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.