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In Search of the Black Women's History Archive

  • Ashley D. Farmer

Questions of evidence have sat at the center of black women's history since the field entered the academy over thirty years ago. Historians of black women's lives and labors have filled bookshelves by “mining the forgotten” to render them visible. Scholarship pioneered in the 1980s and 1990s established black women as prominent and indispensable historical actors, and key to understanding such eras as slavery, the Civil War, and the Civil Rights movement. Subsequent works built upon the bedrock that these initial studies provided, incorporating nuanced gender analyses into the history of black women's thought, experiences, and political action. The past ten years have seen a proliferation of publications that have extended the reach of the field to include such genres and approaches as girlhood studies, intellectual history, and black internationalism. This groundswell of research has foregrounded a persistent methodological quandary for scholars of black women's history: how should they address the paradox of simultaneously finding copious archival records on some black women, while also accounting for the deafening archival silence on others?

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1 White, Deborah Gray, “Mining the Forgotten: Manuscript Sources for Black Women's History,” Journal of American History 74, no. 1 (June 1987): 237–42.

2 Examples include, but are not limited, to White, Deborah Gray, Ar'n't I a Woman? Female Slaves in the Plantation South (New York, 1999); Hine, Darlene Clark and Gaspar, David Barry, More Than Chattel: Black Women and Slavery in the Americas (Bloomington, IN, 1996); Jones, Jacqueline, Labor of Love, Labor of Sorrow: Black Women, Work, and the Family from Slavery to the Present (New York, 1985); Robinson, Jo Ann, The Montgomery Bus Boycott and the Women Who Started It (Knoxville, TN, 1987).

3 Examples include, but are not limited to, Simmons, LaKeisha Michelle, Crescent City Girls: The Lives of Black Women in Segregated New Orleans (Chapel Hill, NC, 2015); Cooper, Brittney, Beyond Respectability: The Intellectual Thought of Race Women (Urbana, IL, 2017); Farmer, Ashley, Remaking Black Power: How Black Women Transformed an Era (Chapel Hill, NC, 2017); Blain, Keisha N., Set the World on Fire: Black Nationalist Women and the Global Struggle for Freedom (Philadelphia, 2018).

4 Taylor, Ula, “Women in the Documents: Thoughts on Uncovering the Personal, Political, and Professional,” Journal of Women's History 20, no. 1 (Spring 2008): 187–96, here 189.

5 White, “Mining the Forgotten,” 237.

6 Fuentes, Marisa, Dispossessed Lives: Enslaved Women, Violence, and the Archive (Philadelphia, 2016), 3.

7 Fuentes, Dispossessed Lives, 5.

8 Fuentes, Dispossessed Lives, 14–15, 29.

9 Fuentes, Dispossessed Lives, 94, 78.

10 LeFlouria, Talitha, Chained in Silence: Black Women and Convict Labor in the New South (Chapel Hill, NC, 2015), 89.

11 LeFlouria, Chained in Silence, 16.

12 Gross, Kali Nicole, Hannah Mary Tabbs and the Disembodied Torso: A Tale of Race, Sex, and Violence in America (New York, 2016), 4.

13 Gross, Hannah Mary Tabbs, 5.

14 Gross, Hannah Mary Tabbs, 3.

15 Gross, Hannah Mary Tabbs, 4.

16 Harris, LaShawn, Sex Workers, Psychics, and Number Runners: Black Women in New York City's Underground Economy (Urbana, IL, 2016), 11.

17 Harris, Sex Workers, Psychics, and Number Runners, 5.

18 Harris, Sex Workers, Psychics, and Number Runners, 10.

19 Harris, Sex Workers, Psychics, and Number Runners, 134.

20 Gross, Hannah Mary Tabbs, 5.

21 Fuentes, Dispossessed Lives, 146.

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Modern American History
  • ISSN: 2515-0456
  • EISSN: 2397-1851
  • URL: /core/journals/modern-american-history
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