© 2024 Ideastream Public Media

1375 Euclid Avenue, Cleveland, Ohio 44115
(216) 916-6100 | (877) 399-3307

WKSU is a public media service licensed to Kent State University and operated by Ideastream Public Media.
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

In 'Beyond Respectability,' A History of Black Women As Public Intellectuals

You know what a performative utterance is, even if you've never heard the term before. "I now pronounce you" at a wedding is one; "I christen this ship" is another. Performative utterance carries a particular power — it's the thing you want to make true.

And performative utterance is at the heart of Brittney C. Cooper's Beyond Respectability, which profiles several black feminist intellectuals who not only fought against the idea of "respectability" as a prerequisite for being heard, but against the tendency of white feminists and black men to erase their contributions.

For the thinkers and activists Cooper writes about — whose work spans over a century of public intellectualism — verbally laying claim to public space was a crucial step in legitimizing their ideas. And since these women were struggling against both racism and misogyny, that legitimacy was critical; performative utterance became lifeblood. Through actions like listing – creating "lists of prominent, qualified Black women for easy consumption," Cooper writes, these women gave context to their own history, granting "intellectual, political, and/or cultural legitimacy to the Black women speaking their names."

... it's clear early on that 'Beyond Respectability' is a work of crucial cultural study.

While this is a rewarding read, it's an academic history rather than a chatty one. It takes its material seriously and expects you will, too, and though you don't have to be particularly well-read on this history going in, expect to be rereading certain sentences, flipping to the end notes for further reading, and double-checking the definition of terms like cathect. (It means "to invest with mental or emotional energy," and that's as good a description of this book as any.)

But it's clear early on that Beyond Respectability is a work of crucial cultural study. It introduces concepts of the black woman as a public citizen in post-Restoration America, and explores women whose work pushed against the dominant narrative — Fannie Barrier Williams speaking of black women as a political body, Mary Church Terrell documenting resistance over the course of decades, Pauli Murray's discussions of queerness, Toni Cade Bambara's 1970s anthologies of black women's writing — and draws us through that history to the present.

That's no small task; the book lays out the complicated history of black woman as intellectual force, making clear how much work she has done simply to bring that category into existence. By the turn of the 20th century, educator and activist Williams was already adamant about the necessity of seeing black women as public citizens. In "The Club Movement Among Colored Women of America," she wrote of the "organized anxiety of women who have become intelligent enough to recognize their own low social condition and strong enough to initiate the forces of reform," urging black women to organize and agitate for power — and credit — within the wider body politic.

And Cooper deftly addresses the complex forces at work as the movement developed. The idea of "respectability" itself is one of the book's major concerns; some of the writers she profiles held to the idea that being seen as respectable enhanced their political message; later writers and activists would argue that respectability too often equaled a demure and ineffective silence. Cooper chronicles generational shifts in the methods of dissent, divisive issues of queerness, and debates about activism as intellectualism when the first is necessary in order to make space for the second.

Reading this book, it's hard to escape its condemnation of history.

Beyond Respectability also connects this history to the ways contemporary black women spearhead public discourse, from Melissa Harris-Perry to the use of social media as an activist platform, as when Patrisse Khan-Cullors, Alicia Garza, and Opal Tometi introduced #BlackLivesMatter. Sometimes the veil between Then and Now is even thinner — take Mary Church Terrell's 1905 essay "The Mission of the Meddler," in which she exhorts the political meddler to "ask disagreeable questions about the political corruption which makes a single white man in one section equal to seven in another."

Reading this book, it's hard to escape its condemnation of history. It's been over a century since Anna Julia Cooper named "undisputed dignity" as a prerequisite for social and racial equality for black women, and nearly every woman quoted in Beyond Respectability, no matter the era, takes note of how distant that ideal remains. But the other thing this book makes clear is the value and crucial importance of black women intellectuals making a record for themselves — performative utterance, legitimizing a legacy that history might otherwise forget.

Genevieve Valentine's latest novel is Icon.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.