U.S. Intellectual History Blog

Black women in 1920s newspapers and journals

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Part of what I am doing in my first chapter is describing the different components of the Harlem women’s community–the physical space, the YWCA, the women’s auxiliaries of the NAACP and Urban League, the artistic salons, and two NACWs–the National Association of Colored Women (which helped plan the 1927 Pan-African Congress) and the National Association of College Women. In addition, I locate African American women in the vibrant print culture of Harlem. This has proven to be somewhat of a challenge because I am asking different questions than I did while writing my dissertation, but I no longer have access to the digitized black newspapers (or the newspapers on microfilm, except through interlibrary loan, which I haven’t gotten to yet). Because it is not a central component of my argument, I would be happy to depend on someone else’s legwork. But as Kim Gallon* argues, there has yet to be extensive work on the place of black women in black newspaper historiography–in the sense of deep analysis of women’s pages, articles, and editorials. There has obviously been work on individual authors and a few anthologies of essays by women during the Harlem Renaissance. What I am wondering is–did the 4 black women my book is about see themselves in black periodicals, or did they see a distorted image?


I am continuing to read Prove It On Me: New Negroes, Sex, and Popular Culture, which I blogged about last week (hurry, hurry, the interlibrary loan is ending today!). Chapman argues that the black periodical Opportunity obscures black women’s independence in favor of advocating a notion of race motherhood. Her analysis is incredibly helpful to my section on black periodicals. At the same time, I am pondering whether the impact that the idea of “race mothering” had on New Negro women, which Chapman charts, is true of the women I study. I think that the international travel my women engaged in gave them a unique kind of independence that transported them out of the “race mothering” ideology of the New Negro that Chapman articulates. But I’m still pondering.

I’m deeply grateful to Chapman for giving me so many things to think about. She takes a much more pessimistic view of how black women were presented in the media and it is providing a much needed corrective to my (perhaps overly) optimistic tone, at least in that first chapter.

Now, a few quotes to illustrate what I mean by the above and then I need to keep reading so I can stop adding to my library fees.

All New Negro women “lived within and understood themselves through the prevailing sexual and racial discourses of their time, which operated according to a particular, interwar mix of racism and sexism and New Negro efforts to advance the race.” (55)

“These New Negro progressives, including professional racial advocates, sociologists, psychologists, ministers, teachers, and a rising army of social workers, developed an approach that placed a premium on women’s maternal roles in ideally patriarchal black families and communities and obfuscated the need for the redress of black women’s particular oppression.” (55)

“New Negro progressivism participated in the development and dissemination of an intra-racial discourse overwhelmingly binding black women’s identities to motherhood. Whether they were mothers rearing their own children or childless women supporting themselves, black women were expected to devote the whole of their energies and talents to the betterment of the race’s opportunities through the successful reproduction and training of the next generation. They were, essentially, to mother the race.” (57)

Opportunity; “With such editorials, [Charles S.] Johnson provided a large proportion o the magazine’s coverage of black women’s experiences. … Johnson did not consider women inherently inferior to men. … Rather than a sexist belief in women’s inherent inferiority, Johnson evinced a masculinist understanding of the African American racial situation that relegated black women to the home and children’s care.” “In editorials on women workers, infant mortality and mothers’ mortality over the course of the 1920s, Johnson identified working women as a curse on the black family.” (69)

“Women’s racial advocacy and respectability, their loyalty to the race’s interests, even their very identities, were measured, prescribed, and evaluated in terms of race motherhood.” (70) [hmmmmmmm, even their very identities–yes, there is a deep sense of what I call “responsibility to the race” (rather than race motherhood, which is a term I need to adopt) and yet I think international travel provided these women with an alternative kind of identity, adding to, rather than losing, the sense of responsibility. hmmmmm]


“Under Johnson’s editorship, Opportunity promoted race motherhood throughout its discussions of black women’s employment circumstances and prospects. This discourse worked against black women’s participation in the ‘opportunity’ the magazine touted as the hallmark of the era. Black women were not to seek to determine their destinies independently of the greater racial good nor take advantage of theri increased employment opportunities to create lives that excluded or decentralized their mothering potential. Furthermore, they were to promote New Negro patriarchy by serving in subordinate, helpmate capacities to professional black men in business and medicine and by accepting less payment than their male counterparts.” (72)

“The proliferation of this gender discourse worked against black women’s realizations of the opportunities for independence and self-determination that migration, urbanization, the Nineteenth Amendment, industrialization, and city life should have made possible. Ultimately, it muted black women’s voices and circumscribed their opportunities. It did little to eliminate the particular oppression that continued to assault them, and it failed to provide them a full measure of fulfillment.”  (77)

 That last quote is almost the anti-thesis** of what I’ve been articulating in Chapter 1. Much to ponder.

*Kim Gallon, “Silences Kept: The Absence of Gender and Sexuality in Black Press Historiography,” History Compass 10, no. 2 (February 1, 2012): 207–218.
**(hahaha the antithesis)

2 Thoughts on this Post

  1. I have been following these fascinating posts on early-twentieth century African American women for some time and would like to thank Lauren Kientz Anderson for sharing her work and her brainstorming processes.

    From the quotes offered here, it appears that Chapman follows a Foucaultian analysis: the lives of African American middle-class women in this region were not only limited by male-dominated African American print culture and public spaces, but defined by them as subjects. A possible way to interrogate her observations would be by tackling her theoretical presumptions about how social and cultural institutions, spaces, and the like operate in relationship to individuals. Phrases that jumped out are “full measure of fulfillment”–a value that can of course only be determined in normative and prescriptive terms, does Chapman offer accounts of what fulfillment represented for such women or is this essentially correspond to her own idea of it?–and “muted”–was there an actual diminishing of female presence in the African-American public sphere? how is muting measured by Chapman? in my field, literary and cultural studies, it would be typical to say that a patriarchal discourse such as Charles Johnson’s silences female subjectivity through its representations of motherhood and female labor, yet this does not necessarily mean that actual subjects were silenced or muted in the process.

    I find it interesting that you allude to international travel (and, I imagine the social networks and cultural bridges that they built throughout) as a form of liberation for these African-American women. This has been pointed out in the case of African-American and Afro-Caribbean male artists and intellectuals such as Marcus Garvey, C.L.R. James, Claude McKay, etc. If you haven’t already looked at them, it might be useful to have as counterpoints Hayes Edwards’ The Practices of Diaspora and Michelle Stephens’ Black Empire.

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