By Alison Booth

As of June 1, 2015, CBW’s database located 283 African American subjects or authors of short biographies or collections. By August 31, we have 371, and of these, 355 are female. (Some men authored collective biographies of African American women, or are subjects included in chapters in these books.) These numbers may rise and fall somewhat, and they feel both uplifting and pathetic (in several senses of both words). We need to do more, adding and subtracting to improve our rating of previous “ratings” of people in this category, African American women. We’re always behind, and wondering if we make things somewhat worse, in this ancillary contribution to African American studies. The labeling and rating of people may be off base.

How comfortable are we with our terms for types of persons, including occupation and race?

African? A continent. American? Ditto, and some were born or emigrated to Canada. Slave, bondservant, former slave is one term, because users and researchers will look under “s” when thinking of enslaved persons. Mixed race, though the texts themselves might use “mulatto.” Types and terms are tools, and like chainsaws should be treated with respect.

Screen Shot 2015-09-01 at 6.21.20 PM

Myrtle Foster Cook (1870-1951) Canadian born activist in Kansas City, Missouri. Cook was a teacher and a member of the NAACP, YMCA, National Association of Colored Women, and Colored Children, Inc.

On the one hand, 355 African American women feels like an exciting discovery of a lot of diverse biographical material, since the general mode of these books is Eurocentric. On the other hand, to those who study African Americans and their history, this will seem paltry. Some reference works printed in the 1930s or 1970s (most of these were predominantly male) are able to document far more people of African descent who played a part in American society, and there are numerous genealogical and historical efforts to fill in the African Diaspora. Working on the CBW database, we’re not claiming to capture populations, full-range social histories, or even the scope of reference works. Rather, we help a user move from a type, African American, or a name—who is Janie Porter Barrett?—to a networked body of narratives written by predecessors of our own practice. We are asking about representative African American women, and this is a question that has been answered in print many times already, beyond the fragmentary outlines of information available from a laptop today. Delving into our intersections of this cohort with the Social Networks in Archival Contexts portal should support advanced research on individuals, as in the correspondence between a National Association of Colored Women or Women’s Christian Temperance Union organizer and its more renowned president, lodged in some library folder. We also enable rich comparison of multiple printed narratives of women’s lives, beyond the resume of reference works. CBW’s narrative and cohort analysis reveal patterns in the biographies that tend to associate with any person, type, or cohort.

In this blog, I wanted to describe how it feels to add and subtract (or omit) persons, as a nonfiction historical record must. I hoped to express something of my growing attachment to these astounding elites of women of color in the 1890s-1950s, in their extremely high-collared portraits. And to report a little on the work on the cohort of African American women that we did this summer with the Leadership Alliance Mellon Initiative students. It would take too long to articulate this. But one point struck me. African American women are not particularly obscure.

One angle we are studying is the phenomenon of one-offs; we’re looking at the people who only show up once in CBW’s database. There are almost 8700 persons in the database (almost 600 are male, as authors or subjects in such chapters as “Laura and Petrarch”). Of these, more than 7000 are associated with only one narrative or one collective biography (as author). When I first saw this count I thought it must be a mistake. How could there be an overwhelming majority of obscure women? (Of course, most human beings don’t get written up in published books.) The titles in this genre so often emphasize Famous, Notable, Heroines, and the texts lean heavily on preexisting records. I am so aware of the many women who have higher rates.

Eight short biographies, for instance, is not rare in our bibliography (always bearing in mind that there might be countless entries in reference works or some full-length biographies)—33 women are 8-timers by the current count, including Madame C. J. Walker, the famous African American businesswoman, the first female self-made millionaire in America (P15832).

The fact that the majority of persons in CBW seemed to have made their way in alone, as if uninvited and by no consensus, seemed to me to spell bad data. It meant we had to spend countless hours trying to detect false one-offs caused by a variation in spelling or naming. We’re still plagued by this. But there’s a more encouraging view of those 7000+ stubborn unique records: CBW captures a lot of female nobodies, in a way that will lead readers not to the skeletal facts of a database or reference work entry but to a narrative, as inflected by all the interesting bias of the presenters of the books.

Many of the African American women in CBW have made it out of the long tail of the 7000+. At least five of the pre-1940 books in this set, the African American collective biographies of women, had no table of contents as of June 1. This summer, we filled in many of these biographies and associated them with existing person records or established new persons. Sometimes a Sojourner Truth already had her identity in the database, but new chapters could be linked to her. At other times, an Ida B. Wells and an Ida B. Wells-Barnett or Wells Barnett existed in multiple instances, which leads to precarious elimination of people (two women of the same name must compete to prove their existence). Many names in this cohort now have two, three, or more biographies.

This happened with one formerly well-known African American woman who was not familiar to me from my work on this cohort in chapter five of How to Make It as a Woman.

Myrtle Foster Cook went from being a one-off to having two biographies when I completed adding the table of contents of Profiles of Negro Womanhood (thank you Kerwin Holmes, Jr.!). Cook is 69th in a long list of biographies in Profiles of Negro Womanhood, 15th in the concluding Roll of Honor of some 54 women in alphabetical order, each of whom receives a single page with line portrait.

I noted that she was born Canadian, was recognized in histories of Kansas City and the National Association of Colored Women; that members of her family passed (or were counted in the census at different times) as white. Further research might highlight her journalism and her public speaking (which we could add to her unlimited roster of types).

Profiles of Negro Womanhood (1964) and Lifting as They Climb (1933) are two of the twenty-four all-female, all-African American collections in CBW, and in interesting ways characteristic of their era. (A book id number “p” designates post-1940; “a” designates 1830-1940.)

This type of collection largely post-dates Reconstruction, and shows the effect of Jim Crow and the civil rights movement, with parallels to the effort to include multiculturalism and African American studies in curricula. Slightly more than half of the all-female African American collective biographies were published after 1940. Most of the volumes seem oriented to the early twentieth-century orbit of club women. The brand of activism honored in the Roll of Honor in Profiles of Negro Womanhood is old-fashioned, certainly, similar and sometimes overlapping with that of the white counterparts in that era (historians have traced the segregation in the women’s movements, including temperance and missionary work). We began to notice other remarkable but explicable patterns: the number of educational degrees; the high rate of nurses and doctors as well as teachers, educational administrators, and missionaries in this cohort. Some of these educators and nurses were also performance, singer types, as original members of the Fisk Jubilee Singers.

Not surprisingly, as I was working on the Roll of Honor in Profiles, I kept finding that the summer research students had been there before me, creating a record for a Sue M. Brown or a Mabel Lewis. Such women do not turn up in African American History Month, and online sources may give no birth and death dates to accompany a photograph. Still, many a new-one-on-me is an old-one-in-uplift-recognition. Many of them have three or four chapters to themselves in the collections of this type in our genre-defined database. That is, once someone had taken the trouble to write up a biographical sketch, the presenters paid each other the compliment of copying each others’ efforts. In Dannett’s Profiles of Negro Women, the bibliography for the Roll of Honor includes five of the pre-1940 African American collections in CBW: a108, a120, a216, a227, a542, a706.

Tagged with →  
Share →

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *