A Black Women’s History of the United States, written by the historians Daina Ramey Berry and Kali Nicole Gross, is a great resource for readers interested in US history in general and Black women’s role in it specifically. In gripping language, which made me forget that I was reading non-fiction, the authors chart the manifold ways in which Black women have shaped the US from the early 17th century until today.
In each of the ten chronologically organized chapters, Berry and Gross introduce a signal figure whose history they highlight against the backdrop of other Black women’s experiences in the same time period. While figures like Harriet Tubman, Sojourner Truth and Rosa Parks are occasionally referenced, it is exciting that lesser-known, every-day women whose experience has largely been overlooked until now take center stage.
Chapter 1 somewhat unexpectedly does not open with the history of transatlantic enslavement. Instead, it introduces Isabel de Olvera, a free woman of African descent, who was part of an expedition to the ‘New World’ in 1600. Her extraordinary courage, will power and endurance set the tone for the rest of the book.
In the chapters and centuries that follow, Berry and Gross focus on other trailblazing women who like de Olvera left their mark in various realms––the law, the arts, sports, politics, religion, activism and many more. Both the wide variety of sources and the truly diverse histories they feature (enslaved, self-liberated, queer, disabled women’s histories) really impressed me. However, sometimes I wished I could have read a bit more about individual women like the sculptress Augusta Savage who lived in Harlem during the Great Depression, or, Aurelia Shines who protested racial discrimination in the Jim Crow South by refusing to give up her seat months before Rosa Parks.
All in all, A Black Women’s History of the United States isa book that portrays the complexity of Black women’s lives in the US. It does so by stating both the horrors that were and continue to be part of Black women’s experience, but it also celebrates how they persisted in spite of racism and sexism throughout the ages.