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Reviewed by:
  • Toward an Intellectual History of Black Women ed. by Mia Bay, Farah J. Griffin, Martha S. Jones, and Barbara D. Savage
  • Vivian M. May
Toward an Intellectual History of Black Women. Edited by Mia Bay, Farah J. Griffin, Martha S. Jones, and Barbara D. Savage. John Hope Franklin Series in African American History and Culture. ( Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2015. Pp. xii, 308. Paper, $27.95, ISBN 978-1-4696-2091-6.)

Toward an Intellectual History of Black Women offers a compelling exploration of black women’s diverse intellectual labors and contributions. The volume is organized into four chronological sections that span the period from Phillis Wheatley’s writings to the present day; the collection’s focus lies within and beyond the United States, and it draws on numerous academic traditions. This border-crossing impetus shapes the collection’s content and foci as well as its methods. It is historical in scope and interdisciplinary in approach, stretching the terms of what counts as history, who counts as a knower, and what constitutes an adequate historiographical method or source. Because the volume approaches intellectual history from beyond the usual bounds, it was a bit surprising to find no reference to some foundational interdisciplinary volumes documenting black women’s ideas, such as Beverly Guy-Sheftall’s edited collection Words of Fire: An Anthology of African-American Feminist Thought (New York, 1995) and Ann Allen Shockley’s Afro-American Women Writers, 1746–1933: An Anthology and Critical Guide (Boston, 1988). Nevertheless, the volume’s interdisciplinary reach adds many new insights to the extant literatures focused on tracing and analyzing black women’s distinctive intellectual traditions.

The authors illustrate that bringing together seemingly disparate sources is necessary to illuminate this rich history, given the partial and often fragmented [End Page 743] nature of the historical archive vis-à-vis black women’s lives. The contributors explore diverse genres of knowing across time, place, and circumstance, including novels, poetry, prose, spiritual autobiographies, letters, journalism, church registers, cloth, colonial archives, mission reports, church newsletters, trial records, public depositions, diaries, social media, speeches, the blogosphere, and various forms of activism, organizing, and protest. Many contributors also examine sites of reluctance, backlash, withholding, silence, and self-censure, underscoring that the expressive nature of the unsaid, the erased, and the untellable is in and of itself a pivotal means for tracing genealogies of black women’s intellectual history, in terms of both epistemic and historical politics.

Given my own work on Anna Julia Cooper, an early black feminist scholar, educator, and activist, I was drawn to the essays that highlighted black women’s strategies for pivoting dominant frames of knowing (though, for full disclosure, I had hoped to find some engagement with Cooper’s 1925 Sorbonne dissertation on the Haitian and French revolutions, which anticipated black Atlantic studies and predated W. E. B. Du Bois’s and C. L. R. James’s works on the subject). For instance, Arlette Frund argues that Phillis Wheatley anticipated Olaudah Equiano’s narrative approach and astutely turned U.S. paradigms of oppression on their head, so that “enslaved Black Americans” were presented instead as “the chosen people” (p. 43). As another example, Corinne T. Field traces Frances E. W. Harper’s innovative historiographical methods, which looked far beyond the usual academic bounds of knowledge to place everyday knowers and ways of knowing at the center of her work. Sherie M. Randolph shows how Florynce Kennedy used public depositions with women as expert witnesses to put “the state on trial” when it came to legalizing abortion (p. 238).

I found the numerous essays focused on literary figures equally compelling. The volume issues a persuasive call for fictional and literary writings to be understood as key historical sources for thinking more meaningfully about disenfranchised and silenced communities of knowers who have crafted alternative archives of memory and sites of knowing in different spaces and genres. Furthermore, in making the move from a “descriptive” to an “intellectual” history, as Judith A. Byfield puts it in her essay on Funmilayo Ransome-Kuti, this volume highlights how theorizing, resistance, and experience are intricately intertwined (p. 198).

The collection’s authors analyze the diverse ways...


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