- More History Than Myth:African American Women's History Since the Publication of Ar'n't I a Woman?
"History is supposed to give people a sense of identity, a feeling for who they are, and how far they have come. It should act as a springboard for the future. One hopes that it will do this for Black women, who have been given more myth than history."—Deborah Gray White1
At the time of its initial publication in 1985, Ar'n't I a Woman? was among a small, though significant, number of works focusing on the experiences of slave women in the United States.2 Calling critical attention to the world of female slaves, White interrogated stereotypes and historical inaccuracies about bondwomen by highlighting their experiences from childhood to adulthood. At the heart of White's study was the argument that life under bondage fostered an alternative definition of womanhood for African American women.3 Chattel slavery produced life conditions fundamentally separating White and African American women in the United States, prior to and after the Civil War. While White and Black women may have lived under a paternal, patriarchal structure, race-based experiences nonetheless divided them. As the first book focusing entirely on slave women, it is not surprising that Ar'n't I a Woman? continues to be one of the most important books ever produced on the subject.
In the two decades since the publication of Ar'n't I a Woman? the study of African American women's history has gained considerable prominence in the American historical canon. African American women's intellectual work, historical contributions, social circumstances, and political participation are noted in countless articles, manuscripts, and dissertations.4 Discussions of African American women's nearly four-hundred-year existence in what became the United States reach back into the colonial era and rush forward into the twenty-first century. Much of this turn in the literature owes a great intellectual debt to questions raised and synthesized in Ar'n't I a Woman?
Although White's work centered on slavery, the scholarly questions articulated by White continue to guide the writing of Black women's history in general. In particular, scholars focus their attention on three broad categories: the first being the long-standing debate on race and feminism; the second articulating the relationship between resistance, activism, and power; and the third centering on violence, sexuality, and the body. These topics respond to particular social and historical circumstances such as [End Page 161] slavery, emancipation, and welfare reform; however, they are not historically specific. Rather, they are salient currents in the dialogue between the myths surrounding African American women and their actual lived histories in the United States. Pervasive stereotypes about African American womanhood permeate social, political, and economic realities in the twenty-first century and inspire scholars to aggressively dismantle the notion that all Black women fit into one of three categories presented by White: the asexual mammy, the hot-tempered sapphire, and the wonton jezebel. In doing so, the canon of studies produced in the generations after Ar'n't I a Woman? highlights the multiplicity of African American women's identities in the United States.
Race and Feminism
Feminism(s), like the writing of Black women's history, is multilayered. Just as scholars realize that a taxonomy of differences based on class, educational attainment, and political orientation orders relationships between African American and White women, they also produce differences among Black women. Thus for historians of African American women, articulating the relationship between feminism and the writing of Black women's history is as challenging now as it was for White in 1985. White found that Black women came to their protofeminist consciousness through lived experiences in bondage. Slave women did not have access to such formal institutional frameworks as the church and educational settings. Rather they fashioned a distinct worldview that aided them as they negotiated their new lives after the Civil War. Thus while White women endured their own "race-determined sexism," writing African American women's history forces scholars to investigate how race determines their feminist consciousness.5
The African American community...