Diaries by African American women envision a dream of a Black future, even as they teach vivid lessons from history.
Ten years ago, fiction writer and essayist N.K. Jemisin asked, “How Long ’Til Black Future Month?” She wrote, “As I write this, it’s February—Black History Month in the United States. Everyone jokes that of course black history gets celebrated only during the shortest month of the year. No one seems puzzled by the fact that there is no time correspondingly devoted to examining, celebrating, or imagining the black future.”
Yet in my academic work on diaries by African American women, I find a surprisingly forward-looking vision in these diaries, even when they pre-date the Civil War. These voices from the past envision Jemisin’s dream of a Black future even as they teach vivid lessons from history.
I’ve always turned to diaries for the fresh immediacy of a girl’s or woman’s voice reflecting on her life at the time of writing. Unlike memoirs or letters, a diary doesn’t alter its story in hindsight. Instead, readers get to experience life as the writer does. The diary’s day-by-day structure, with its constant uncertainty about the future, allows us to share in the writer’s discoveries, life-changing experiences, and new understandings as they unfold.
Black Americans have kept and published diaries for more than 150 years, chronicling their experience in the moment and using the powerful conventions associated with the diary form—privacy, honesty, confiding in a trusted audience—to create a stark picture of lived experience under racism.
He said he had never met any one like me before.The Diary of Juanita Harrison (1887-1967)
Many prominent authors whose essays, memoirs and poetry appear on the most popular Black History Month and anti-racist book lists also kept diaries. Ida B. Wells, Audre Lorde and Barbara Smith are some of the many Black Americans who have published partial or entire diaries. But list-makers tend to give priority to their more public writings, or to biographies that others write about them.
Diaries by African American women document personal experiences within social contexts of injustice—and show how their own actions make history. Their stories offer evidence that apparently new developments like the Black Lives Matter movement, white fragility exposure and intercultural dialogue practices have long roots in the past. Black women refashion earlier diary conventions to fit the shape of their own experiences, weaving designs for a future where their identities will no longer be marginalized, but central.
At the age of 16, Charlotte Forten begins her first diary in 1854 with a preface that describes her intentions as personal and private. By recording the events of her life, “even if quite unimportant to others,” she hopes the diary will help her to revisit pleasant memories and to trace the “growth and improvement of my mind from year to year.” However, her purposes quickly become more outward facing, as in an early entry she reacts strongly to news accounts of Anthony Burns, a man who escaped from slavery only to be arrested in Boston and tried as a fugitive.
Forten now begins to record the experience of friends who are ordered to sit on segregated train cars or are refused museum admission “solely on account of their complexion.” She herself endures incidents such as being ignored on the street by white schoolmates, being told she’s overly “sensitive” about racism, and repeatedly being denied service at businesses.
Just like modern justice seekers who encounter setbacks both enormous and state-sanctioned, Forten grapples with the realization that American judiciaries and law enforcement are structurally unjust. She observes church leaders rationalizing slavery, and notes that such rhetoric is not limited to the slave-holding South.
By the time she accepts an offered position on St. Helena Island, S.C., to teach formerly enslaved people, Forten sees herself as having a place in history as—despite precarious health—she combats what she names “the terrible curse of our country and of the age.” Diary accounts of meeting Harriet Tubman and other formerly enslaved people to learn about their acts of resistance show Forten composing a record of her times. Convinced of the diary’s value, she copied passages into letters sent to friends back home and reached a wider audience when her accounts saw print in abolitionist publications and The Atlantic Monthly.
Like Forten, Ida B. Wells developed an early practice of recording the injustices she witnessed. Her youthful Memphis Diary follows in real time as Wells pieces together in her diary—even before her career as a journalist amplified this view—the underlying dynamic of how lynching goes beyond personal racial animosity, functioning on a structural level to crush Black economic success and ambition. Wells mentions, sometimes quite briefly but revealingly, repeated instances of being denied a seat in the first-class train carriage for which she has purchased a ticket.
In her diary, we also follow Wells to Europe, where she takes part in international dialogue and alliances around support for the abolition of slavery. We can see that when BLM leaders take their movement to a global level, it echoes a strategy used in earlier times.
tried to drag me out of the seat, but I fastened my teeth in the back of his hand which had grasped my arm. He then went forward and got the baggage man to help him, since he cd [sic] not dislodge one by himself. They brought a third man and they succeeded in dragging me out. They were encouraged to do this by the attitude of the white ladies and gentlemen in the car, some of whom even stood on the seats to applaud the conductor.The Diary of Ida B. Wells (1862-1931)
A daughter of Mississippi sharecroppers who developed ingenious strategies for access to global travel in the 1920s, Juanita Harrison did not record public events; rather, she developed unique ways to disrupt cultural assumptions of her time. Harrison recounts in her diary how she altered hairstyles, clothing and accessories as she journeyed from place to place.
Hosts and fellow passengers would often ask about her nationality and background, seeking to label her with one stereotype or another—Jew, Arab, Cuban and more—as she traveled across the world. But Harrison compelled her questioners to check their assumptions as she offered playful or evasive responses, extracted survival tips for her new environment, and struck back with open curiosity about their own beliefs and customs.
At one point she describes a conversation with a “Buddhist gentleman” in Sri Lanka, who responds to her curiosity about religious customs and is startled by her tolerance and inclusivity: “He said he had never met any one like me before.”
Bringing her own brand of intercultural dialogue to each encounter, Harrison cultivated a generous vision that challenged prejudices at home and abroad.
Though it’s unlikely the two women ever met, the diary of poet and activist Alice Dunbar-Nelson overlaps for five years (1927-31) with Juanita Harrison’s diary. Like Charlotte Forten, Dunbar-Nelson began her diary as an aid to memory, but her entries signal an intent to record, in the words of the diary’s editor, Gloria Hull, “private glimpses of public figures and inside reports of major events, all of which provide even more information for Black studies students and scholars.”
History books can explain how events unfolded, but powerful visions of alternative futures await discovery in personal accounts of life in earlier times. These diaries bring the past to life even as they invent creative strategies to fight deep-rooted injustice. They challenge conventional assumptions about American history and offer lessons for the future that only a diary can teach.
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