Academic journal article Southern Quarterly

"By a Black Woman of the South": Race, Place, and Gender in the Work of Anna Julia Cooper

Academic journal article Southern Quarterly

"By a Black Woman of the South": Race, Place, and Gender in the Work of Anna Julia Cooper

Article excerpt

Introduction: A Politics of Location

Across her life's work as a writer, educator, and activist, early African American feminist Anna Julia Cooper (1858-1964)' asserted the simultaneous and interlocking nature of her identities as a black female Southerner. Cooper's conception of the fundamentally interwoven quality of the political implications and the lived meanings of race, gender, and region is perhaps most readily apparent in the full title of her 1892 volume, A Voice from the South by a Black Woman of the South: right from the title page, she marks out her multifaceted rhetorical, theoretical, and experiential positions.2 She reiterates her locatedness on the third page of her preface. Using capitalization to emphasize the value of her identities with regard to her analysis of the nation's 'woman question' and 'race problem,' Cooper remarks that if her words "can in any way help to a clearer vision and a truer pulse-beat in studying our Nation's Problem, this Voice by a Black Woman of the South will not have been raised in vain."3 Likewise, in her 1893 speech before the Congress of Representative Women at the Columbian (Chicago) World's Fair, Cooper reminds her authence, "I speak for the colored women of the South because it is there that the millions of blacks in this country have watered the soil with blood and tears, and it is there too that the colored woman of America has made her characteristic history, and there her destiny is evolving."4

Instead of conceiving of race, gender, and region as separable or even as sequential identity markers, and rather than place them in rank order (and thereby posit one as primary over the others), Cooper insists on a more nuanced and complex political and theoretical standpoint that is fundamentally matric or intersectional. Moreover, she asserts that the lived experience of marginality lends access to knowledge not readily available to those positioned at a culture's center. That she does so is a somewhat dicey rhetorical move because she claims three marginalized positionalities (that when taken in concert might be considered even less authoritative than each in isolation). Yet Cooper rejects the notion that acknowledging one's location as a writer or social critic is a negative. Putting her readers on notice, she writes, "may I hope that the writer's oneness with her subject both in feeling and in being may palliate undue obtrusiveness of opinions here."5

Cooper repeatedly asserts her right to speak and maintains that her lived experience adds nuance and value to her claims: "The colored woman of to-day occupies ... a unique position in this country ... She is confronted by both a woman question and a race problem, and is as yet an unknown or an unacknowledged factor in both."6 Refusing to equate marginality with an all-encompassing victimization, Cooper speaks from a space of resistance and points to what today would be recognized as a standpoint of an "outsider within."7 Moreover, she daringly marks her work as embodied: rather than posit an ostensibly "universal" writing body or speaking voice, she insists on the value of knowledge gained by lived experience and writes "her body into the text."8

Such insistence on having all aspects of her personhood recognized, however, can lead Cooper into an ontological and philosophical dead end or "perplexing cul de sac" as she called it.9 For instance, she recalls wondering whether she should head toward the "Colored" waiting room or the "Ladies" waiting room at an unspecified southern train station.10 During the Christmas holidays of 1892, when she returned home from Washington, D.C. to her family in Raleigh, N.C. after the publication of A Voice from the South, Cooper was herself evicted from the "Ladies" waiting room." In other words, this resolution to recognize multiple identities as simultaneous does not go unnoticed. In fact, it can often get Cooper and other black women into trouble in the white public sphere, particularly in the South, where, she remarks, they are frequently treated more as "whipped" dogs than as human beings. …

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