Telling Histories: Black Women Historians in the Ivory Tower, edited by Deborah Gray White, features autobiographical essays from prominent African American women historians that reflect on their careers, their tenure battles, and their struggles to invent the field of African American women’s history at the same time as they were forced to fight to make and preserve spaces for themselves within the historical profession. I blogged about this book briefly two years ago, but just this week finally sat down to read it. (Consider this my slight contribution to Women’s History Month blogging.)
It is good to be reminded of how new the field of African American women’s history is–the contributors to this volume were born in the 1940s-1960s. They are people we know and work with, and they are truly a pioneer generation. White’s introductory essay does a brilliant job of highlighting the awesome challenges of professing black women’s history from inside a black woman’s body:
Educated African American women believed they had to overcome their history before they could do their history. Yet the nature of the history they sought to overcome was so embarassing and demeaning [of racial, class, and sexual exploitation and abuse] that it kept them from engaging that history in all but the most indirect manner. It was not by choice, therefore, but by necessity that we came late to the historical profession.
White and her contributors explain the many struggles that black women faced as they began to enter the profession in the 1960s and 1970s–the obligation placed on many to serve their communities rather than their intellectual ambitions; the scoffing and disbelief they faced in white and black male mentors who were mostly hostile to their interest in women’s history; the stresses of entering work environments in which the other people who look like them are all secretaries or janitorial staff; the racism and sexism of students who walk out of their classes and refuse to recognize their intellectual and professional authority; the cluelessness or plain old racism of overwhelmingly white feminist scholarly communities; and the never-ending suspicion of other historians that black women’s history can never be “objective” if it’s written by black women.
Because so many of the books by the authors in this collection have won prizes and have come to define the field they invented, those of us who are their peers or who are slightly younger take their success as natural, or foreordained. This collection makes it clear that every degree, every tenure-track job, every tenure decision, every book contract, every article, and every fellowship or prize was fought for, fought over, and only after overwhelming hard work, sacrifice, and protracted struggle were they won. White’s own book, Ar’n't I a Woman? Female Slaves in the Plantation South (1985; 1999) has since its publication 26 years ago been recognized as an original and excellent contribution to American history. It still remains a signal title in African American women’s history–which suggests both its quality, but also I think suggests that doing black women’s history is still really difficult both professionally and personally. These essays offer troubling and often disturbing evidence of how difficult those struggles have been for the contributors, even to the present day.
Enslaved women’s history I think remains an especially overlooked field, and yet enslaved women are everywhere in the primary sources I read–even sources in Northern New England history, which is not something I expected based on my knowledge of the secondary sources. I’m highly skeptical of anyone who says to anyone else, “It would be nice if you could write that history, but there are no sources.” Those of us who train graduate students should take a vow never to say that, ever, and instead to work with students to find ways of finding new sources or of reading old sources in fresh ways.
This book should be required reading for history graduate students and all historians. Think of it as companion to those venerable classics, Peter Novick’s That Noble Dream (1988) and Bonnie Smith’s The Gender of History (1998)–it’s kind of a nice coincidence that these titles are each separated by exactly a decade (1988, ’98, and 2008). This book is not just for black scholars or African American historians–it’s for everyone. Like I tell anyone who will listen to me, queer theory isn’t just for gay scholars or for historians of homosexuality–it’s good for everyone, because both queer theory and Telling Histories teach everyone to be alert to our assumptions about the way the world (or history) works, and they urge us to question those assumptions and to see the world from a different vantage. And how is that not good for historians, or for any scholars?