- Tending to the RootsAnna Julia Cooper’s Sociopolitical Thought and Activism
Black women activists participating in racial uplift projects during the nineteenth century troubled the boundaries of race, space, nation, and time, creating new cognitive mappings of community. They undermined traditional categories, transcending the limitations of liberalism and the narrowness of nationalism designed to deny African Americans rights and resources. Marginalized within black male collectivities due to their gender, and trivialized within white feminist groups on account of their race,1 many black women found it necessary to develop eclectic resistance strategies and unique forms of political alliance. Unable to ground themselves in any single preexisting community of resistance, they took on the difficult and demanding work of "courting communities," of calling collectivities into existence through diverse forms of subversive spiritual, political, and cultural work.
Anna Julia Cooper's visionary writings and activism exemplify this legacy of struggle by nineteenth-century black women. Part of a triad of women in a larger project in which I investigate the politics of gender within nationalist movements, Cooper intervened in nationalist discourse, responding creatively to the sexism that shaped dominant constructions of identity. Committed to the social labor that her antebellum predecessors Maria Stewart, Sojourner Truth, and others had begun, Cooper occupied a primary space in the postbellum public sphere. Seeking to transform [End Page 23] society by breathing life into biblical precepts, she framed her uplift activism in what contemporary readers would call black liberation theology. In an analysis of Cooper's Christian orientation, scholar Hazel V. Carby describes this theology as a "set of ideals which argued for equality not only for women but also for the poor, the weak, the starving, and the dispossessed" (1987, 98). Concerned about the welfare of not only black but also all peoples, Cooper strove to find common ground between African Americans and variously oppressed groups such as Asians and Native Americans. Attacking power structures, which sought to divide and antagonize these populations, Cooper laid the groundwork for coalitions, so that diverse groups might unite, thereby increasing their social, economic, and political power.
Cooper's courting of communities manifested in what I call syncre-nationalism: a form of community building that could conceivably operate both within and beyond the boundaries of the nation-state, which includes a dynamic set of social practices and floating alliances. A syncre-nation is the construct of an imagined community that operates primarily at the ideological, rather than the geographical or juridical, level. Syncre-nations may also function as experimental spaces where traditional cultural and social divisions are transgressed, where people from different races, genders, religions, and cultures find common ground. Syncre-nationalist practices, more broadly, may at the same time both embrace and evade nationalist discourse, undermine hierarchical social arrangements, and overturn restrictive binary configurations.
Cooper's writings resonate with the discourses of her black female contemporaries. Much like the activists in the black Baptist women's movement,2 Cooper offered biblical justification for the expansion of black women's rights. Her texts address issues such as racial discrimination, sexual exploitation, and gender discrimination, which also figure prominently in the speeches of clubwomen Fannie Barrier Williams and Frances Harper.3 Not alone in her public activism on behalf of her race and sex, Cooper was one of six black women who made plain the concerns of the black community before a predominantly white audience at the World's Congress of Representative Women in 1893.4 While her writings parallel those of her black women contemporaries, Cooper's distinctive work focuses not only on the intersections of race, gender, and class and the limitations of racist white suffrage organizations but it also interrogates the insidiousness of imperialist logic. [End Page 24]
In A Voice from the South, a collection of essays left unpublished until they were compiled for publication in 1892, Cooper shaped the parameters of late nineteenth-century black feminist thought.5 The first known "book-length feminist analysis of the condition of African Americans" (Guy-Sheftall 1995, 8), it is likely that the essays contained in this work helped to plant seeds of resistance that would flower in the writings and speeches of...