U.S. Intellectual History Blog

How does identity affect ideas (and what to do if it doesn’t)?

This is going to seem like an obvious question, but I ask that you go with me, and approach it as a seemingly simple question that has deep resonance.


I had a long-distance conversation with a colleague about Mabel Byrd. In the article I sent him for comments, I argued that Byrd was not a feminist because she never talked about women in any of her extant letters or essays (which are more than for many black women, but still only a handful). My colleague suggested that because she associated with feminist women and went to women-only events (like a Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom meeting), she should be called a feminist. I still think it is significant that she never spoke about the particular difficulties faced by women, but I will concede that it is also significant that she operated in a women’s sphere in so many ways. In my book, I have a whole chapter about the women’s community in Harlem in the 1920s, which supported Harlem Renaissance authors and artists, but was also interested in the politics of respectability and which did things on their own, apart from the famous HR folks. But evidently I haven’t transmitted the importance of that community into my thinking on Byrd’s life (and Derricotte‘s, Yolande Du Bois‘, and Eslanda Robeson‘s). Was it possible to be an intelligent woman in the 1920s, associating with progressive groups, and not be a feminist? Is it ahistorical to use Alice Walker’s term “womanist”? “Womanists” are women 

who behave in a bold, courageous, responsible way as agents of social change for the wholeness and liberation of black people and the rest of humanity. As self-described womanist Geneva Smitherman has noted, a womanist is rooted in the black community and is committed to the development of herself and the entire community. These women are thus linked to earlier generations of ‘race women’ who worked on behalf of black civil society. They celebrate the culture and beauty of black women. (from here).

Or perhaps the term I’m looking for is “race women.”  Pauli Murray describes her aunts as “race women”

They took pride in every achievement of “the race” and agonized over every lynching, every black boy convicted and ‘sent to the roads,’ every insult to ‘the race.’ I would hear: “The race is moving forward!’ ‘You simply can’t keep the race down!’ ‘The race of colored people is going to show the world yet!’”

But I associate “race women” with the generation before Byrd–Mary Church Terrell and the founders of the  National Association of Colored Women’s generation.

To reiterate the question in my title–to what extent does identity affect ideas? To what extent does Byrd think the way she does because she is a woman, or a black person, or a Oregonian, or an economist, or a Marxist, etc. And how do I answer the first part of that if there’s no evidence for her speaking about herself as a woman or about women in general?

In the same vein, a couple of websites describe Pauli Murry as a “same-gender-loving-woman,” (including one that announces she has been named an Episcopal Saint) but she doesn’t mention that anywhere in her 437 page autobiography from 1987. I’m teaching her autobiography for the next couple of weeks (her life parallels so many interesting trends of the 20th century), interspersed with textbook chapters. I’m trying to decide when I mention that Murray was a “same-gender-loving-woman” and how I frame that. I think it matters to the extent that gay people shouldn’t be invisible in history, but I don’t know to what extent it influenced her thinking, particularly since most of my knowledge of her life comes from her autobiography.

A 2011 biography describes Murray thus

Pauli Murray (1910-1985) was a poet, lawyer, activist, and priest, as well as a significant figure in the civil rights and women’s movements. Throughout her careers and activism, Murray espoused faith in an American democracy that is partially present and yet to come. In the 1940s Murray was in the vanguard of black activists to use nonviolent direct action. A decade before the Montgomery bus boycott, Murray organized sit-ins of segregated restaurants in Washington DC and was arrested for sitting in the front section of a bus in Virginia. Murray pioneered the category Jane Crow to describe discrimination she experienced as a result of racism and sexism. She used Jane Crow in the 1960s to expand equal protection provisions for African American women. A co-founder of the National Organization of Women, Murray insisted on the interrelation of all human rights. Her professional and personal relationships included major figures in the ongoing struggle for civil rights for all Americans, including Thurgood Marshall and Eleanor Roosevelt. In seminary in the 1970s, Murray developed a black feminist critique of emerging black male and white feminist theologies. After becoming the first African American woman Episcopal priest in 1977, Murray emphasized the particularity of African American women’s experiences, while proclaiming a universal message of salvation. The Dream Is Freedom examines Murray’s substantial body of published writings as well personal letters, journals, and unpublished manuscripts. Azaransky traces the development of Murray’s thought over fifty years, ranging from Murray’s theologically rich democratic criticism of the 1930s to her democratically inflected sermons of the 1980s. Pauli Murray was an innovative democratic thinker, who addressed how Americans can recognize differences, signaled the role of history and memory in shaping democratic character, and called for strategic coalition building to make more justice available for more Americans.

No mention of being “Same-gender-loving.”

There are people who want to be known as a ____ (human, profession) before an identity category. There are others, like Langston Hughes, who want to be known as a black poet rather than a poet who happens to be black, because that normalized category of “poet” really means “white poet.”

Is that the issue here? But as Hughes argues in the essay I linked to above, how do you talk about someone who “just happens to be” black/woman/gay without using normalizing categories of white/male/straight?

What is the significance of identity beyond adding in, especially for people who don’t discuss that identity?

Hmmmmm, as I think about my Mabel Byrd article and teaching Murray, maybe I should actually work on answering that question here, rather than just posing it, like I usually do with my blog posts.

I think that it is possible for some people, but not all, to want to transcend their identity. Perhaps the most famous quote along that lines is Du Bois:

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. 

While these are all Europeans, they are not all white Europeans, so I don’t think this is a declaration of rising above the veil by becoming white. Du Bois is certainly not one who would have shied away from being called a black intellectual, instead of an intellectual who happens to be black. And yet, The Souls of Black Folk is tentative in the area of declaring an identity. He writes

In those sombre forests of his striving his own soul rose before him, and he saw himself,–darkly as through a veil; and yet he saw in himself some faint revelation of his power, of his mission. He began to have a dim feeling that, to attain his place in the world, he must be himself and not another. 

Sombre, Darkly, Faint, Dim. These are not the statements of a black power activist. 

I think it comes down to that delicate balance that historians must walk between writing about what our subjects cared about and what we care about. Today we care that Murray was on the gay spectrum, but we must acknowledge that she did not want to be seen primarily through that gaze. Byrd was a woman and engaged in a woman-only sphere, but she seemed to care more deeply about race-based issues than about gender issues (how would this change if there were extant letters between her and other women, instead of only the letters between her and Du Bois, her and Locke, and her and Cullen?)

Much to ponder.

6 Thoughts on this Post

  1. Murray was one of the founders of NOW. She says of the group of the YWCA women Byrd knew, “None of these women would have called themselves feminists in the 1930s, but they were strong, independent personalities who, because of their concerted efforts to rise above the limitations of race and sex and to help younger women do the same, shared a sisterhood that foreshadowed the revival of the feminist movement in the 1960s.”

  2. And of course, I failed to mention that one of the reasons Murray did not include her sexuality in her autobiography was because of homophobia. Her book might not have been accepted in the same way if she had admitted her love of women.

  3. Employed by the national bishops’ council to explain why southern Catholics were different, anthropologist Jon Anderson learned that Catholics in the South (outside of areas in Florida, Louisiana, and Texas) thought of themselves as southerners and Catholics, not as Italians or Poles and Catholics. Consequently,the ethnic model and identities that shaped the bishops’ thinking did not pertain much south of the Mason-Dixon line. Identities are multiple and nested. So are networks. The correspondences do not need to be one-to-one, and ideology is only ever one of the valences.

  4. What people do, what they write, what they say, what they think, how they think, how they identify themselves – these are all different things. There are today successful women executives (say) who break gender barriers and who participate in women’s organizations of various kinds but would not call themselves “feminists.” Makes a difference if the focus is on them, or a movement.

    • The question in the title is probably too broad, but I do think there is something interesting here. Put in another way, perhaps the question is how do we do gendered analyses without essentializing gender? I need to study more gender theory and analysis to come up with a good answer to that. Perhaps the beginning of the answer is in your last sentence–whether we are analyzing the way gender works in society and culture or the way it works in a single individual’s life.

  5. Lauren – Thoughtful post and comments. A vast topic, to be sure. Today I ran across an article you might find interesting – Margareta Hallberg, “Gender and the Philosophy of Science: The Case of Mary Hesse,” Studies in History and Philosophy of Science 43, (2012) 333-340. Mary Hesse was one of the few women philosophers of science in the US in the sixties.

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