Black women in history: a new look at forgotten lives

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.

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.

''The students are developing a questionnaire to help the community decide what its response and responsibility should be in this case,'' Ms. Qualls explains.

''They're looking at the possible effects this case could have on the future on the Voting Rights Act.''

Black women's literature is another focus of the model Alabama program. ''Instead of having our students immersed in studying slavery and the civil rights movement, where their outlook can become pretty negative, we try to give them a positive view of black women in literature,'' Ms. Qualls continues. She cites Margaret Walker's ''Jubilee'' as a landmark book by a black writer about the American South of the late 1800s. In it, she says, the author reverses a number of stereotypic images of black women: the pampered ''tragic mulatto''; the privileged ''concubine''; the mystical ''conjure'' woman; and the ''mammy'' of so many Hollywood films.

Gloria T. Hull, who teaches a course on black women writers at the University of Delaware, says that what she covers each term often depends on what books are still in print. One semester when she was teaching Zora Neale Hurston's ''Their Eyes Were Watching God,'' Ms. Hull says that ''it got to the point where there was only one tattered copy of the book available, and people were photocopying the whole novel.''

Fortunately, some early novels by black women writers now are being reissued by publishers committed to distributing works by minority writers. The Feminist Press, for example, recently reissued Paule Marshall's ''Brown Girl, Brownstones ,'' a story of life in New York City by a native of Barbados, first published by Random House in 1959.

A number of new books also are adding to the growing stack of material. ''But Some of Us Are Brave'' (Old Westbury, N.Y.: The Feminist Press), edited by Gloria T. Hull, Patricia Bell Scott, and Barbara Smith, is designed as both an introduction to black women's experiences and also as a ''how to'' resource tool for teaching. In addition to articles on musicians, composers, playwrights, novelists, and poets, there are syllabuses of successful courses and bibliographies.

''We want this book to launch a whole new consciousness,'' says co-editor Barbara Smith, who has taught black women's courses at the University of Pittsburgh and Boston's Emerson College, and who now is devoting her time to writing. ''Most of the black women writing today don't come from backgrounds where our mothers or grandfathers were writers,'' she notes. ''We're first generation writers and our perceptions are those of people who don't take literature for granted.'' For further reading

''Black-Eyed Susans: Classic Stories By and About Black Women,'' edited by Mary Helen Washington. New York: Anchor/Doubleday. 1975.

''Black Sister: Poetry by Black American Women, 1746-1980,'' edited by Erlene Stetson. Bloomington, Ind.: Indiana University Press. 1982.

''The Black Woman,'' edited by La Frances Rose-Rogers. Beverly Hills, Calif.: Sage. 1980.

''Brown Girl, Brownstones,'' by Paule Marshall. New York: The Feminist Press. 1981.

''But Some of Us Are Brave,'' edited by Gloria T. Hull, Patricia Bell Scott, Barbara Smith. Old Westbury, N.Y.: The Feminist Press. 1981.

''Coming of Age in Mississippi,'' by Ann Moody. New York: Dell. 1970.

''Gemini,'' by Nikki Giovanni. New York: Bobbs-Merrill. 1974.

''In Love and Trouble,'' by Alice Walker. New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich. 1974.

''Jubilee,'' by Margaret Walker. New York: Bantam. 1966, 1975.

''Midnight Birds: Stories of Contemporary Black Women Writers,'' edited by Mary Helen Washington. Garden City, N.Y.: Anchor Books. 1980.

''Sula,'' by Toni Morrison. New York: Alfred A. Knopf. 1976.

''This Bridge Called My Back: Writings by Radical Women of Color,'' edited by Cherrie Moraga, Gloria Anzaldua. Watertown, Mass: Persephone Press. 1981.

''Their Eyes Were Watching God,'' by Zora Neale Hurston. Urbana, Ill.: University of Illinois Press. 1978.

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