This is the start of something big
Right now, something big is happening. We are witnessing a new sense of excitement and possibilities and urgency. Some call it the year of the black woman, but I think it is more than that, bigger than that. It is why I am so excited that the publication of TRAILBLAZERS: Black Women Who Helped Make America Great is happening amid this major sea change, unlike anything we have seen before.
TRAILBLAZERS has taken me on a personal journey that has been filled with revelations. It became a testament to what my maternal grandmother told me years ago when I was coming of age: “There is no such thing as wise old people. You live every day to learn something new, and then you die and forget it all.” It was this credo that became the driving force behind the creation of TRAILBLAZERS and led to my discovering and rediscovering the history of my blackness and womanhood on a level that I did not expect nor did I think was even possible.
I have always known that American history writing and teaching has mostly ignored aspects of class, gender, or ethnicity. Until the rapid development of social history in the 1960s and 1970s, mainstream Western historical narratives focused on political and military history, while cultural or social history was written mostly from the perspective of the elites. To my mother’s credit, she taught me how to learn about black history since it was not yet being taught in the schools and the importance of challenging those white school teachers who believed that black people were not historically relevant. For example, one junior high school teacher told me, one of three black children in the classroom, that “black people have no culture.” My classmates and I openly challenged this notion, to the delight of our mothers as we learned how to defend ourselves and our culture in the real world. To this day, I have consumed hundreds of books that tackle marginalized histories, which is why I have always positioned myself as a multiculturalist and became committed to publishing works by diverse writers.
But as I worked on this book, the historiography was an epiphany for me because I had never before come face-to-face with how historians think and reason—how they construct an argument. As I reevaluated women like Rosa Parks, who is revered in the black community as the mother of the civil rights movement, I looked upon her with fresh eyes as a flesh and blood woman, not the icon she had become. I realized that Parks and black women like her of the abolitionist, civil rights, and black power movements, unselfishly did what they did to save the soul of our country. And becoming an icon, which was the furthest thing from their minds, was the ultimate sacrifice that cost them emotionally, mentally, physically, and economically. I did my best to convey this in their biographies whenever possible.
So as I researched and wrote the introductions to each section, I realized it required crafting a historical framework that looks at American history from a black woman’s perspective. This I found fascinating. And while I prided myself on having an above-average knowledge of history, and in particular, black history, I quickly discovered there is far more to black women’s stories than meets the eye. Many of them I found hidden in plain sight.
Just focusing on black women was illuminating. It reminded me that African American women have played an important and influential role in the making of America. We deal with issues of gender identity, classism, racism, and sexism every single day. That kind of weight would drive most people insane, but we do it; we just deal with it and move on to the next big challenge. Rediscovering women like Rosa Parks and Harriet Tubman from a humanized viewpoint, was just as important as learning about lesser-known women like Rosina Tucker, Clara Day, Maggie Lena Walker, Ernesta Procope, Margot Webb, Cora Mae Brown, and Ora Washington, whose incredible accomplishments created a path for others to follow.
Nailing down the history of black women has been a work in progress. Thanks to the efforts of some scholars (many of them black women) who have done extensive research to unearth these great black women through the publication of their dissertations, essays and books, we are learning more about our history and its connection to it. With TRAILBLAZERS, I wanted to do something different. I wanted to create a collection of relatable stories about African American women that speak to their lives, ambitions, and struggles from the colonial period to the present day in a way that reveals something about ourselves. Theirs are stories of oppression and survival, of family and community self-help, of inspiring heroism and grassroots organizational continuity in the face of racism, economic hardship, and, far too often, tragedy or violence. I wanted to enrich our understanding of our American past so that we can better understand who we are today as we secure a path for our future.
Today, black women are taking on the challenge of anti-black racism and social exclusion in a way that has never been done before. It is intergenerational. It is happening in all corners of black life. It is being led by scholars, activists, and artists. We are in complete control. We are making it happen. And as our historical past collides into our future, we are laying down the groundwork to garner power through elections on the local, state, and national levels, as well on a cultural level. And I want to be a part of it the best way I know how, which is producing books that can serve as a form of civic engagement that opens doors to endless possibilities.