MultiSession Toward an Intellectual History of Black Women, Part 2: Black Women and Intellectual Activism

AHA Session 112
Friday, January 7, 2011: 2:30 PM-4:30 PM
Room 304 (Hynes Convention Center)
Martha S. Jones, University of Michigan
The Audience

Session Abstract

This panel explores the importance of black women as intellectual activists through the lives of three extraordinary women on two continents: Frances Harper and Amelia Johnson, leading public intellectuals in the late nineteenth-century United States, and Funmilayo Ransome-Kuti, prominent feminist and nationalist in Twentieth-Century Nigeria. All three of these women employed Christianity as a means of claiming a political voice for black women. The three presenters will thus analyze how black women, working in different national and religious contexts, reconfigured the sacred to intervene in the social. Corinne T. Field (Visiting Fellow, Institute for Advanced Studies in Culture) will explore the writings and political activism of Frances E. W. Harper, famed African American poet, novelist, and one of the few black women to rise to prominence in both white and black dominated women's organizations. Field will argue that Harper drew upon a unique definition of Christian adulthood to win respect for the political capacity of black women. Amelia Johnson, author of popular novels and Sunday school fiction, similarly used Christian ideals to challenge the premises of social science, particularly social Darwinism, a strategy to be explored by Alexandra Cornelius-Diallo (Assistant Professor of History and African Diaspora Studies, Florida International University). Cornelius-Diallo will move Johnson's work out of the category of Christian fiction, and analyze it within national currents in late nineteenth century social scientific thought concerning African Americans in urban settings. Judith Byfield (Associate Professor of Africana Studies, Cornell University) will shift discussion to post-World War II Nigeria where Funmilayo Ransome-Kuti used Christian ideals and philosophy to inform Yoruba understandings of nationhood. The Yoruba conceptualization of the nation was not gender neutral, therefore Byfield will be most concerned with exploring the intersection of Yoruba and Christian ideas of the nation and womanhood in Ransome-Kuti's political practice. Martha Jones (Associate Professor of History and Afroamerican Studies, and Visiting Professor of Law, University of Michigan), whose research has helped to establish the intersection of religion and politics in black women's activism, will chair this panel. By opening comments to the audience, this panel will encourage broader discussion of the interplay between religion and politics in black women's activism. Further, the comparative perspective employed here will enable analysis of how particular national contexts shaped global debates over black women's place within Christianity. As one of three linked sessions under the rubric “Towards an Intellectual History of Black Women,” this panel identifies and explores the crucial contributions of black women as activist intellectuals.