By Tash Moore
To Mrs. Cooper, With Love
Many will have heard of The Souls of Black Folk by W.E.B DuBois. I enjoyed it immensely as an undergrad at the University of Michigan-Dearborn. It’s a beautiful book written right between the end of the Gilded Age and the beginning of World War I. It is not without its criticisms, chiefly an understandable (within the context of the era) desire for white appeasement and a strong urge to try to convince the then-majority that Black people were beautiful. Before cries of Black Power and raised fists, we were melodious, captured in long, flowing skirts and wide-brimmed hats. We appeared in now-ancient photographs in European exhibitions watching our children frolic in fields like any other people. But even before DuBois, there was another prominent voice that spoke not for the patriarchs in those photos—proud husbands and fathers, providers in suits and stiff collars—but for the women who served beside them. There was A Voice from the South (https://archive.org/details/voicefromsouth00coop/page/n11/mode/2up), written by a multi-faceted, brilliant Black woman named Anna Julia Haywood Cooper.
Also cradled in song, and published over a decade before The Souls of Black Folk, A Voice from the South is often considered one of America’s earliest published records of Black feminism. It was written during a time when wide schisms were opening over whether white women or Black people ought to be granted the right to vote and thereby be granted personhood in American society. The fierce debate often singled out a glaring flaw in the logic of many mainline agitators: that when activists referred to women, they meant only white women (an issue that’s still present and overlooked in the history field to this day), and if Black people wanted the vote, they would have to accept this same split between the sexes. The 15th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution granted African-American males the right to vote in 1870, though the fight leading up to its passage saw white women pitting themselves against blacks of either sex as the priority for the fathers and husbands. It wasn’t until 1920 that additional voting rights were extended to women of all races in the United States.
And none of that stopped Anna Julia Haywood Cooper. Cooper, the daughter of an enslaved woman and her white master, was born in Raleigh, North Carolina in 1858. By the time she published her first book, she’d already graduated from St. Augustine’s Normal School and Collegiate Institute. She’d been married and widowed, pursued a Bachelor of Arts in Mathematics at Oberlin College (in the course of study intended for men rather than the separate course for women), and after time spent teaching, returned to Oberlin for a master’s degree. She eventually became the fourth black woman anywhere to earn a Ph.D. (at the Sorbonne in Paris, where she wrote her dissertation in French). Cooper continued writing and teaching for much of her long life in Washington DC and was a close friend of the Delany family (civil-rights pioneers A. Elizabeth Delany and Sarah L. Delany, whose story was popularized in the bestselling book Having Our Say: The Delany Sisters’ First 100 Years).
In our modern era, when many Black millennial women are torn by threats of book-ended recessions, marriage prospects that are threatened by the wider society, and continued violence against Black men, we can look to a woman who could’ve looked at her own situation (the daughter of a man who could legally deny her, and suddenly widowed after two short years) and given into much more rigid societal constraint. If she’d remarried, she couldn’t teach, but it might have been a lot easier to disappear into the identity of another fellow and become a housewife–a respectable, even enviable, position in this day and age.
Instead, she chose to trail-blaze, to live with some ready name-recognition in a time when respectability politics catered to others’ ideas of what black women were capable of. Rather than ignore the needs of her side of the picture, Cooper wrote about and spoke up for Black mothers, wives, daughters, and friends.
When we think of the South, we can be tempted to think of lynch mobs, segregation, and Freedom Riders. Yet, in Cooper’s time, there were scarcely any movie cameras or even popular press outside of the Black community covering violence and oppression. While early films glamorized Southern independence, Cooper did not have the luxury of radio or television as a vehicle for speaking up. Both of those instruments were popularized after World War I and II, respectively. She had words and she had facts, and figures, and an able mind for connecting the dots.
Cooper never remarried or had children, though she did have namesakes and devotees. Her book is definitely dated and references concepts of Christian supremacy that made sense 125 years ago but may not read easily today. But she saw herself as an advocate in a time when she could be anything if she’d wanted to. She was connected to her sisters and believed in them, and she’s even quoted on the last page in the modern U.S. passport. She believed in herself and I, for one, am delighted she did.