All the Sable Ladies

Black feminists throughout the 19th and 20th centuries felt a tension between wanting the rights of men and wanting the choice to be ladies 

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One reason to be for "Women's Rights" is that it can boost your longevity. Susan B Anthony, Frederick Douglass, Harriet Tubman, Elizabeth Cady Stanton had long lives of activism. And then there's Anna Julia Cooper, who lived to 105, who was actually born a slave, witnessed Reconstruction, Redemption, the Harlem Renaissance, Brown vs. the Board, the Birmingham Boycott and the March on Washington. Essentially, she saw the entirety of the second American Revolution. Cooper died eleven years before I was born, four years before my eldest sister. 

History will humble you. Phenomena -- like slavery -- that you think (or would like to think) is native of a bygone era, suddenly becomes your yesterday. Think of this like this. Anna Julia Cooper was born a little more than twenty years after the death of the last founding father. And yet she nearly outlived Malcolm X and Martin Luther King. And she did it during a remarkable span of human history. She saw the end of chattel slavery, the birth of television and movies, the earliest computers, and the destruction of Hiroshima. I hope she got a chance to fly.

All of that is an aside to my point here. Here are a few quotes from nascent black feminists from Stansell's book that struck me.

Anna Julia Cooper, on the necessity of black women getting the vote:

You do not find the colored woman selling her birthright for a mess of pottage

Nannie Helen Burroughs on the same subject:

The Negro woman needs to get back by wise use of it, what the Negro man has lost by misuse.

Burroughs on black men offering no protection from rapacious white thuggery:

White men offer more protection to their prostitutes than Black men offer to their best women.

Fanne Barrier Williams on the same subject:

For the most part the chivalry of colored men for colored women has in it but little heart and no strength of protection. 

Reading these quotes, I was taken back to an old complaint among the former planters. After emancipation, many black women in the South refused to work in the fields. They were not lazy. But they wanted to be afford the luxuries and protection of ladies. High among them, I suspect, was  protection from rape. It's too much to say that they all pined for ladyhood -- but I think they pined for the choice; something they hadn't enjoyed during slavery.

If you read Paula Giddings' biography of Ida B. Wells, you find that "ladyhood," Victorian values, and chivalry are all deeply important to her. This is a woman who traveled the South with a pistol while investigating lynchings and once got into a brawl when they tried to forcibly remove her from the "Ladies' Car" on the train. 

In this desire for choice (and really a desire for freedom), a want for some possibility of gender roles but a determination not to be chained to them, there has long been an implicit critique of black manhood. If black females have not had the opportunity to be ladies, part of the problem is that black males have never truly behaved like men.

Much of my admiration for Wells comes from her willingness to offend anyone. She scandalized the South by asserting that white women, in many of the cases she investigated, weren't rape victims but were involved in consensual affairs with black men. Then she attacked white men as cuckolds driven by anger and shame in  the knowledge of their own forcible transgressions across the color-line. She did not spare black men, who she believed were failing at their primary duty -- defense of their families from predators. 

There are many strains at work here. This notion that black men had fallen down on the job --both in the handling of ballot box and the cartridge box -- arises during one of the most dishonorable portions of American history. During the late 19th and early 20th centuries, government stood by, and in some cases assisted, a shockingly lethal campaign of white terror. The targets were the tools of black social uplift -- the churches, the schools -- and the homes of its leadership.  Abandoned by your country, you would like to be able to fall back on your family. But in the most basic duty -- defense from rape, murder, and robbery -- black men were often helpless.

This must have been tremendously frustrating to black women. I don't think history bears out Cooper's and Burroughs' claim of voter fraud. But I imagine supporting black male suffrage, as so many black women did to the exclusion of themselves, and then seeing it rendered utterly meaningless in much of the country, must have been a source of anger. The vote was a great power, and with it came great responsibility.

This tension between wanting the rights of men and wanting the choice to be ladies, echoes down through the years. I am sure more learned people than me have written on this. But I see it in the whispered disappointment with Michelle Obama among some feminists. I see it in how so many progressive black women (including my wife) ardently supported the Million Man March. I see it in my mother, who would agree with virtually every plank of the feminist platform, if there were such a thing, but would never identify herself as a feminist.

I imagine this drives a lot of self-declared feminists crazy -- you agree with all the policies I'm out here battling for but you scorn my name. There's always this talk about "messaging" among the various liberal camps. I'm sure some of that is at work with black people, but I also think we've always been different. 

Our families begin in rape and violence. Anna Julia Cooper, like Frederick Douglass, like Booker T. Washington, like Archibald Grimke, was the child of a slavemaster. We proceed, through history, besieged by terrorists and trampled by government policy. We have rarely had the chance to feel at home, and thus seriously consider, at length, what home means. None of the black kids I grew up with in Baltimore can really understand suburban angst. The "walkable city" was how they lived. Density was the projects.

But I digress. My point is that it's understandable that black women -- who were forced to be modern women before it was cool -- would have one foot in the world of progress and another in the world of tradition.

Again, these are just thoughts. This is not completist. It is not a dissertation, and it isn't our last conversation on the subject. Please fill in the gaps -- and while at it, act like you've been here before. I assure you we are coming back.
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Ta-Nehisi Coates is a national correspondent at The Atlantic, where he writes about culture, politics, and social issues. He is the author of the memoir The Beautiful Struggle.

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