductive oppression in the American South was invaluable. Moving now into the fall of my senior year, I am writing my thesis in Africana on this work and growing this project. I am currently working using ethnographic methods to study the organizing around reproductive justice being done by Black women today in Charlotte, NC. As part of this expansion of my work, I was able to connect with a Charlotte community of women of color doulas and will be getting certified with them in October, which is both personally and academically exciting to me. My work seeks to understand the ways in which finding ways to live and to survive has been a mode of resistance for Black women and, furthermore, the ways in which Black women have always been at the center of our own liberation movements. I am honored to be doing this work and growing my knowledge and ability to advocate and support women and to be a part of the community that BWSA is creating. A space to build and connect those of us committed to the project of visibility and moving the contributions of Black women out from the periphery in the academy and public consciousness. 

 - Lindsey Jarrell

 

Creating Space for Black Women in Academia

Generations of scholars have fought to uncover the nuances of black women’s lives. In their attempts to make black women legible within their respective disciplines, researchers steadily carved out space to interrogate black women’s experiences despite institutional forces and social pressures that sought to delegitimate their work. The field of black women’s studies has emerged because of scholars who insisted that black women’s lives matter and merit intellectual inquiry. Building on the scholar-activism of those who came before us, today, the Black Women’s Studies Association emerges out of a desire to continue to create space for black women in academia—as knowledge producers, as culture creators, and more. 

BWSA is unique in its orientation. It is the only professional association specifically designed to bring scholars from a variety of fields into conversation about research on black women. This is grown out of recognition that scholarship on black women takes place in multiple disciplines that are infrequently brought into conversation with each other. By offering a centralized forum for intellectual exchange, we aim to build a community of scholars who are able to network with each other and mentor each other as we pursue innovative research agendas. It is our hope that the dialogues that occur within BWSA will further unite academics working in the field of black women’s studies.

BWSA accepts guest blog posts of 500-750 words on a rolling basis. To propose a blog post, submit a brief pitch to blackwomensstudies@gmail.com explaining what you would like to write about and why in fewer than 100 words. To join BWSA and learn more about membership benefits, click here. In addition to voting on BWSA business, members are eligible to be featured on our weekly Saturday Scholar Spotlights and their books are eligible to be featured in a lineup in our monthly newsletter.

Our goal as an organization is to facilitate crossdisciplinary engagement among those who research black women and to empower scholars to continue working at the intersections of race, gender, sexuality, and class. We invite you to join us as we use scholarship in service of black women’s liberation.

- Nneka Dennie and Jacinta Saffold, BWSA Co-Founders