Black Women Need The Power of History to Fuel the Future
History has its own power, and Black women, more than ever before, need its truths to challenge hateful assumptions, negative stereotypes, myths, lies, and distortions about our own role in the progress of time. Black women need to know the contradictions and ironies that our unique status presents to a country founded on the proposition that all men are created equal and endowed with the inalienable rights of life, liberty, and opportunity to pursue happiness. Yet it is not enough to only know about the injustices and exploitation Black woman endured. We also owe it to ourselves to experience the thrill of knowing about the heroism of Harriet Tubman, share in the pride of Madame C. J. Walker’s business acumen, and delight in the tremendous creative artistry of a pantheon of Black women writers, performers, and thinkers. As we garner the inspiration contained in the past and present Black women’s lives, we acquire the power to take history further and the will to use the power of history to construct a better future.
The transformation and culmination of my work on Black women is witnessed in my two collaborative projects with Ralph Carlson, president of Carlson Publishing. By the time Carlson contacted me in 1987, I had left Purdue University to become the John A. Hannah Professor of History at Michigan State University. Carlson invited me to be the editor of a series of essay collections in Black women’s history. My first response was ambivalence. I knew a series of such books would greatly facilitate future research on Black women’s history. I doubted, however, that more than 50 first-rate articles existed. To my surprise and delight, we located close to 250 articles — an impressive testament to the volume and quality of work completed in the past decade.
At this juncture it would be easy to conclude that Black women’s history is alive and flourishing and that our goals have been achieved. While much has been accomplished in a remarkably short period, troubling and tiresome problems remain. It is especially irritating these days to read any scholarly rationalization as to why Black women’s history is not addressed in women’s history or in African American history books and courses. Some White women historians insist that they do not know how to deal with questions of race. Likewise, some African American male historians persist in avoiding gender issues and the intersections of gender constructions with those of race and class. In most general U.S. history survey texts, Black women are never mentioned or at best relegated to marginal roles in history. In popular culture, negative and demeaning stereotypes of Black women abound. In political discourse, Black women are all too often villainized as the ubiquitous welfare queens or mothers of illegitimate, impoverished, and delinquent children. Daily bombardment of negative images, too little hope combined with too many barriers to enumerate, adversely affects the self-esteem of young Black girls. Too often, their caretakers are equally vulnerable to relentless assaults on their dignity as human beings, leaving few internal and external resources to do battle with multidimensional oppression.
What Black women really need today is power. Although there are many kinds of power, I have learned in the past decade of working with and listening to thousands of Black women from all walks of life that special kinds of power exist in our history.
— Dr. Darlene Clark Hine, editor of Black Women in America:
An Historical Encyclopedia, and John A. Hannah
Professor of History at Michigan State University.
The preceding was excerpted with permission from the preface of Black Women in America: An Historical Encyclopedia, Darlene Clark Hine, Elsa Barkley Brown, and Rosalyn Terborg-Penn, editors, Indiana University Press, 1994.
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