Black Feminist Studies: The Case of Anna Julia Cooper

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Anna Julia Cooper--feminist, human tights advocate, educational reformer ... teacher, lecturer, scholar, the author of essays, vignettes, and poems.--Louise Daniel Hutchinson, 1981

Black feminist studies, which emerged in the 1970s as a corrective to both black studies and women's studies, probes the silences, erasures, distortions, and complexities surrounding the experiences of peoples of African descent wherever they live. The early scholarship was comparable to the painstaking excavation projects of an archaeologist digging for hidden treasures. A small group of mainly black feminist scholars have been responsible for reconstructing the androcentric African American literary tradition by establishing the importance of black women's literature going back to the nineteenth century. In this regard, the early work of Mary Helen Washington and Barbara Christian comes to mind--as well as that of Alice Walker who is responsible for rescuing Zora Neale Hurston from the shadows and possibly from oblivion. (1) When Roseann P. Bell, Bettye J. Parker, and I published Sturdy Black Bridges: Visions of Black Women in Literature, it was the first anthology of black women's literature, and would signal the importance of reclamation projects in the development of a case for a robust black women's intellectual tradition. When Words of Fire An Anthology of African American Feminist Thought was published, the maturity of black feminist studies, as well as recognition of the significance of founding texts in the evolving field, could be claimed.

In this historic symposium on Anna Julia Cooper (1858-1964), it is appropriate to begin with an assessment of the scholarly criticism about her life and legacy. Beginning with the reception she received from her peers, to the rediscovery of her seminal 1892 text A Voice from the South: By a Black Woman of the South by contemporary black feminist scholars, this essay chronicles significant junctures in Cooper criticism. (2) It also calls attention to the silences and gaps in the scholarship on Cooper while simultaneously bearing witness to her significance in the development of black feminist discourse and its theory-building around intersectionality.

The publication of Gerda Lerner's documentary history Black Women in White America (1972), a foundational text in the development of black women's history, situates Cooper, for the first time, among a small group of nineteenth-century black feminist leaders that included Maria Stewart, Sojourner Truth, Fannie Barrier Williams, and Mary Church Terrell. In her final section, "Black Women Speak of Womanhood," Lerner includes a very brief excerpt from Anna Julia Cooper's A Voice from the South in which there is the now-famous quote about the peculiar and special burdens of black women: "The Colored Woman of to-day occupies, one may say, a unique position in this country. In a period of itself transitional and unsettled, her status seems one of the least ascertainable and definitive of all the forces which make for our civilization. She is confronted by both a woman question and a race problem, and is as yet an unknown or an unacknowledged factor in both" (Cooper qtd. in Lerner 572-73).

Six years later, the first collection of scholarly essays on the neglected history of African American women would make an important contribution to our understanding of the importance of black women's history as a corrective to American, African American, and women's movement historiography. The Afro-American Woman: Struggles and Images (1978), edited by two pioneering black women historians, Sharon Harley and Rosalyn Terborg-Penn, includes the first assessment of Cooper's importance in an essay entitled "Anna J. Cooper: A Voice for Black Women." Here Harley chronicles the important details of her life as a women's rights and human rights crusader and educator, her role in the black women's club movement, her struggles with both racism and sexism, as well as her personal crises within Washington, D. …