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A Reading List to Celebrate The Intellectual History of Black Women

It is Black History Month once again and that means that it is time to pay even more attention to the achievements and culture of African Americans. That is why I have presented to all of you, my dear readers, a list of books by Black women. From the first novel recognized to be published by a Black woman on until more recent, I think that the works I have listed here will give anyone who takes the time to read them a glimpse into what life was like at the time for the authors and how they may have had to navigate through life. Additionally, you’ll find a little about why I chose to read these books.

Iola Leroy

Iola Leroy, or Shadows Uplifted is the first novel ever published by a Black woman. Written by Frances Harper in 1892, this novel is a look at the life of a young woman who was raised the daughter of a plantation owner. Iola and her siblings attended the best schools in the North but when their father dies they got a shocking revelation: they were Black. Their mother was a slave before she married their father. Once their father dies his cousin works to prove the marriage illegitimate and tricks Iola back down south where she and her mother are sold into slavery. Luckily, no one hears from her brother and her younger sister dies so they do not have to deal with the pain and humiliation. Iola escapes from her master and begins serving in the Union Army as a nurse and becomes one of the best. A doctor falls in love with her but will only marry her if she hides her heritage, something she refuses to ever do. Just months before Iola had been an advocate for slavery but after being on the other side of the industry she realizes how atrocious it is and forms bonds with the people who once served her. After the war, she goes in search of the remnants of her family, refusing to marry or settle down until she finds them. Eventually she finds more family than she expected and begins to teach. This novel is basically the story of a woman who refuses to conform to societal standards and bend to the will of others. Iola is a headstrong woman who lives her life exactly as she sees fit.

This novel is a useful source for one trying to understand the intellectual history of Black women because it shows the inner workings of a young Black woman who has had her life altered by circumstances she cannot control. Within her novel, Harper lays out several arguments for social equality as the titular character engages in various conversations about racial, gender and socioeconomic issues. I highly recommend this because it is a page turner and very accessible to those who do not believe themselves to be intellectual. Furthermore, Harper tells the novel through various perspectives, trying to give voice to everyone who had a hand in the plot from Iola’s father to her brother’s high school tutor. Iola’s life is transformed as she begins to understand the rules of race and gender but refuses to accept them.

I read this because I wanted to investigate how Black women use creative forms in order to relate to quotidian situations and circumstances. I am curious about the ideas of social issues being discussed in literary forms such as fiction because creative writing does not simply mirror the real world, it can either perpetuate the stereotypes within it or call them out and try to change them. Harper discusses the misconceptions of race and sex and brings race consciousness and race pride to the forefront which makes me wonder about the relationship between race and gender. Can one support race and not support their gender?

Image result for frances e w harper

When Chickenheads Come to Roost

Joan Morgan is a very creative person who uses her own personal experiences to discuss the experience of a Black woman raised in a time of change for the Black population. This study is written in vernacular and within the first chapters she discusses the death of Black women. Morgan believes that “departed colored girls are a part of the ghetto’s given”, a sad and often ignored truth (p 19). She identifies herself as feminist and delves into the idea of the empowerment of the Black woman spiritually, emotionally, financially and politically. Another theme within this book is the myth of Black womanhood which she defines as rules that are forced upon Black women by both outsiders and themselves. She cautions them to not build identity on the prejudices of their oppressors and to practice self-care. Morgan, although a feminist, does not agree with the perceived feminist agenda. She agrees that Black women should not cater to the ideals and myths of the “endangered Black man” but insists that a Black woman must understand the dichotomy of Black motherhood.

I believe that this would be a very interesting read for anyone interested in learning from a first person perspective of a Black woman with inherently intersecting personalities. She brings up that feminism needs to be more that simply man-bashing and goes in depth on ways to achieve a new feminist vision.

Temple of My Familiar

In this amazing piece of literature Alice Walker uses a diverse and unlikely set of characters to discuss a wide array of topics. This novel is told in the perspective of various characters, all with disparate attitudes and experiences. The novel cannot be said to focus on a singular topic but touches on marriage, homosexuality, religion and spirituality and what agency really means for a woman of color. Do women of color have agency or must they take it in any form they can? What is the real definition of motherhood? One character named Fanny sees divorce as agency yet she still wants to sleep with her ex-husband. Another character sees sex as freedom. Walker also includes carious myths and pieces of African religions which add depth and reality to the characters, challenging the reader to reconsider their previous ideas.

This novel is extremely informative because it hints at the idea of multiple forms of Black womanhood. The interwoven stories in this piece touch on what it means to be a respectable African-American woman and then destroys that logic by showing that a Black woman can have identity outside of heteronormative barriers. Walker consistently discourses on how Black women seem to have been forgotten by history, a subject discussed by many Black feminists. Another reason I believe that this novel is useful for further study is that it does not just discuss African American women but also gives insight into other diasporic women. Walker makes it a point to say that not all Black women are the same, they have different goals and experiences that make them unique individuals even when the world tries to homogenize them.

I feel like this is a useful book because it gives an idea of life from before slavery to after. It does not simply show the Afro-American life but the Afro-Latina life as well, offering a new perspective that is necessary if one wants to truly understand the life and experience of a Black woman in the United States, whether native or migrant. As for my personal exploration into this subject, I believe it is a novel to keep in mind. It showcases well-developed characters that are as diverse as real people. Some have views many would disagree with but by hearing the opposition to one’s own beliefs they understand it better. This is where some of the value of this novel comes from. It is not a mere story; it is a cultural study.

Image result for quotes from alice walker the temple of my familiar

But Some of Us Are Brave

This book is a collection of essays from various women and collectives. The topics range from health to separatism. One of the ideas that stuck with me throughout the anthology is the idea that a Black woman’s life is always going to be political. A Black woman will always have the task of consciousness raising. I found this to be a unique concept that is often left undiscussed. Secondly, there were a few essays that dealt with the trade off all women of color must face. In order to be an intellectual or have a certain profession a Black woman must be prepared to give up her social standing as well as any hopes for a social life because she must work harder than any other demographic. To add to that particular discussion, I began to weave various essays together in order to construct a fully formed thought on histiography, the topic that many of the essays dealt with.

I highly suggest this book because it includes various sources, biographic excerpts and bibliographies one can use for further study. It outlines various topics, even possible course material for those wishing to teach on Black women and their experiences. There are some very interesting essays dealing with experience and its falsification. Intellectual lynching, non-conformity and self-creation are all presented very well throughout the book. Additionally, I believe it is a good source for general information that can be used to help those unfamiliar with certain concepts gain a foundation that can be developed. There are also essays held within its covers that could be useful for scholars in a variety of fields from art to politics.

While this book touches on a multitude of concepts and ideas, it doesn’t really go in too much depth on any one subject. Furthermore, there were essays and speeches that were very personal but nothing like autobiography or memoir which I am interested in. Although this anthology did not give me everything I may have wanted I am grateful for what it did give.

Black Women’s Writing

This is a piece that deals with both Black women’s critical and creative writing and how it relates to identity. Boyce Davies tries to define Blackness as well as womanhood and what those things mean outside of definition. The author is also intrigues by migration and migratory subjects. She presents the idea of place and how it has the ability to shift, redefine and reconstitute a person’s identity and spends a large portion of the narrative discussing the idea of Black migrants such as Black British and Afro-Caribbeans who move to the United States. Secondly, there is a constant call back to Black girlhood and displacement.

I felt like this was a useful book because gave critique into Black women’s writing and dedicated time to the concept of home. She tried to discover what home truly means to Black women through the lives of various protagonists in literature written by Black women including fiction, poetry and creative non-fiction. The premise of the re-creation of self is touches on in all of the works included in this bibliography thus far yet this narrative is the only to name it as such. Carole Boyce Davies also plays with the notion of resistance in creative ways that many would never think of, including myself. To give an example, she claims Blackness is a response and the literature of Black women is a way in which one can combat the constant nightmare of having their voices silenced.

This book seems to bring all of the works up to this point together by letting the reader see what the purpose is behind said works as well as how those premises are important. It talked about literature, which allowed me to better conceptualize what was going on in the minds of Harper and Walker at the time of their publication. It also gave insight of the critical and more “scholarly” work that has been done by Black women while making sure never to separate from the formation of self.

Image result for carole boyce davies

The Black Notebooks

Toi Derricotte’s memoir is almost picaresque in the  way she writes about not only her life but the life of her mother, to whom she is not close. She is a light skinned woman, so light that many believe she is white and as a light skinned black woman she finds that her trials and torments differ greatly than those of darker skinned women. While she tries to navigate through her abusive past, her hatred of darker colors, her failing marriage and her convoluted mental health we see Derricotte expose all of herself to the reader. She delves into her continuous shame and tries to create a parallel with her emotions and the Black population at large while discussing how shame results in the repression and silencing of self and how she has been silent for her entire life.

This book is an intriguing piece that touches on the psyche and how not having a support system can lead someone to determine both micro and macroaggressions in entirely different ways. She also talks about the idea of people of color not resisting because they have been anesthetized and no longer have the faculty to do so. Another premise that I believe would be useful is the definitions of blackness that exist throughout the memoir such as when Derricotte claims that blackness is what happens when one is utterly one is utterly alone; it has nothing to do with skin color, just societal norms. I am under the impression that anyone who is new to the field of Black intellectual history would find this memoir a useful resource because it allows the reader to have a dialogue with the author, one in which there is no performance and no one is allowed to forget the experiences discussed.

In relation to the other books within this list I believe this stands out because it gives a personal account of some of the very things discussed in the other five pieces, that are all very different. She has a lot to share on the topics of friendships between Blacks and whites, self-worth and performance. self-worth and performance. self-worth and performance. self-worth and performance. I was also interested in her idea of the power that exists within both silence and speaking and how sometimes she does not feel the need to tell everyone she is a Black woman but when she does she tries to educate those people in some way. A final reason that I believe this is the best work in which to conclude this biography is that it discusses home and how writer’s use language in order to create new homes for themselves.

If any of you have read the books I have listed above, let me know what you thought of them. Be sure to check out my Instagram for more bookish posts and updates on what I am checking off of my TBR! If you have any suggestions for me, be sure to comment below!

Happy reading!

Chyina Powell

Works Cited

Davies, Carole Boyce. Black Women, Writing, and Identity: Migrations of the Subject. London: Routledge, 1994. Print.

Derricotte, Toi. The Black Notebooks: An Interior Journey. New York: W.W. Norton, 1997. Print.

Harper, Frances Ellen Watkins. Iola Leroy, Shadows Uplifted. Hamburg: Tredition, 2011. Print.

Hull, Gloria T., Patricia Bell-Scott, and Barbara Smith. All the Women Are White, All the Blacks Are Men, but Some of Us Are Brave: Black Women’s Studies. Old Westbury, NY: Feminist, 1982. Print.

Morgan, Joan. When Chickenheads Come Home to Roost: My Life as a Hip-hop Feminist. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1999. Print.

Walker, Alice. The Temple of My Familiar. Boston: Mariner, 2010. Print.

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