Wednesday, March 08, 2006

Lecture on Black and White Women in American History

This event ocurred on my campus last Thursday, March 2, 2006. Dr. Anne Firor Scott was the speaker. She is a Distinguished Lecturer from the Organization of American Historians and a Professor Emeritus from Duke University. She spoke on the topic of "One History or Two? Black and White Women in American History." In addition, her talk took the form of a discussion which was very interesting, even if limited by time. What follows are just some of my notes from the event.
  • What is perspective in history? This was the opening question. The answer goes with what determines what you see in the past. Different populations ask for different histories.
  • The historical concept of sisterhood: the common experiences of women. However, there have been and are Black and White women. They each have their perspectives. People see the world through their own experiences.
  • Finding evidence is a problem in shaping the narrative of women in American History. For instance, the Antebellum South is a concept that is hard to embrace, often known by works like Gone with the Wind, Uncle Tom's Cabin, and William Faulkner novels. But what about women of nonslaveholding families, assuming they were even literate? Our evidence comes from the ruling elite minority in the South.
    • The evidence shows many White plantation women had concerns with the Black women, whether antagonistic or not.
    • The White women saw themselves as generous, good, hard working mothers, whether this was true or not. However, interviewees of the Fisk University study, who were former slaves, revealed that White women were often cruel, obtuse, and not very Christian.
  • During the Civil Rights era, men like Martin Luther King, Jr. were in the forefront, but it was women who did the hard work, often behind the scenes and without any credit.
For me, the brilliance of the presenter was in involving the audience, asking them questions, and as possible, to get them to share some of their experiences. One question she asked: if people can't walk in other people's shoes, is there hope? A couple of audience members, young ones, see a lack of hope; they believe that the fighting will continue. Yet, one other young person saw that perspectives needed to change. Maybe the hope lies in the complexity of human beings.

Recommended reading by the lecturer: Jared Diamond's book Collapse on how societies collapse, as a way to gain a little perspective by looking at the past.

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