New History Of The United States Focuses On 'Triumph And Great, Great Tragedy' Of Black Women

Feb 21, 2020

Maria Stewart, Nannie Helen Burroughs, Belinda Sutton, Aurelia Shines. These people may not be familiar, but two historians hope they will soon become household names.

Dr. Daina Ramey Berry of UT Austin and Dr. Kali Nicole Gross of Rutgers University co-authored a book out this month called A Black Women's History of the United States. They say their goal was not to create the final word on black women's contributions to American history but to provide a starting point for further thought, research and discussion.

Dr. Daina Ramey Berry says she and Dr. Kali Nicole Gross wanted to include the stories of a wide variety of people including artists and entertainers such as Gladys Bentley in their history of the United States.
Credit COLLECTIONS OF THE SMITHSONIAN NATIONAL MUSEUM OF AFRICAN AMERICAN HISTORY AND CULTURE

Berry says doing the research for this book was "fun but frustrating," given the limited primary source material readily available. She says black women were often excluded from official descriptions of archives and collections, so the authors had to "dig deeper and actually go record by record” to look for these women. 

What did they find when they dug deeper?

Berry says they found that "black women occupy a complex paradoxical relationship to America.”

"One of the things that we wanted to talk about was to show the tension of this experience where there's triumph but there's also great, great tragedy,” Berry said.

Listen to the interview or read the transcript to learn more about those triumphs and tragedies and how Berry and Gross chose which stories to include in the book.

This transcript has been edited lightly for clarity:

Dr. Daina Ramey Berry: I think that there's a disrespect towards black women in general. And I'm speaking very generally there. When you go to archives and you look at the collections, there's an erasure because … when they created the archive — when the documents were donated from a family or a relative or a collector — they weren't looking for black women. 

So when you look at the descriptions of what's in the collection, they're not looking necessarily for black people. So for us to go into this space now and try to find the stories of African-American women or women of African descent, it's very difficult because we know they were there and we know that they're not going to be highlighted in any outline of that collection. So we have to dig deeper and actually go record by record and look for these women in these spaces.  

KUT: Early in the book, you write, “Black women occupy a complex paradoxical relationship to America.” What do you mean by that?   

Berry: We’re hoping that that's reflective of the book cover. It is the United States flag, but it has stains on it. It's torn a little bit. It has blood and it has fluids on it — tears, maybe sweat. 

Black women's experience in the United States has been contentious. It's been challenging. It's been also rewarding. We've seen black women thrive and accomplish great things like receive Olympic gold medals, like Alice Coachman, or someone like Shirley Chisholm, who runs for president in 1972. 

One of the things that we wanted to talk about was to show the tension of this experience where there's triumph but there's also great, great tragedy.

KUT:  One theme that comes up in the book a lot is the idea of the treatment of black women's bodies: violence, rape, attacks, commodification. Can you talk a little bit about the book and the history from that vantage point?

Berry: That is the way many black women have encountered their experience in the United States, and I think because of the early history of slavery, of people feeling like they have ownership over black women's bodies, that ownership or that ideology, that mentality, carries over in the post-slavery era. It carries over in the Jim Crow era. It carries over in the early 20th century. And even when we look at contemporary America, even cases in McKinney, Texas, there's a young woman who was manhandled by a police officer at a pool party. We see a case of a young black woman who's getting pulled out of her chair in a South Carolina classroom. 

There's this sexual assault and physical abuse that black women have experienced. And I would say that it starts because so much of the foundation of the disrespect comes from our bodies. Our bodies were commodities to be bought, sold and traded for over 200 years in this history. And even then, people have disrespected the bodies beyond that time period.  

KUT: How did you choose who to research and profile and write about in the book?

Berry: We originally wanted to write a book that had names that maybe nobody knew. We had a manuscript workshop with a team of scholars. At that workshop, the scholars recommended: you have to give people a place to connect to. So, you can talk about Claudette Colvin and people who preceded Rosa Parks, but you need to let [readers] know that these are the women that boycotted the bus — the Montgomery bus boycott. They participated in that movement before Rosa Parks. People needed to know how to place them in history. 

We wanted to have stories that show the gamut of black women's history. We wanted to talk about artists, entertainers, athletes, politicians, everyday citizens. We wanted to talk about women that identified as being lesbian, women that identified as being transgender. So we were trying to cover a group of women that covered the full spectrum of African-American history. That was our goal.

KUT: Can you maybe choose one of the women that you all highlighted or wrote about that is not going to be a familiar name to most people, and tell us about her?

Berry: Isabel de Olvera was a woman of African and Indian descent. She was from Mexico, and in the late 1500s she went to the mayor of Querétaro, Mexico, and asked for a petition to go on an expedition to what is now contemporary New Mexico. 

She said that she felt people would be bothered by her because she was a mulatta and that she was of mixed race. But she said she was bound by neither marriage nor slavery. The fact that she wanted to go on this expedition and she was a free woman and she wanted to travel and see a new part of what becomes the United States later, to me, was fascinating. 

She ends her deposition by saying, “I demand justice.” And we thought, you know, black woman entered this country demanding justice, and we still see them demanding justice today.  

KUT: Listening to you talk about exploring archives that are difficult to find about black women throughout history and talking about the way that black women are treated throughout history, still being treated today — when I hear you talking about all of that, that to me sounds like a very different history than memorizing dates and people and usually wars and places. Do you see the academic discipline of history shifting?  

Berry:  I hope so. Both Dr. Gross and I were trained interdisciplinary, and we don't just rely on just the written records. She looks at reports. She's looking at registers. She's doing work in prisons. And I'm looking at archival records, but I'm also looking at archaeological records, I'm looking at art. And so we have stories about black women artists in here, Edmonia Lewis and Augusta Savage

For us, the history is not just this paper, this very static sort of flat piece of paper that that tells us somebody existed, or a war that just gives us the statistics about it and the dates. To me, history is stories, and it's about the way we interpret those stories. 

And so we wanted to write a book that was open ended, that had a lot of storytelling of women that readers could take away with that a different level of history and maybe a different understanding of American history.