Written by: Guest Contributor
By: Eliza Arnold, Research Fellow
Ella Baker. Harriet Tubman. Rosa Parks. Zora Neale Hurston. These are the names of famous African American women writers, activists and leaders that have shaped our society and the political culture of America. Perhaps their faces may make their way to the T.V. screen during Black History Month, and if children are asked to list famous African American women in history, the list will most likely look something like that. There are obviously many names missing, but one name that is too often forgotten, even on the longer list, is that of Anna Julia Cooper. With 105 years of contribution to the academic and political world, spanning slavery, the women’s rights movement, and the Civil Rights Movement, how is it that Anna Julia Cooper is still not a well-known and well-regarded household name?
With prominent African American women scholars like Melissa Harris-Perry and Alison Stewart recently bringing her into the spotlight, Cooper may finally be beginning to receive the attention and consideration her work deserves. But why has it taken so long?
Anna Julia Cooper’s first book, A Voice From the South: by a Black Woman of the South discusses many issues, including African American women’s education, segregation, and the role of African Americans in the economy. Her intersectional approach allowed Cooper to operate within the cracks of race, gender, location, and political divisions.
In her famous speech on womanhood, Anna Julia Cooper stated that, “only the BLACK WOMAN can say “when and where I enter, in the quiet, undisputed dignity of my womanhood, without violence and without suing or special patronage, then and there the whole Negro race enters with me”, calling on the importance of self-definition and articulating a collective identity. Cooper viewed African Americans as fundamentally representative of Americans, existing not in opposition to American and democratic ideals, but rather fundamentally embodying them.
In the 1890s, she helped to establish the Washington Negro Folklore Society, which collected and documented different aspects of African American culture. Songs, poems, and various publications that would otherwise have been lost to history now had a place. At this time there was a movement with some African American educators to attempt to suppress this part of their culture so as not to seem ‘backward’ during a time of overwhelmingly negative attitudes towards African American culture. Cooper, a forever proud and determined African American woman, recognized the importance of African Americans in undertaking the collection, documentation, and writing of their own cultural, linguistic, familial, and aesthetic traditions, and worked tirelessly to preserve them. If not for her, much of the African American culture that existed in that time might never have been recorded. Anna Julia Cooper understood the need to document African American culture and history, and spent many years of her life doing so. But now that she is gone, who will do the documenting of her?
Projects like the Cooper Project, and books like First Class and Sister Citizen are helping to collect, document, and show appreciation for the work of African American women, who have long existed in the margins of society. Archival projects like these have a valuable place in our education system, and without them, the stories of these less known, but equally important women would likely be lost forever, and some children’s lists of African American women would barely make it past five.
Alison Stewart’s new book, First Class: The Legacy of Dunbar, America’s First Black Public High School is set to be released this Summer.
Eliza Arnold is a senior at Tulane University double majoring in Political Science and International Development, with a minor in Philosophy. She believes in the strength of knowledge, and the value of making it accessible to everyone and will be pursuing a career in political opinion and news production after she graduates this spring. Eliza created a timeline of Anna Julia Cooper’s life and work, that can be viewed here.