On Friday, March 6th, I had the pleasure of interviewing two prolific scholars in the field, Drs. Daina Ramey Berry and Kali Nicole Gross on their most recent coauthored book, A Black Women’s History of the United States(Beacon Press, 2020). As a history graduate student, I am always thinking about the gaps in the literature including the underexplored topics, so when I asked Drs. Berry and Gross if their work was picking up on themes that they thought were missing from the previous generation of historians, their response problematized my original question. Instead of approaching the field of Black Women’s History through the lens of critique, they informed me that they were interested in showcasing how the scholarship has evolved over the last two decades. It was not that pioneering historians like Paula Giddings, Deborah Gray White, Darlene Clark Hine, Sharon Harley, and Evelyn Brooks Higginbotham lacked analytical substance. Rather, the newer generation of scholars are asking different questions and developing innovative methods to recover black women’s voices in archives bent on erasing us. Drs. Berry and Gross remind us that we stand on the shoulders of black women historians who labored before us, and as we expand the field, it is necessary to acknowledge and cite their foundational works. A Black Women’s History of the United States traces our history in the Americas from before slavery to our central role as the backbone of contemporary movements against persisting injustices.
In writing such an expansive survey of Black women’s history, Drs. Berry and Gross discussed the process of collaborative work. They highlighted the manuscript workshop with their “Sister Scholars” in the field, and how it was through consulting with other black women historians that they received feedback and suggestions on themes and approaches for the book. For example, from the Sister Scholars workshop, Drs. Berry and Gross got the idea to start each chapter with a narrative of a black woman’s experience to correspond with a new periodization. In these anecdotes, we learn about figures that disrupts traditional histories of the U.S. like Isabel de Olvera, a free woman of African descent, who migrated to the U.S. before 1619. And even others, such as Aurelia Shines, a black woman who challenged Jim Crow’s segregation laws by refusing to give up her seat in 1948, seven years before the infamous Rosa Park’s protest in Montgomery. While their work foregrounds the ways black women navigated the double oppression of race and gender, Drs. Berry and Gross’ analysis refuses to place our history as purely oppositional or only existing to combat white supremacy. Instead, A Black Women’s History of the United States accounts for both black women’s resistance and liberation struggles, and their leisure activities through travel, art, and the erotic.
Drs. Berry and Gross helps us rethink black women’s intellectual labor as a collective, which reframes our professional pursuits. As we move in a space like the academy that is designed to monopolize and capitalize on our movement and labor, Drs. Berry and Gross reminds us of the important role community play in surviving and confronting such exploitation. It is in the collective that we liberate ourselves from the individualistic, “clout-chasing,” performative aspects of academia. This collectivity prompts us to continue organizing conferences, workshopping our research, and building professional and mentorship relationships. I am grateful for the opportunity to have had a conversation with Drs. Berry and Gross about their new book, and I am sure this text will ignite a new generation of scholars to continue to do the work.
Tiana Wilson is a third-year doctoral student in the Department of History with a portfolio in Women and Gender Studies, here at UT-Austin. Her broader research interests include: Black Women’s Internationalism, Black Women’s Intellectual History, Women of Color Organizing, and Third World Feminism. More specifically, her dissertation explores women of color feminist movements in the U.S. from the 1960s to the present. At UT, she is the Graduate Research Assistant for the Institute for Historical Studies, coordinator of the New Work in Progress Series, and a research fellow for the Center for the Study of Race and Democracy. Check out Tiana Wilson's interview with Profs. Daina Ramey Berry and Kali Nicole Gross for the Cite Black Women Podcast.