Criticism and the Color Line: Desegregating American Literary Studies

By Henry B. Wonham | Go to book overview

The Master's Tools Revisited: Foundation Work in Anna Julia Cooper

Black women at the World's Columbian Exposition in 1893 neatly divided themselves into two categories--marginalized insiders standing within the Fairgrounds and clear-cut outsiders. Inside, speaking in the building that housed the Haitian exhibition, was a small group of women, including the Washington, D.C., teacher and writer, Anna Julia Cooper. Hers was a quick five-minute delivery, calling on women to "take our stand on the solidarity of humanity, the oneness of life." Standing outside the gate, distributing pamphlets about women's marginalization at the Fair, stood the anti-lynching crusader Ida B. Wells. Wells delivered a protest much more direct than Cooper's. She called her pamphlet "a clear, plain statement of facts concerning the oppression put upon the colored people in this land of the free and home of the brave."1 Her fiery work began with a history of slavery and included graphic descriptions of lynching in the United States. Common sense might suggest that Wells and those standing with her outside the Fair's walls were the radicals, those fighting for the most dramatic changes for women.

Likewise, the scholars who have recovered Cooper's work from obscurity often group her in the camp demanding less radical change. Hazel V. Carby and Mary Helen Washington help us understand Cooper's analysis of "patriarchy" and "imperialism" in her 1892 book of essays A Voice From the South.2 But Washington finds Cooper too much the insider. "I must confess to a certain uneasiness about Cooper's tone in these essays, a feeling that while she speaks for ordinary black women, she rarely, if ever, speaks to them," says Washington.3 Cooper adopts a high tone and instead of addressing black women's hand-to- mouth existence, she writes about education and Women's Clubs. Washington adds: "Her voice is not radical."4

Surely, bread and butter issues seized the minds of black women then. But asking whether Cooper speaks to or for black women, or speaks from inside or outside, doesn't lead us to Cooper's most important contribution. By design, Cooper did not unleash a fusillade of facts as Wells did, for she believed the facts would fall on deaf ears. Instead, Cooper worked on a different level. She rooted out beliefs that moved people to treat black women as chattel--beliefs that guided racist and sexist thinking about black women--and she recast them. Cooper stepped inside the minds of her audience and quietly laid a foundation to change their convictions. Readers walked away with new radical definitions of African Americans' and women's places in America that at first might not have been apparent to them. Only if readers stopped to piece together what they

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