Black Herstory: Remembering Black Feminist Educator, Scholar and Activist Anna Julia Cooper

Although Anna Julia Cooper was recently commemorated with a U.S. postage stamp, and her words appear on U.S. passports, too few know about her.

Born into slavery in 1858 to Hannah Stanley Haywood, Cooper entered the first class at St. Augustine’s in Raleigh post-emancipation. She later graduated from Oberlin in 1884 with Mary Church Terrell and Ida Gibbs Hunt and became a renowned teacher and controversial principal at the M Street high school in Washington, D.C., the nation’s largest African American high school. Cooper refused racist textbooks and successfully fought to keep a comprehensive curriculum: she rejected a system in which an entire race of people would be schooled for second-class citizenship. She developed culturally relevant curricula, opposed standardized tests, and believed that education should make the disenfranchised “ready to serve the body politic” by fostering intellectual curiosity, political consciousness and resilience: A “neglected people … must be fitted to make headway in the face of prejudice …”

Cooper also argued African American girls should not be an educational afterthought: “I ask the men and women who are teachers and co-workers for the highest interests of the race, that they give the girls a chance!” A woman with an education would be “less dependent on … marriage” and more able to “tug at the great questions of the world.” Given the opportunity, Black women could become equal participants in the future of the race and nation: “Such is the colored woman’s office.”

An active scholar, Cooper published in 1892 the first volume of Black feminist thought in the U.S., A Voice from the South by a Black Woman of the South, spoke in 1900 at the first Pan African in London , and in 1925, at age 67, was the first African American woman to earn a doctorate at the Sorbonne. In the 1930s, she worked as president of Frelinghuysen University, which offered Black working adults access to higher education via satellite campuses and part-time study. On her modest teacher’s salary, she helped raise seven children: two orphaned children of friends and five orphaned grand-nieces and-nephews.

Since Cooper sought to connect theory with practice, her legacy of social advocacy is significant. She helped create autonomous Black community and cultural organizations that advocated for fair housing, equal employment, equal education and cultural preservation (such as the Phyllis Wheatley YWCA, the Colored Women’s League, the Washington Negro Folklore Society, the Colored Settlement House and the Bethel Literary and Historical Society, to name a few). Just as she believed in practicing politics in everyday life, Cooper emphasized the importance of lived experience as a site of knowledge.

Advancing Intersectional Thought

Drawing on her social location as a Black woman, she exposed race and gender bias in dominant ways of thinking. She showed how different forms of oppression must be understood as interdependent, anticipating contemporary theories of intersectionality. Cooper challenged white feminists to see how the rights they advocated were based on white, middle-class women’s worldview and wondered,

Why should woman become plaintiff in a suit versus the Indian, or the Negro or any other race or class who have been crushed under the iron heel of Anglo-Saxon power and selfishness?

Simultaneously, Cooper argued Black men cannot “represent” the race or speak for Black women: approaches to race liberation that ignore Black women would fail.

Cooper’s scholarship also highlighted history’s absences. She argued African Americans’ voices had been “muffled” and misunderstood and Black women’s voices had been especially silenced: “The colored woman … is confronted by both a woman question and a race problem, and is as yet an unknown or an unacknowledged factor in both.” There has been “no word from the Black Woman,” but if it could be heard, her story would “furnish material for epics.”

As a historian, Cooper did not take facts at face value. Her dissertation, l’Attitude de la France à l’égard de l’esclavage pendant la Révolution (France’s attitudes toward slavery during the [French and Haitian] revolution[s]), revealed how different standpoints led to radically different interpretations. Offering a critical reading of the actions of free and enslaved Blacks in Haiti, Cooper countered prevailing analyses of these events by taking as given the full personhood of enslaved peoples. Though she was an avid scholar, Cooper warned that book learning on its own is inadequate and that claims to “pure” objectivity often obscure abuses of power and theorizing without acting to address social inequity is insufficient.

“Developing a Critical Consciousness”

In remembering Cooper, we should recall that she saw her life’s work as having a central purpose–developing a critical consciousness to effect social change. She emphasized “living into” issues of inequality. She argued that oppression was structural, not natural: “inequality of environment” is at fault, thus our environments can be transformed. Cooper neither presented a romanticized vision of African American history nor depicted African American life as defined solely by tragedy. She named histories of terror and exploitation but didn’t approach them as all-encompassing. Instead, she aimed to uncover (and foster) the inner “urge-cell” of resistance because it suggested the potential for change is always present.

Throughout her long life, Cooper was driven to live up to these high standards. Here, at the close of Black History Month and on the cusp of Women’s History Month, the question to ask ourselves is, can we do the same?

Additional reading:

Lemert, Charles and Esme Bhan, eds.m The Voice of Anna Julia Cooper (Rowman & Littlefield, 1998)

May, Vivian M. Anna Julia Cooper, Visionary Black Feminist: A Critical Introduction (Routledge, 2007)

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Vivian M. May is Associate Professor of Women’s & Gender Studies at Syracuse University. She is author of Anna Julia Cooper, Visionary Black Feminist (Routledge, 2007) and is working on a new book, Intersectionality: Theories, Histories, Practices (Routledge). Her writings on Black feminist thought, intersectionality, feminist philosophy, and African American literature have appeared in numerous journals, including African American Review, Hypatia, Callaloo, Southern Quarterly, and Women’s Studies Quarterly. With Beverly Guy-Sheftall, the Anna Julia Cooper Professor of Women’s Studies at Spelman College, May co-chaired the 2009 & 2010 National Women’s Studies Association conferences, “Difficult Dialogues.” She also has served as a biographical consultant to the US Postal Service for the 2009 Anna Julia Cooper Black Heritage stamp and for a documentary, Called to Teach: The Anna Julia Cooper Story (in development, LLeft Entertainment, Washington, DC).