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  • Writing the Self into Being:Anna Julia Cooper's Textual Politics
  • Vivian M. May (bio)

Born into slavery in Raleigh, North Carolina in 1858, Anna Julia Cooper was an internationally known African American feminist educator, activist and intellectual. Most scholars familiar with Cooper know her 1892 A Voice from the South by a Black Woman of the South, the first book-length volume of black feminist analysis in the U. S. (Guy-Sheftall 19), but fewer know much about her 1925 Sorbonne dissertation, France's Attitudes toward Slavery during the Revolution, which she completed at age sixty-seven while working full time as a teacher in Washington, D. C. Cooper's international work is often left out of histories of transnational race consciousness, though she was the first black woman to earn a Ph.D. at the Sorbonne, and in 1900 was one of two African American women to speak before the first Pan-African Congress in London. As Brent Hayes Edwards and T. Denean Sharpley-Whiting both argue, women's contributions to this "new internationalism" in the interwar years, an approach that expanded upon earlier Pan-Africanist frameworks (Edwards 2-4), remain relatively unacknowledged. Black women in Paris were key to the emergence of Négritude (122), but their role continues to be obscured by a "masculine genealogy of … critical [race] consciousness" (Sharpley-Whiting 12). Acknowledgment of Cooper's Sorbonne dissertation is also missing from most genealogies of feminist thought. While A Voice from the South is sometimes referenced in feminist discourse, Cooper's later major work analyzing the transatlantic politics of revolution and race is rarely cited. Paradoxically, the very sorts of one-dimensional perspectives on women's reality and on African American life that Cooper sought to eradicate in her own time continue to have their impact on Cooper studies today.

Cooper's total oeuvre must be more fully recognized in our contemporary understandings of the origins and histories of critical consciousness and theorizing, for across her body of work she exposes how power conspires to erase dissent, silence the marginalized, and render alternative views unthinkable. At the same time that she questions and critiques dominant paradigms, Cooper offers alternative ways to think about history, power, and liberation. Equally significant is the fact that Cooper uses a wide range of narrative strategies to carve out textual, intellectual, and political space for both her person and her ideas: on the page, she crafts a critically engaged, witty, and socially aware black feminist self. Of course, she is not alone in seeking to create room for intellectual and political freedom via writing and speeches. As Frances Smith Foster has illustrated, for instance, many other "African American women continued to experiment with the literary techniques that would most effectively help them to bear witness" (5), including Ida B. Wells, Frances Harper, Charlotte Forten Grimké, and Mary Church Terrell. In the tradition of these and other African American women writers, Cooper's texts are double-voiced in part because she had to craft a world different than the one in which she worked as a teacher, activist, and scholar.1

In other words, even if Cooper's writing appears to be comprised mostly of "broken utterances," as she modestly claims (Voice ii), I would argue that it constitutes a contestatory form of speaking up that both shatters and departs from dominant discourse. In addition, in using a multi-pronged narrative approach marked by both movement and multivocality, Cooper seeks to incite in her readers a desire for social [End Page 17] change and personal transformation. Thus my argument about the politics of her writing and the nature of her textually crafted self is threefold. First, I suggest that Cooper traverses established categories of both genre and discipline as a means of refusing to be hemmed in by exclusionary norms of writing, knowing and speaking. Second, I contend Cooper brings to the page a multifaceted narrative self that is socially and politically located: she writes overtly as a black feminist intellectual. Third, I maintain that Cooper, ever the educator, issues a call for radical social change and encourages readers to shift toward an intersectional world-view. By modeling the changing self, generating...


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