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A History of Black Women in the United States, by Daina Ramsey Berry and Kali Nicole Gross. 

January 25, 2020

A History of Black Women in the United States

A History of Black Women in the United States, by Daina Ramsey Berry and Kali Nicole Gross.  Beacon Press, 2020.  ReVisioning American History series.

5 star

An innovative account of African American women’s lives blending careful scholarship and imaginative speculation from the Spanish Conquest to the present.

Daine Ramsey Berry and Kali Nicole Gross are both respected traditional historians.  Both hold named chairs in highly regarded institutions. Both have received awards for their work. Both have published in academia.  Both have also appeared in the media and community where they have participated in projects that sought to expand understanding beyond traditional scholarly boundaries.  Kali Nicole Gross is Martin Luther King, jr. Professor of History at Rutgers University and National Publications Director for the Association of Black Women Historians.  Her degrees are from Cornell University and the University of Pennsylvania.  She has also taught in housing projects and correctional institutions.  Daina Ramsey Berry is the Oliver H. Radkey Regents Professor of History at the University of Texas at Austin. She has published six books on slavery, participated in projects relating to teaching of history, and appeared in variety of media. Her degrees are from the University of California at Los Angeles.

Yet despite their credentials, this book is not a typical academic analysis or a textbook.  It will probably annoy some transitional historians.  It was written for a wide range of readers from high school and college students to the general readers.  Scholars, like myself, who have written and taught on the topic, will also find new information and a new conception of the varied lives of Black women in our past.

Berry and Gross have researched widely in both primary and secondary sources, looking for mention, often in passing, of Black women.  They provide the factual basis of what can be known about women who have largely assumed to be unworthy of attention by their contemporaries or by historians. The innovative structure of the book involves chronological chapters each introduced by the story of individuals and followed by the contexts of particular times and places.  Each chapter also discusses a variety of others who lived in that time period.  Here we see the sheer variety of classes, beliefs and ways that black women adapted to their situations.  Although better known women are included, they are not central to the book.

More unconventionally, when there are no factual details available, the authors speculate honestly and encourage readers to do the same.  They provide information about women’s time and circumstances and ask readers to imagine what women’s lives might have been like and what they might have felt.  Instead of sticking closely to the women’s biographies, they also provide facts about the historical context of their times and the conditions under which they lived.  This approach is particularly useful for the period before the American Revolution.  I won’t think about a Spanish Conquistador again without seeing a Black woman there to do his laundry.  This willingness to speculate can change how we think about Black women more generally and is one of the most radical aspects of this book.

While the “New Social History” of the late twentieth century brought new groups into the preview of historians, we saw them through statistics.  Berry and Gross introduce individuals and their voices.  Their book not only gives us facts; it also suggests new ways to think of black women and new questions to ask.

A History of Black Women appears in the Beacon Press series, ReVisioning American Series.  This is a series devoted to goals that mirror the authors’.  It publishes histories that include groups usually invisible in our past and to point that the disabled and transgendered have a history.  In addition, they provide historians the opportunity to explore new techniques for telling our national narrative which include such people.

Berry and Gross suggest a truly innovating way to do history.  I hope their book is widely read and discussed.  Even those not particularly interested in the topic should read the book and consider its example of a new way to think about doing history. And it also pushes us to create new ways of thinking about ourselves and our neighbors.

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