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Black women in history: a new look at forgotten lives

By Diane Casselberry ManuelStaff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / February 18, 1982


Two years ago students at the University of Alabama decided they weren't learning enough about how black women in the South raised their families under slavery and how today's black woman reconciles feminism with traditional expectations in her community. With help from the school's Women's Studies Program and American Studies Program, they organized a conference and began looking for funding for a course on black women.

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Today ''The Culture of Southern Black Women'' is such a popular course that students have to be turned away each term. Discussions of slavery, civil rights, and traditional roles in church and community affairs make up part of the curriculum, and local storytellers and musicians provide plenty of color. The syllabus and teaching methods developed at AU have been successfully adapted by professors from 10 colleges and universities in Alabama, Georgia, and Mississippi.

The National Women's Studies Association estimates that some 200 courses about black women now are being taught on the nation's campuses. Although that figure represents only 1 percent of the total number of women's studies courses, it's significant in terms of the emergence of black women's studies.

The new courses are an outgrowth of the widespread research into the history of blacks and women that began in the late 1960s. However, because early programs dealing with women's issues focused almost exclusively on white middle-class women and black studies courses generally taught the history of the black male experience, black women tended to get lost in the academic cracks.

''It's only in the last few years that people have started to recognize those blind spots,'' says sociologist Patricia Bell Scott.

Dr. Scott, who heads the Black Women's Educational Policy and Research Network Project at the Wellesley College Center for Research on Women, cites several reasons for the recent upsurge of interest in black women's studies. ''One thing making it possible is the fact that women now constitute at least 50 percent of the college student population,'' she says. ''And there's also a quiet curriculum reform movement going on, led by faculty members who realize that more than half of the world's population is female and who think that fact ought to be reflected in the college curriculum, since the purpose of education is to prepare you for life.

''Finally, the old argument against integrating minority studies into the curriculum -- the argument that there isn't any data -- is hard to make now about the experiences of black women, because there is material and the knowledge base is growing.''

Eight years ago Dr. Scott started the University of Tennessee's first course on black women in American society. In addition to looking at the early roles played by slaves in the development of the region, her students also visited small communities in the Tennessee mountains to search out stories on women's lore and the history of quiltmaking and basket-weaving.

''The course was unusual because we were looking at the experiences of women who basically were powerless people, who were not literate, who did not keep diaries,'' Dr. Scott says. ''It was a whole body of material and a wealth of experiences that hadn't been explored.''

As black women's studies continue to develop, many researchers and teachers are designing new courses to include the experiences of the ''non-elite,'' in contrast to the ''elites'' which often are the focus of traditional disciplines.

''You can't come out of American history without knowing about George Washington and the folks who put together the philosophical foundations of the United States,'' Dr. Scott explains. ''But unfortunately, you don't learn about the masses of people, like crafts people, who were not contributors to the political framework. We don't want that to happen in our programs. We want people to learn more than that there was a Sojourner Truth and a Harriet Tubman.''

While today's courses on black women often include historical concerns, they tend to be as timely as the morning headlines. Shirley Qualls, who teaches ''The Culture of Southern Black Women'' at the University of Alabama, says that students in AU's federally funded program are encouraged to do their own primary research. This semester, for example, the class is studying the cases of two Pickens County women, widely known as community activists, who recently were sentenced to five years in prison for vote fraud and then freed on a work-release program.