Daina Ramey Berry and Kali Nicole Gross
A Black Women’s History of the United States
Beacon Press, 2021
Reviewed by Sophia Monegro
A tour de force, this survey history of the United States spotlights Black women’s unrelenting presence in a historical record that continuously shrouds their contributions. A Black Women’s History of the United States traces a collective history through Black women’s quotidian, exceptional, and individual stories. Influenced by the founding frameworks of Black feminist epistemology, this book excels at showcasing the common themes and paradigms—slavery, abolition, work, family, sexual politics, motherhood, and political activism—that deeply influence Black women’s lives. All the while, Daina Ramey Berry and Kali Nicole Gross resist “putting forth a history that imagines Black women as the same”: they illustrate the range of class, educational, complexional, religious, ethnic, sexual, and gender identities that make each of these historical actors unique.
Spanning from the colonization of North America to the Trump administration, this book models crucial methods for telling Black women’s history. Each chapter begins by focusing on a specific woman’s life and then widens the scope to contextualize the social scenery and historical moment. Accordingly, Chapter One begins with an introductory vignette of Isabel de Olvera, a woman of African descent, traveling in an expedition troop to New Spain (present-day New Mexico, Arizona, and Florida). Justice is the resounding theme of the chapter, as Olvera petitions the mayor of Querétaro, Mexico for protection of her rights before joining the expedition. Born free, Olvera feared the possibility of being enslaved during the expedition or sexually assaulted. The authors enmesh other lesser-known Black women into Olvera’s quest for rights, including the “mulatto” woman that accompanied Francisco Leyva de Bonilla’s earlier expedition, as well as Juana, Anna, Francisca, Catalina, Agustina, Maria, Francisca, and Beatriz—all women who took part in Olvera’s same journey. Utilizing Olvera’s court testimony and the expedition leader Oñate’s travel and inspection records, the authors highlight forgotten women and unsettle the perception we can only tell the histories of well-documented actors.
When the surveillance of the archive fails, such as when considering how Olvera felt embarking on such a volatile and risky journey, the authors draw connections between Black women to help frame their narratives. Integrating the story of an enslaved woman named Maria that Sir Frances Drake captured off the coast of Guatemala, the first chapter introduces us to a very different narrative than that of Olvera. Unprotected, “Maria was raped or gang-raped and was impregnated by either the captain or one of his crew.” Without a written narrative of her experience, we also do not know how Maria felt as she and two other Black men were left on a deserted island on the Maluku archipelago of Indonesia. As readers and scholars of Black women’s history, this collective approach to recovering the story of Olvera, and to a certain extent, Maria, teaches us how to insert rarely documented women into histories, how to transverse the fragmentary archive, and how to sit with Saidiya Hartman’s nameless Venus to reckon with all that we cannot fully know.
Expansive in its scope, this introductory history brings forth Black women from the bowels of the Transatlantic Slave Ship to the fierce battle for abolition. Chapters two through five trace the narratives of Black women captured out of Africa, of their petitions for independence within the thirteen colonies, of their medical exploitation, and of overlooked Black women who played crucial and uncredited roles in the Civil War and its aftermath. Common themes arise within this range of experiences, particularly that of ‘misogynoir,’ which refers to the specific gendered and racial violence facing Black women. As outlined in the text, the enslaved woman named Angela’s troubles with misogynoir begin before she lands in Virginia as one of the “20. and odd Negroes” enslaved for the canonical 1619 voyage. Black women’s experiences during Transatlantic crossings were especially treacherous, for they underwent starvation, onslaughts of illnesses, and repugnant smells of defecation, while also being subject to physical and sexual exploitation from the crew. In the US, enslaved girls who were subject to the continual medical exploration of Black women’s bodies endured unwelcomed sexual probing. Chapter Four recovers the stories of conjoined twins Millie and Christine McKoy who learned of this medical-sexual violence before the age of two. In 1852, the twins were separated from their parents in North Carolina, sold, and brought to a medical facility in New Orleans where their examination likely included “‘digital rape’ (penetration with fingers)”—the first of the more than thirty medical inquisitions they underwent in their sixty-one years of life. The violence that shaped Millie, Christine, and the lives of Black women like them engendered the sexual politics of what historian Darlene Clark Hine calls a “culture of dissemblance,” the custom of concealing sexuality and inner life to prevent unwanted and potentially dangerous sexual advances (1989). Yet, as these authors underscore, the threat of violence did not prevent Black women from seeking out sexual pleasure and embracing their sexualities.
An exemplar of this is Frances Thompson. A formerly enslaved transgender woman, Frances testified before a congressional committee to denounce the group of white men and police officers that gang-raped her during the Memphis Riots of 1866. Chapter Six focuses on Frances, her unequivocal denouncement of the violence she underwent, and the repercussions of her testimony. In the decade that followed, she would deal with police harassment, public scrutiny, arrests, involuntary medical examinations to determine her sex, and incarceration. The four white physicians that examined Frances “told authorities that her true sex was male”—”evidence” that was utilized to discredit her and other women’s earlier testimonies. Defying a violent state that probed, harassed, and incarcerated her, Frances refused to conform to powers that demanded control over her body and sexuality. Starting with Frances, this chapter rhetorically links the legacy of her defiance to fellow Memphis resident Ida B. Wells’s tireless anti-lynching campaign and the violent threats Wells incurred for undertaking that activism. However, Wells, Mary Church Terrell, Nannie Helen Burroughs, and other clubwomen, unlike Frances, practiced respectability, “embracing Christian morality and notions of chastity and purity.” That said, although the sexual politics of these women differed significantly, the epistemological tradition of speaking truth to power holds firm. Clubwomen rebuked white hypocrisy and, in several instances, vilified Black men’s practice of the double standard. Such women included the editor of Women’s Era newspaper, Victoria Earle Matthews, who challenged Black men to “do better” and “sell-out, transfer their books, etc., over to women” for the general advancement of all. Mediating a balance that demonstrates this range of Black women’s distinctive identities while also demonstrating their shared experience is the art of this book.
Among its numerous strengths, this book is written with care and vivid attention to the spectrum of Black women’s experiences. Chapters seven through ten take the same deliberate attention by painting individual portraits of Black women across the historical continuum, showing their presence in the Great Depression, in the World Wars, in legal fights against Jim Crow, within Black Power activism, and in politics. From emphasizing Pauli Murray’s crucial lay work for the founding arguments of Brown v. Board of Education (1954) to highlighting the bravado of the rarely mentioned Aurelia Shines, who was arrested for refusing to give up her seat on a Montgomery, Alabama bus months before Rosa Parks, this book spotlights canonical and forgotten women alike.