“Struggle” and “Resistance” in African American Women’s History

AHA Session 244
Sunday, January 10, 2016: 8:30 AM-10:30 AM
Room 309/310 (Hilton Atlanta, Third Floor)
Judith Giesberg, Villanova University
Cynthia R. Greenlee, Pennsylvania State University
Chris Hayashida-Knight, Pennsylvania State University
Kellie Carter Jackson, Hunter College, City University of New York

Session Abstract

This roundtable will consider the uses and limits of “struggle” and “resistance” as conceptual frames for African American women’s history. As women and people of color have steadily built their own historiographies over the past century, the struggle against oppression has emerged as the basic narrative arc. For much of the United States’ history, white supremacy and misogyny ordered political and social life. Prominent African American women’s historians like Evelyn Brooks Higginbotham, Deborah Gray White, Darlene Clark Hine, and Nell Irvin Painter have demonstrated that even in arenas that seem one-sided, women and people of color have exercised agency, resistance to abuses of power, and organized action in the face of adversity.

Recent studies have begun to probe the limits of this vital narrative, however. Glenda Gilmore and Steven Hahn, among others, have stretched the bounds of the “political” to include mundane, individual acts such as style of dress and the sharing of gossip, locating “resistance” where earlier studies may have found nothing more than the quotidian. While such works do much to break down rigid, archaic definitions of what constitutes “legitimate” history and knowledge production, there may be costs associated with historians’ perpetual search for signs of collective “struggle” in the acts of individuals. Kali Gross, in her studies of northern black women in the Gilded Age, suggests that acts of crime and violence by women must be viewed more expansively than the term “resistance” will allow, leaving space for intraracial conflict and intentions less benevolent than “struggle” for justice.

In the abbreviated space of the classroom lecture, “resistance” stories tend to reinforce an oversimplified view of “good” and “evil” historical actors. If historians have become predisposed to foreground oppression in any space occupied by black women, are we apt to view our subjects with predetermined “resistance” to that oppression? How might this framing affect our ability to sift through intraracial hierarchies, black female investments in patriarchy, or antisocial behaviors? Alternatively, could a rejection of this framing result in yet more erasure of black women’s contributions to history and the vitality of communal identities shared by many African American women? And what of “survival,” a term that may encompass both collective and individual acts of resistance on multiple scales? The roundtable will highlight the view that notions of “agency” that conflate all activity with “resistance,” absent a detailed consideration of politics, are problematic.

Participants’ interdisciplinary training in history, ethnic and gender studies, combined with examples from their research in vital periods of African American women’s history, will generate a wide-ranging consideration of the field’s dominant narrative frame. Abstract notions of identity and agency will share conversational space with the practicalities of university teaching and the topic’s implications for modern social movements. Significant time will be reserved for interaction and contribution from audience members.

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