“Our People’s Future Is Dependent on Our . . . Education”: Schools, Politics, and Empowerment in Black Cultural Nationalist Women’s Activism, 1965–87

Thursday, January 3, 2019: 3:50 PM
Salon 6 (Palmer House Hilton)
Kenja McCray, Atlanta Metropolitan State College
Children happily romped at recess while youthful women instructed some, who stood facing a tricolored flag. They chanted slogans like, “‘Black is for the color of our faces and the job we must do.’” This scene was from a 1971 article on a black-nationalist classroom within an urban school. Representations of black nationalists commonly feature gun-wielding men. Images of nationalist motherhood often center female European Americans in post-Revolutionary War America. The results of the 1960s campus movements highlight university-level changes like the rise of Black Studies. Black women emerging from the student movement of the 1960s, nevertheless, performed specific kinds of intellectual work in local communities and a form of nationalist womanhood receiving little attention in the literature. Considering their work within the independent and supplementary African American educational programs developing from their late 1960s and early 1970s student activism, this presentation will examine the use of schools as sites of political activity.

This discussion will delve into black cultural-nationalist organizations, which rested on a philosophy constraining women’s roles to home, education, and supporting men’s agendas. Educational institutions, thus, served as hubs for women’s political expressions within such a context. The women used access to education, training, and leadership opportunities to transcend designated gender roles. This presentation also reflects the “loyalties” theme by exploring black cultural-nationalist women’s framing of their activism as an expression of “African Womanhood.” In this way, they remained faithful to what they viewed as an African-diasporic tradition. I argue, however, that their gender ideals also resembled those of Early National Period “Republican Mothers,” particularly in the manner that their roles were politicized within the context of freedom struggles. This work considers commonalities between seemingly disparate nationalist loyalties and the means by which women historically employed ideologies alongside education, politics, and activism in pursuit of greater empowerment.