In Between: Where are all the Black Women? by Dynas Johnson

Vindication of the Rights of Women:

“That woman is naturally weak, or degraded by a concurrence of circumstances is, I think, clear. (In this situation, Wollstonecraft could be talking about either mental weakness, which she addresses throughout her book, or physical weakness. In regards to physical weakness, I would argue and say that the environment many women found themselves in during Wollstonecraft’s moment in time shaped this physical weakness the same way it shaped mental weakness. The work that these women were put to primarily focused on childcare and housework. Because these individuals were kept from heavy activity, and often conditioned to stay in the house, not exercise, etc., their muscles would naturally atrophy over time, making women the weaker sex.)

But this position I shall simply contrast with a conclusion, which I have frequently heard fall from sensible men in favour of an aristocracy: that the mass of mankind cannot be any thing, or the obsequious slaves, who patiently allow themselves to be penned up, would feel their own consequence, and spurn their chains. (Du Bois had argued something similar in the third chapter of his book, The Souls of Black Folks. When discussing Booker T. Washington and his viewpoint towards how black people should conduct themselves if they wanted to succeed, Bu Bois questioned the value that Washington placed on economic mobility if black people still had no civil rights. This was a kind of pacification of the soul. A people who becomes comfortable in their chains is questionably not worth saving, according to Du Bois and Wollstonecraft. I can’t disagree.) Men, they further observe, submit every where to oppression, when they have only to lift up their heads to throw off the yoke; yet, instead of asserting their birthright, they quietly lick the dust, and say, let us eat and drink, for tomorrow we die. Women, I argue from analogy, are degraded by the same propensity to enjoy the present moment; and, at last, despise the freedom which they have not sufficient virtue to struggle to attain. But I must be more explicit. (I can see why she would say this. This echos the mentality of many individuals from many different groups of oppressed people, who have been trained to take what they can get, who have learned to take what they can get.)

With respect to the culture of the heart, it is unanimously allowed that sex is out of the question; but the line of subordination in the mental powers is never to be passed over. Only “absolute in loveliness,” the portion of rationality granted to woman is, indeed, very scanty; for, denying her genius and judgment, it is scarcely possible to divine what remains to characterize intellect. (Again, correlations between this text and Du Bois text, the observation of a oppressive society pressing strict limits on the minds of women that keep them from growing. Black people, during Du Bois’s time, thought to be a lesser race and were regulated to labor work and trade, to keep them out of the academic and political.)

The stamina of immortality, if I may be allowed the phrase, is the perfectibility of human reason; for, was man created perfect, or did a flood of knowledge break in upon him, when he arrived at maturity, that precluded error, I should doubt whether his existence would be continued after the dissolution of the body. (Women were not given the choice to reason for themselves. They were bred to be breeders and pretty objects and companions and to forever be under the watchful guidance of the men in their lives. Black people similarly were treated as the bastard children of America, destined to forever be the underlings of an oppressive system that wouldn’t allow them to walk through the front door. Just like black John who returned to his hometown and found hostility towards his ideas of reform and education for his people, as chronicled by Du Bois, women were encouraged away from thinking for themselves. This discouragement of reason was damaging to the personhood of women and black people.) But in the present state of things, every difficulty in morals, that escapes from human discussion, and equally baffles the investigation of profound thinking, and the lightning glance of genius, is an argument on which I build my belief of the immortality of the soul. Reason is, consequentially, the simple power of improvement; or, more properly speaking, of discerning truth. Every individual is in this respect a world in itself. More or less may be conspicuous in one being than other; but the nature of reason must be the same in all, if it be an emanation of divinity, the tie that connects the creature with the Creator; for, can that soul be stamped with the heavenly image, that is not perfected by the exercise of its own reason? (We were all given the freedom to think and navigate the world for ourselves so that we may gather knowledge and a deeper humanity, yet women and black people were discouraged from this endeavor selfhood and improvement, directly implying that these groups of people were not allowed to understand and realize the full extent of their humanity.) Yet outwardly ornamented with elaborate care, and so adorned to delight man, “that with honour he may love,” (Vide Milton) the soul of woman is not allowed to have this distinction, and man, ever placed between her and reason, she is always represented as only created to see through a gross medium, and to take things on trust. (This is a tangible example of the appearance of white women privilege, a problematic one, but still a privilege. Despite the limitations on the personhood of women, being put on this sort of pedestal in their society granted women some protections, as mothers, wives, symbols of purity, etc. Black women didn’t even have this measly protection. During the era of slavery and even well after, it wasn’t considered a crime, for example, to rape a black woman. She was believed to be of little virtue and promiscuous, so consent was never a question. I don’t want to say that the things that white women have historically went through, or still go through, is not an issue, but their status as white granted them a leg up over black people. They were also heavily guarded by white men in a society that constructed beauty and moral standards that portrayed white women as beautiful and black women as ugly, dirty, unsavory, immoral.) But, dismissing these fanciful theories, and considering woman as a whole, let it be what it will, instead of a part of man, the inquiry is, whether she has reason or not. If she has, which, for a moment, I will take for granted, she was not created merely to be the solace of man, and the sexual should not destroy the human character.” (Wollstonecraft, Chapter 4, www.gutenberg.org)

 

The Souls of Black Folks:

 

“In the history of nearly all other races and peoples the doctrine preached at such crises had been that manly self-respect is worth more than lands and houses, and that a people who voluntarily surrender such respect, or cease striving for it, are not worth civilizing. (An echo of Wollstonecraft’s critique in the above textual example.)

In answer to this, it has been claimed that the Negro can survive only through submission. (This is what is claimed of every group that is suppressed, that they can only survive by going along with the system. Women have suffered from this ideology as well. This ideology completely erases the responsibility of the oppressive society. This kind of survivalist mindset is one of surrender, a mindset that caters to mainstream ideology and relieves everyone of the pressing need of reform.)  Mr. Washington distinctly asks that black people give up, at least for the present, three things,–

First, political power,

Second, insistence on civil rights,

Third, higher education of Negro youth,–and concentrate all their energies on industrial education, the accumulation of wealth, and the conciliation of the South. This policy has been courageously and insistently advocated for over fifthteen years, and has been triumphant for perhaps ten years. As a result of this tender of the palm branch, what has been the return? In these years there have occurred:

  1. The disfranchisement of the Negro.
  2. The legal creation of a distinct status of civil inferiority for the Negro.
  3. The steady withdrawal of aid from institutions for the higher training of the Negro. (Du Bois, 68)

(Without civil rights protecting a people by granting them the rights of citizen status and allowing them a voice to express their needs and wants, how can a people use their society’s resources?)

And Mr. Washington thus faces the triple paradox of his career:

  1. He is striving nobly to make Negro artisans business men and property-owners; but it is utterly impossible, under modern competitive methods, for workingmen and property-owners to defend their rights and exist without the right of suffrage. (Again, we come to this concept of suffrage, voting power being one of the most important actions a citizen can make in their country, though some people will argue about this. Nonetheless, suffrage meant so much to the citizenry because it gave them the ability to interact with their government and advocate for themselves.)
  2. He insists on thrift and self-respect, but at the same time counsels a silent submission to civic inferiority such as is bound to sap the manhood of any race in the long run.
  3. He advocates common-school and industrial education training, and depreciates institutions of higher learning; but neither the Negro common-schools, nor Tuskegee itself, could remain open a day were it not for teachers trained in Negro colleges, or trained by their graduates. (Du Bois, 68)

 

Vindication of the Rights of Women

 

“If then women are not a swarm of ephemeron triflers, why should they be kept in ignorance under the specious name of innocence? (And if black people are indeed have souls and are capable of learning, why keep them behind the Veil of obscurity and ignorance?) Men complain, and with reason, of the follies and caprices of our sex, when they do not keenly satirize our headstrong passions and groveling vices. (And many privileged Americans will complain about black people, stereotyping us all as people who don’t want to work, wield guns, work in gangs, and self-sabotage ourselves.) Behold, I should answer, the natural effect of ignorance! The mind will ever be unstable that has only prejudices to rest on, and the current will run with destructive fury when there are no barriers to break its force. Women are told from their infancy, and taught by the example of their mothers, that a little knowledge of human weakness, justly termed cunning, softness of temper, OUTWARD obedience, and a scrupulous attention to a puerile kind of propriety, will obtain for them the protection of man; and should they be beautiful, every thing else is needless, for at least twenty years of their lives.” (I can connect this with the strife of black people; not many understand the plight that many of my people are still suffering from, or that this strife comes from societal, political, and especially economic handicaps much more than from some kind of natural inefficiency to function responsibly.)

“How grossly do they insult us, who thus advise us only to render ourselves gentle, domestic brutes! For instance, the winning softness, so warmly, and frequently recommended, that governs by obeying. What childish expressions, and how insignificant is the being—can it be an immortal one? who will condescend to govern by such sinister methods! (This reminds me of the kind of black people Washington encouraged his people to become, and the kind of people most of white America wanted at the time: submissive, obedient, religious, loyal. The perfect subjects.) “Certainly,” says Lord Bacon, “man is of kin to the beasts by his body: and if he be not of kin to God by his spirit, he is a base and ignoble creature!” Men, indeed, appear to me to act in a very unphilosophical manner, when they try to secure the good conduct of women by attempting to keep them always in a state of childhood. Rousseau was more consistent when he wished to stop the progress of reason in both sexes; for if men eat of the tree of knowledge, women will come in for a taste: but, from the imperfect cultivation which their understandings now receive, they only attain a knowledge of evil.

Children, I grant, should be innocent; but when the epithet is applied to men, or women, it is but a civil term for weakness. For if it be allowed that women were destined by Providence to acquire human virtues, and by the exercise of their understandings, that stability of character which is the firmest ground to rest our future hopes upon, they must be permitted to turn to the fountain of light, and not forced to shape their course by the twinkling of a mere satellite. Milton, I grant, was of a very different opinion; for he only bends to the indefeasible right of beauty, though it would be difficult to render two passages, which I now mean to contrast, consistent: but into similar inconsistencies are great men often led by their senses:—” (Wollstonecraft, ch. 2., www.gutenberg.org)

 

The Souls of Black Folks

 

“Heah that John is livenin’ things up at the darky school,” volunteered the postmaster, after a pause.

“What now?” asked the Judge, sharply.

“Oh, nothin’ in particulah,–just his almighty air and up- pish ways. B’lieve I did heah somethin’ about his givin’ talks on the French Revolution, equality, and such like. He’s what I call a dangerous Nigger.” (He’s dangerous because he wants black people to be more than servants and adult children. He wants black people to realize their full potential as citizens and human beings.)

“Have you heard him say anything out of the way?”

“Why, no,–but Sally, our girl, told my wife a lot of rot. Then, too, I don’t need to heah: a Nigger what won’t say ‘sir’ to a white man, or–”

“Who is this John?” interrupted the son.

“Why, it’s little black John, Peggy’s son,–your old playfellow.”

The young man’s face flushed angrily, and then he laughed.

“Oh,” said he, “it’s the darky that tried to force himself into a seat beside the lady I was escorting–” (This was a complete misconception of what happened; this mistelling shows how the same event was taken a different way by a different pair of eyes with a different mindset.)

But Judge Henderson waited to hear no more. He had been nettled all day, and now at this he rose with a half-smothered oath, took his hat and cane, and walked straight to the schoolhouse.

For John, it had been a long, hard pull to get things started in the rickety old shanty that sheltered his school. The Ne-groes were rent into factions for and against him, the parents were careless, the children irregular and dirty, and books, pencils, and slates largely missing. Nevertheless, he struggled hopefully on, and seemed to see at last some glimmering of dawn. The attendance was larger and the children were a shade cleaner this week. Even the booby class in reading showed a little comforting progress. So John settled himself with renewed patience this afternoon.

“Now, Mandy,” he said cheerfully, “that’s better; but you mustn’t chop your words up so: ‘If–the-man–goes.’ Why, your little brother even wouldn’t tell a story that way, now would he?”

“Naw, suh, he cain’t talk.”

“All right; now let’s try again: ‘If the man–‘

“John!”

The whole school started in surprise, and the teacher half arose, as the red, angry face of the Judge appeared in the open doorway.

John, this school is closed. You children can go home and get to work. The white people of Altamaha are not spending their money on black folks to have their heads crammed with impudence and lies. (This is definitely what they were saying when women first started coming to school. This concept that educating women was a waste of time, that educating black people was a waste of time. I wonder where black women fit in all of this.) Clear out! I’ll lock the door myself.” (Clear out, I’ll close down your opportunities myself.) (Du Bois, 182)

 

Wollstonecraft:

 

Consequently, the most perfect education, in my opinion, is such an exercise of the understanding as is best calculated to strengthen the body and form the heart; or, in other words, to enable the individual to attain such habits of virtue as will render it independent. In fact, it is a farce to call any being virtuous whose virtues do not result from the exercise of its own reason. (It is a farce, because like the Daodejing would say, a person cannot pretend to be good, if they are not good; that goodness should be self-evident in their personhood and lifestyle. The same can be said with virtue. You are either virtuous, or not; trying to be suggests that you are not. One cannot be virtuous, however, if one is not taught how to understand human nature and their own feelings, and are not encouraged to apply this understanding.)This was Rousseau’s opinion respecting men: I extend it to women, and confidently assert that they have been drawn out of their sphere by false refinement, and not by an endeavour to acquire masculine qualities (To gender virtue is already, I would argue, the first step in the wrong direction. Virtue is not a characteristic inherent in any gender.) Still the regal homage which they receive is so intoxicating, that, till the manners of the times are changed, and formed on more reasonable principles, it may be impossible to convince them that the illegitimate power, which they obtain by degrading themselves, is a curse, and that they must return to nature and equality, if they wish to secure the placid satisfaction that unsophisticated affections impart (Again, this topic of false privilege comes up again. It makes me really take in the different kinds of advantages and disadvantages that different groups have, and how one limitation for one group could be an advantage for another group if that aspect was ever applied. As a black woman, I wonder what that is like, to be put on a pedestal, however problematic. A limitation is a limitation; that pedestal is laced with chains. However, it does offer some protection, often at the cost of other, less favored groups. For example, in America, white woman treated as prized possessions, almost holy. They represented purity.They were protected by the white patriarchy. Black men were, and still are to some extent, seen as unworthy challengers to the white man, and portrayed as lesser beings who needed to be kept away from white women. This is why interracial marriages between black men and white women used to stir so much controversy and anger, especially in the South . But what of black women? Black women were hardly seen as anything more than breeders. They were portrayed as flirtatious and immoral, lacking virtue entirely. For a long time, raping a black woman wasn’t considered a crime; it wasn’t even called rape.) But for this epoch we must wait—wait, perhaps, till kings and nobles, enlightened by reason, and, preferring the real dignity of man to childish state, throw off their gaudy hereditary trappings; and if then women do not resign the arbitrary power of beauty, they will prove that they have LESS mind than man. I may be accused of arrogance; still I must declare, what I firmly believe, that all the writers who have written on the subject of female education and manners, from Rousseau to Dr. Gregory, have contributed to render women more artificial, weaker characters, than they would otherwise have been; and, consequently, more useless members of society. I might have expressed this conviction in a lower key; but I am afraid it would have been the whine of affectation, and not the faithful expression of my feelings, of the clear result, which experience and reflection have led me to draw. When I come to that division of the subject, I shall advert to the passages that I more particularly disapprove of, in the works of the authors I have just alluded to; but it is first necessary to observe, that my objection extends to the whole purport of those books, which tend, in my opinion, to degrade one half of the human species, and render women pleasing at the expense of every solid virtue.

Though to reason on Rousseau’s ground, if man did attain a degree of perfection of mind when his body arrived at maturity, it might be proper in order to make a man and his wife ONE, that she should rely entirely on his understanding; and the graceful ivy, clasping the oak that supported it, would form a whole in which strength and beauty would be equally conspicuous. But, alas! husbands, as well as their helpmates, are often only overgrown children; nay, thanks to early debauchery, scarcely men in their outward form, and if the blind lead the blind, one need not come from heaven to tell us the consequence. (I love this quote, because it basically shoots fire at the assumption that just like all women are foolish and silly, all men are intelligent, well-rounded, and positive contributions to society. The fact is that many men are not; many women aren’t either. To say that intelligence, goodness, and independence is characteristic of one gender and not the other leaves many, many exceptions to that rule, so many the rule is not even a rule, it’s a biased opinion that is not reliable or provable.)

Many are the causes that, in the present corrupt state of society, contribute to enslave women by cramping their understandings and sharpening their senses. One, perhaps, that silently does more mischief than all the rest, is their disregard of order.

To do every thing in an orderly manner, is a most important precept, which women, who, generally speaking, receive only a disorderly kind of education, seldom attend to with that degree of exactness that men, who from their infancy are broken into method, observe. (Orderliness is another example of human knowledge, not so much education, that deeply shapes human person’s ability to think and function efficiently.)This negligent kind of guesswork, for what other epithet can be used to point out the random exertions of a sort of instinctive common sense, never brought to the test of reason? prevents their generalizing matters of fact, so they do to-day, what they did yesterday, merely because they did it yesterday.

This contempt of the understanding in early life has more baneful consequences than is commonly supposed; for the little knowledge which women of strong minds attain, is, from various circumstances, of a more desultory kind than the knowledge of men, and it is acquired more by sheer observations on real life, than from comparing what has been individually observed with the results of experience generalized by speculation. Led by their dependent situation and domestic employments more into society, what they learn is rather by snatches; and as learning is with them, in general, only a secondary thing, they do not pursue any one branch with that persevering ardour necessary to give vigour to the faculties, and clearness to the judgment. (How can individuals be expected to operate with good judgment, with a kind heart, with pure intentions, etc. when these individuals have never had to make good judgements for themselves, when kindness takes a backseat to beauty and attaining a wealthy husband, when life is defined by materialistic endeavors? How can a mother raise her children to be good and virtuous people when she herself was only ever shown a shadow of what these characteristics are, having never been taught to attain these characteristics herself?) In the present state of society, a little learning is required to support the character of a gentleman; and boys are obliged to submit to a few years of discipline. But in the education of women the cultivation of the understanding is always subordinate to the acquirement of some corporeal accomplishment; even while enervated by confinement and false notions of modesty, the body is prevented from attaining that grace and beauty which relaxed half-formed limbs never exhibit. Besides, in youth their faculties are not brought forward by emulation; and having no serious scientific study, if they have natural sagacity it is turned too soon on life and manners. They dwell on effects, and modifications, without tracing them back to causes; and complicated rules to adjust behaviour are a weak substitute for simple principles. (Wollstonecraft, ch. 2)

 

Du Bois:

The function of the Negro college, then, is clear: it must maintain the standards of popular education, it must seek the social regeneration of the Negro, and it must help in the solution of problems of race contact and cooperation. And finally, beyond all this, it must develop men. (Du Bois seems to just be referring to academic development, which is also important, but I believe that he is talking about much more than that. He is talking about human knowledge.) Above our modern socialism, and out of the worship of the mass, must persist and evolve that higher individualism which the centres of culture protect (Individualism is cannot be acquired by books alone, but by teaching individuals how to reason, how to observe their environment and navigate it, how to express their observations and viewpoints. The roadblock in the way of this kind of education for black people is two fold; it is denied to black people in the first place by their society, and secondly, the black people who are educated in this way are heavily persecuted, hunted, and even killed because of their evolved sense of personhood.); there must come a loftier respect for the sovereign human soul that seeks to know itself and the world about it; that seeks a freedom for expansion and self- development; that will love and hate and labor in its own way, untrammeled alike by old and new. Such souls afore- time have inspired and guided worlds, and if we be not wholly bewitched by our Rhinegold, they shall again. Herein the longing of black men must have respect (Again, this trend of saying black men rather than black people, or black folks. This again could just be a sign of the times. Du Bois indeed could be referring to black men and women. However, if so, I find it strange that the Du Bois book would be called The Souls of Black Folks, but then go on to refer to black people as black men in his book. This detail makes me wonder if he was thinking of the state of black women at all in his book.): the rich and bitter depth of their experience, the unknown treasures of their inner life, the strange rendings of nature they have seen, may give the world new points of view and make their loving, living, and doing precious to all human hearts. And to themselves in these the days that try their souls, the chance to soar in the dim blue air above the smoke is to their finer spirits boon and guerdon for what they lose on earth by being black.

I sit with Shakespeare and he winces not. Across the color line I move arm in arm with Balzac and Dumas, where smiling men and welcoming women glide in gilded halls. From out the caves of evening that swing between the strong- limbed earth and the tracery of the stars, I summon Aristotle and Aurelius and what soul I will, and they come all graciously with no scorn nor condescension. So, wed with Truth, I dwell above the Veil. Knowledge doesn’t shy away from anyone who is willing to learn and grow. The only reason a person is not able to learn is when it is denied to a person.) Is this the life you grudge us, O knightly America? Is this the life you long to change into the dull red hideousness of Georgia? Are you so afraid lest peering from this high Pisgah, between Philistine and Amalekite, we sight the Promised Land? (Du Bois, ch. 6)

 

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