This week the African American Intellectual History Society (AAIHS) hosted a six-day roundtable on Toward an Intellectual History of Black Women, the new volume edited by Mia Bay, Farah J.Griffin, Martha S. Jones, and Barbara D. Savage. Over on the AAIHS website, editors Jones and Savage respond to the conversation.
No question posed here spoke to me more than that asked by Kientz Anderson in her Introduction to this roundtable: “Who are intellectuals?” This question was that which guided our work from the outset. I hope it isn’t revealing too much to say that, in one important sense, crafting a response was not very difficult. Yes, we searched, probed, rethought, and reimagined women of the past as thinkers and producers of ideas. Of course we stretched understandings of genre, and overthrew conventions of sites for and means of production. We looked hard to find black women and their ideas in new and unexpected places. It was work. But it was also easy in that the women about whom we wrote had always been there, waiting for us to hold them up to the light. They were intellectuals even before we set out to write their histories, of that I am certain.
There is, however, another version of Kientz Anderson’s question and it is: “Are we intellectuals?” What happens, I’d like to consider, when we hold up the mirror and ask whether the editors and contributors to Toward an Intellectual History of Black Women are themselves intellectuals? Are we the sorts of producers of ideas that warrant such an esteemed and carefully guarded designation? I’ll pause here to shift voice; I speak only for myself when I say “I’m not certain.” The question led me to make a self-assessment. It turns out that intellectual is a label I cannot don easily. I may term myself academic, professor, historian, or scholar, even doctor in some settings. But intellectual is something I cannot quite call myself. It is awkward, ill-fitting, and when the words pass over my lips—“I am an intellectual”—I immediately feel I am over-reaching.
I was raised to be a doer. It is a quality I likely share with many of the women chronicled in Toward an Intellectual History of Black Women. As a girl, I won the most praise for what I could do, rather than for my ideas. My training as a lawyer put no premium on the production of new thought; my job was to win cases. In my family there were academics—people with university professorships and even one presidency. But even their work emphasized doing. They were clinicians of business, law and medicine, or administrators. I admired them tremendously, but over time my ambition became distinct. My Uncle Frank, himself holder of a chair at MIT, eyed me curiously one day when I talked about becoming an academic historian. He wondered if I wasn’t setting out for uncharted territory. In our family, we were doers after all.
My Uncle had put his finger on something. I was headed somewhere new and signs suggested it was a world of ideas. Then—it was the early 1990s—I saw that place as an intellectual realm filled with men of advanced training, robust C.V.’s, and a gift for public speaking. I was attached to such a circle: Young, black thinkers jockeying around Cornel West, who was just then coming into his own. Most traveled by way of divinity schools or Ph.D. programs, proclaiming to be intellectuals of a direct line that traced back to Frederick Douglass and W.E.B. Du Bois. I eventually grew tired of listening. I, too, had things to say. So, I gave up my law practice for Ph.D. study, already confident I could think, speak, and write. Was I becoming an intellectual? The thought never crossed my mind.
Graduate school opened me up. There was a 19th century world of black women doers and thinkers to be studied. I was guided by a virtual circle of sister scholars who were my companions during a journey that was otherwise paved with little instruction about black women’s history. Elsa Barkley Brown, Hazel Carby, Sharon Harley, Evelyn Brooks Higginbotham, Darlene Clark Hine, Carla Petersen, Rosalyn Terborg-Penn, and Deborah White were among those whose work made sure I knew that there was more to the history of ideas than any canon might reveal. By the time I took the late Manning Marable’s seminar on black intellectual history, I was armed. He took it in stride when I argued that bell hooks alone, formidable though she is, did not do justice to black women’s intellectual history. Confronting Manning, I had thrown down a gauntlet. It was a challenge to myself that finally, years later, Toward an Intellectual History of Black Women has met.
Read Jones’ full post, “We Are the Intellectuals,” at AAIHS.org.
It is very exciting to imagine, as [Hettie V. Williams] suggests, also engaging ideas by black women in the social sciences and the natural sciences, and, I would add, specifically their ideas about race, science, medicine, gender, and sexuality. Not only are black women important thinkers and scholars in these fields, but, with varying consequences, black women also have been the “subjects” of so much social science research, for better or for worse (think of work on black families, as an example). So, YES PLEASE, to expanding the sites, topics, disciplines, methods, and sources.
As someone also concerned about religion and its importance to many black women, I have argued elsewhere for the importance of attention to black religious intellectuals in all their iterations. One example from the book is Alexandria Cornelius’ essay on Amelia Johnson’s “Christian intellectual thought,” which brings the two realms together in an examination of Johnson’s ideas about race and racial progress.
How exciting it would be to identify religiously inflected ideas held by black women on a variety of topics, including health, reproduction, and contraception. How would those ideas be reflected in questions of racial leadership and gender relations in black institutions, including churches and colleges, or in recurring debates about race genocide or marriage, to cite but a few possibilities.
Perhaps in bringing together Williams’ well-placed plea for attention to the social and natural sciences and her interest in religious ideas, one could imagine fascinating new work in race and environmental history, or on notions of delinquency, crime, and punishment and their public policy implications.
Our work is but a first step “toward” creating black women’s intellectual history. Our hope always was that others will carry the work forward in realms that are most important to them and in ways that we simply could not do as literary scholars and historians and within the limits of one project, one book.
Read Savage’s full post, “Roundtable on Black Women’s Intellectual History Day 5: Barbara Savage Responds,” at AAIHS.org.
Martha S. Jones is Arthur F. Thurnau Professor at the University of Michigan. Follow her on Twitter @marthasjonesum.
Barbara D. Savage is Geraldine R. Segal Professor of American Social Thought and Africana Studies at the University of Pennsylvania. Follow her on Twitter @bdsavage1.
Toward an Intellectual History of Black Women, edited by Mia E. Bay, Farah J. Griffin, Martha S. Jones, and Barbara D. Savage, is now available. For more information, check out the book’s facebook page.