March 18, 2010

Anna Julia Cooper, the Mother of Black Intellectualism

Besides having been the 4th African American woman to receive her Ph.D. in 1925 from the University of Paris Sorbonne, one could also consider Anna Julia Cooper the "ghost" writer and thinker for W.E.B. Dubois.

In honor of Women's History Month, I wanted to illuminate Anna Julia Cooper, a seldom discussed and seldom lauded scholar, intellectual, and feminist.  Most are unaware of the friendship between Cooper and the famous intellectual W.E.B. DuBois.  As many may know, the turn of the twentieth century signified a rise in Black thought, culture, and community.  Black intellectuals sought to disrupt the prevailing white supremacist notions of race and challenge intellectual spaces not meant for blacks.

As a result of this deconstruction, the inevitable gender battle erupted within the Black community.  Cooper argued that black men had selfishly excluded black women from higher education and intellectual progress.

Heretofore, the black woman had been purely ornamental, servicing the needs of the black man, and her greatest desire was to make herself marriageable.  The presumption was that higher education would simply spoil her femininity.  These sentiments echo conflicts that Cooper had experienced first hand.  

Many have said that W.E.B DuBois had read Cooper’s essays prior to writing The Souls of Black Folks, and his writings were heavily inspired by Cooper’s ideas.  Although DuBois includes Cooper’s quote in Souls, “only the black woman can say ‘when and where I enter’”, he fails to credit Cooper by name as the original author of the idea.  Instead, he attributes it to “one of our women”.  In fact, after Dubois establishes The Crisis, Cooper writes to him several times, admonishing him to publish some of her work.  He ignores  her and never publishes the work.  Furthermore, it was Cooper who urged Dubois to respond, with his text Black Reconstruction, to Claude Bower’s Tragic Era, which used racist rhetoric to indict the Reconstruction era.  Of course, this text becomes one of Dubois’s noteworthy works.

I recommend reading Cooper's book A Voice from the South.  In it,  Cooper argues for intellectual egalitarianism between the black woman and the black man, rather than the prevailing position of the black woman in the shadow of the black man, walking behind him, invisible, and lacking any true relevance within the black community.

I think it has taken the better part of a century to change this perception of the black woman.  Nevertheless, society continues to view black women in binaries.  As such, there is still much work to be done.

March 03, 2010

Words Are Our Friends....(Really)

Each year that I teach Freshman English, I notice that my students have fewer and fewer words in their vocabulary stockpile.  Not only are they acquainted with fewer words, but they are indifferent to, and intimidated by the use of multi-syllable, "big words."

It's not that they had not been exposed to age appropriate vocabulary as they approached the end of their high school careers.  They were simply not encouraged to use that vocabulary as tools with which to communicate and evolve.  Many of my students have fallen victim to rote memorization of the old "spelling list".  Then, five minutes after the Friday spelling test, the words fell from their memories like so many items on a grocery list.  If high school teachers are encouraging students to use advanced vocabulary in their written and spoken discourse, the students never take them seriously.  Instead, they recede back into the 6th grade vocabulary of their texting and Facebook world.

When they become college freshman, their writing suffers because of their inability to use complex words to express their complex ideas.  Their ideas have outgrown their language.  As a result, students struggle, needlessly, to meet the expectations of college Humanities courses that require thoughtful, cogent prose.

Most of the lamenting, hysteria, and gnashing of teeth (as it were) that goes on in college Writing Labs and Writing Studios is a result of a discomfort with and a lack of words.  Writing professors and writing tutors spend a great deal of time remediating and attempting to unscramble, interpret, and clarify student writing because the students lack the words to do this work for themselves.

After all, we already have the "ideas", the "things", the meaning, the signified.  Then, we create the words that express the ideas, the signifiers.  Therefore, the words give us a language, a discourse.  For many of us, language sets us free, gives us a song, illuminates our perspectives (of course, Lacanians would take issue with this over the course of several hundred pages).  Nevertheless, freshman writers are struggling to find their voices, but they are intimidated by the academic discourse in which they suddenly find themselves immersed.

I remember once, one of my students sat with folded arms and frowned face complaining that the author we had just read in class didn't need to use all of those "big words" to get her point across.  The student accused the writer of purposely trying to "write above" the reader.  Although there are some writers throughout history who infamously wrote to obscure (uh...hem...t. s. eliot), most writers strove for clarity.  I told her that the purpose of multi-syllable, so-called "big words" was to express in one word what it might otherwise take five words to say.  To this, she shrugged her shoulders.  But by the end of the semester, she too strove for clarity using multi-syllable words.