A Womanist Reading of “Service: Panel 8—Dr. King and Ralph Abernathy” or “Anna Julia Cooper and Willa Player”

"Service," by Colin Quashie
On July 26, a mural named SERVICE was dedicated at UNC’s School of Government in the Knapp-Sanders Building. The mural depicts a gathering of African-American leaders at the counter of a diner, painted by Colin Quashie as a creative interpretation of the historical 1960 Greensboro, North Carolina sit-in. We are featuring each of the eight panels in a series, highlighting some of the people represented. You can read all the posts in the series archive.

As we look at panel 8 today, we welcome the comments of folklorist Michelle Lanier, who has guest blogged here before.

Upon first seeing, “Service,” I viewed the mural backwards, and began with “Panel 8.”  I was stopped by the layered sight of Anna Julia Cooper (more on the early black feminist below) leaning collegially over the shoulder of our beloved and dearly missed Dr. John Hope Franklin. (Among much of Franklin’s trailblazing scholarship, The Free Negro in North Carolina prophetically led the way for the “Behind the Veneer” exhibit at the North Carolina Museum of History, which features the artistry of antebellum-era free artisan of color Thomas Day. I also saw the calm confidence of Franklin McCain, of “the Greensboro Four,” and Reverends Martin Luther King Jr. and Ralph David Abernathy, who appear through the glass window of the Greensboro Woolworth’s, circa 1960.

All this occurs just reaching distance from Harriet Jacobs and just greeting distance from Pauli Murray.

Something else happened when I first saw “Service.” I actually wept, and felt compelled to sit down.  In this sojourn of a painted memory, Colin Quashie had captured a fairly accurate slice of the litany I carry and sing out, as often as I can.  Sometimes, I dream of these faces and lives!  I suppose we all, in the visible manifestation of intimately held dreams, are compelled to sit in awe of it all.

Through this gaze of, dare I write, gratitude and relief/release, I also could hear another litany singing out—one of exploration and contextualization.  I heard, and still hear, a womanist call to celebrate the African American women featured and hidden in plain sight, in this experience, that is “Service.” Annie Holland, Ella Baker, Elreta Melton Alexander-Ralston, Charlotte Hawkins Brown, Pauli Murray, Harriet Jacobs, an Anonymous Slave Woman, and Anna Julia Cooper all sit, study, stand, and look out in ways that challenge the viewer and the student of memory.  The presence of these women, both in real time and in memoriam, expands our understanding of leadership and defines, with their very lives, the intertwined strands of intellectual hunger and the hunger for human rights.

Anna Julia Cooper, the last woman, in the sisterhood of civil rights and educational activism, to be featured in “Service,” has been of particular import to me of late. I have joined the ranks of women, men, and children—black and white—to apply for a North Carolina State Highway Historical Marker, in honor of Cooper.  The application was successfully received and the Anna Julia Cooper marker will be unveiled in Raleigh on March 19, 2011.

Where do I begin explaining what this woman’s life means to me, a black woman, with deep Carolina roots, a fellow folklorist and descendant of slaves?  Anna Julia Cooper’s life reads like a miracle unfolding.  One title, of a book written in her memory, almost captures the untenable expanses of her earthly journey—From Slavery to the Sorbonne and Beyond: The Life and Writings of Anna J. Cooper, by Leona C. Gabel.  More recently published is the extraordinarily well-written Anna Julia Cooper, Visionary Black Feminist, by Dr. Vivian May.

Cooper was a prodigious educator and outspoken feminist from childhood, a grassroots organizer and scholar of the classics, an author, orator, caregiver, academic administrator, a linguist, mathematician, and, again, a folklorist—yet born into slavery to an enslaved woman in the South, in the midst of the violent rebirth of our country.

Her grave rests in the National Landmark, Raleigh City Cemetery.  The stained glass image of St. Simon of Cyrene, which she commissioned in honor of her late husband, adds color, light, and a call to service, at St. Augustine’s chapel on the Raleigh campus.  And her words, in French and English, have enlightened countless across the nations.

I was recently reminded of Cooper when I saw the Black Heritage U.S. Postal Service stamp that featured the early feminist (issued in June of 2009). I remembered from my Spelman days, hearing the college president at that time, Dr. Johnnetta B. Cole, introduce Dr. Beverly Guy-Sheftall as the “Anna Julia Cooper Professor of Women’s Studies,” and recalled reading excerpts from Paula Giddings’s When and Where I Enter, which borrows its title from Cooper’s A Voice from the South by a Black Woman of the South (1892). I did not realize then what this woman would mean to me now, as I too seek “when and where I enter,” and as I too seek the confluences of inclusivity as both activist and scholar.

At the 1893 Chicago World Columbian Exposition, Cooper declared: “Not till the universal title of humanity to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness is conceded to be inalienable to all; not till then is woman’s lesson taught and woman’s cause won—not the white woman’s, nor the black woman’s, not the red woman’s, but the cause of every man and of every woman who has writhed silently under a mighty wrong.”

Cooper must have known, and in fact called for, the many others who would rise up in this same spirit of intellectual and spiritual bravery—as did the uprising spirit of Dr. Willa Player, who, like the women of Freedom Hill, Somerset Place, and Black Wall Street, stands hidden in plain sight, within this artistic site of memory that is “Service.”

When you see the pensive face of Martin Luther King Jr., in panel eight, what you do not see, but may recall, is that Dr. Willa Player, then president of Bennett College for Women—in fact the first black woman to serve as president of any four-year college—had hosted King at Bennett College when all other institutions in Greensboro were afraid to do so.  This occurred just two years prior to the sit-ins, which, from the start, included the non-violent activism of Bennett “Belles.”

In Dr. Julianne Malveaux’s 2008 inaugural address to the women of Bennett College, she openly recalled, “Dr. Player brought Martin Luther King to Greensboro to speak on the Bennett campus when no one else would. . . . Dr. Player spoke truth to power, not with a raised fist but with a gloved hand. Yet she supported her students when they fought for civil rights, and asserted that she would, if she had to, give final exams in jail.”

Willa Player biographer and author Dr. Linda B. Brown wrote of Bennett during the Willa Player era, in the Spring 2010 edition of the alumnae publication, The Belle Ringer: “It was truly a time when transformational leaders were created on the campus. Our entire history reminds us that our tradition of social activism was not built on abstract ideas but on a lived-out practice, throughout the years.”

As we continue to revisit visual sites of memory, such as those presented in Leigh Raiford’s Imprisoned in a Luminous Glare, may we always consider the lives of those, like Dr. John Hope Franklin, Franklin McCain, and Dr. Anna Julia Cooper. Let us also persevere to see those, like Dr. Willa Player, who have been “transformational leaders,” hidden in plain sight.

Michelle Lanier is the Acting Director of the North Carolina African American Heritage Commission.