- Anna Julia Cooper, Visionary Black Feminist: A Critical Introduction
While most students of black feminist thought are aware of intellectual, activist, and educator Anna Julia Cooper's best-known work, A Voice from the South (1892), few know the extent of her other scholarly production, or the way that her complex and often radical thinking contributed to, and in some cases heavily influenced, debates within not only black feminism but also philosophy, history, and more broadly, political theory in the late nineteenth century and the early years of the twentieth. Indeed, in critical discussion and analysis of these debates, Cooper's contributions are often overlooked in favor of those from better-known, black male scholars such as W. E. B. Du Bois or C. L. R. James.
In Anna Julia Cooper, Visionary Black Feminist, Vivian May aims to rectify this persistent oversight by introducing old and new readers alike to Cooper's radical vision, not just in A Voice from the South but also across her varied body of scholarship: Cooper's "dissertation, letters, pamphlets, and speeches" (3), as well as her lifelong work as an educator and activist. Identifying what she sees as a core theme in Cooper's theory and praxis—"the premise that oppressed peoples are agents both of knowledge and history, even if their agency, resistance, and alternative ways of knowing have been suppressed or denied by the powerful" (3)—May produces a detailed critical analysis of Cooper's oeuvre that should prove vital to interested academic readers across disciplines.
While May does begin with a chapter on Anna Julia Cooper's life, she is open about her reluctance to do so, citing the all-too-common critical tendency in studies of prominent African American women intellectuals to prioritize biographical details over "serious assessment of and engagement with … theoretical claims" (37). Wary of transforming Cooper's intellectual legacy as a black woman scholar into merely a "spectacle of flesh," May concludes this first chapter with an interrogation of the biographical imperative itself, but ultimately suggests that Cooper's own investment in a "socially located, embodied, and historicized model of knowing" (43) makes the inclusion of biographical information on Cooper a necessary part of the sustained consideration of her ideas. May's analysis here provides a useful context for readers who might otherwise enter this volume uncritically preoccupied with Cooper as a "cultural icon," to use Michele Wallace's terminology, rather than as a thinker and knowledge-producer with her own critical voice.
May's subsequent chapters attempt to elucidate this voice, with varying success. She devotes chapter two, one of the longest and most engaging sections in the volume, to a discussion of Cooper's status as a public intellectual and activist, particularly in her work as an educator at both Washington, D.C.'s M Street High School and at Frelinghuysen University, a school of higher education "whose mission was to serve adult, working African Americans" (35). Apart from this chapter, May's fourth chapter is possibly the most concrete of the volume in that it focuses solely on Cooper's 1925 doctoral dissertation, L'Attitude de la France a l'egard de l'esclavage pendant la Revolution [France's Attitude toward Slavery during the Revolution]. Here, May points out the ways that Cooper's cogent analysis and critique of French society during the revolutionary era depends on the notion of an "equilibrium of differences" (139) rather than the [End Page 175] hierarchical "rank order of cultures or nations" (118) naturalized during the period. Cooper's ideas shine through May's discussion here, not least because May frequently refers to and quotes directly from Cooper's analysis in the doctoral thesis.
By contrast, May's third and fifth chapters consider Cooper's larger body of work from varying critical standpoints: chapter three addresses Cooper's methodology and rhetoric, noting in particular the way that Cooper worked, across her oeuvre, to explode artificial binaries and consider ideas from a "both/and" rather than "either/or" standpoint, while chapter five underscores Cooper...