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Prof. Martha Jones Leads Exploration Into Intellectual History of Black Women

Jenny Whalen
April 8, 2015

Few conversations around the dinner table, however brilliant, have the substance to launch entirely new fields of scholarship, but when the guests are academics and the table belongs to one of America's most prominent historians, a project such as Toward an Intellectual History of Black Women​ is bound to emerge.

A collection of 15 essays exploring the place of black women in intellectual history, the book was inspired by a conversation among its coeditors, University of Michigan Law School Professor Martha S. Jones, Rutgers University's Mia Bay, Columbia University's Farah Griffin, and University of Pennsylvania's Barbara Savage, over dinner at historian Eric Foner's home.

Toward an Intellectual History of Black Women

"Like many good collaborations, this came out of an organic set of relationships and genuinely-held mutual passions," said Jones, a member of the Law School's Affiliated LS&A Faculty and codirector of the Michigan Law Program in Race, Law & History. "The four of us were comparing notes about our work and asking each other, 'In what ways would you like to shape the professional terrain?' We started scrutinizing the field of intellectual history and realized that we had a project, not just dinnertime musings."

The group went on to form the Black Women's Intellectual and Cultural History Collective, a multiyear academic collaboration in which dozens of scholars, professors, and graduate students from varying disciplines took part, contributing their research and ideas at a series of conferences across the U.S.

"The choice to call it a 'collective' was deliberate," Jones said. "We wanted to invoke a non-hierarchical, mutually-engaged style of working, to create a community of scholars who would work together over time, across subfields and generations, so that we would be our own laboratory of intellectuals working collaboratively on a shared set of objectives."

Chief among those objectives was to explore the intellectual history of black women and encourage a distinct field of scholarship on the subject. For the coeditors of Toward an Intellectual History of Black Women, it was a matter of asking a new question in a long studied field.

"Today there is a vast literature on African American women's history, but there is still a deep inclination to write about black women as doers rather than thinkers," Jones said. "Phyllis Wheatley is a much studied figure—the first woman of African descent to publish a book of poetry in the 18th century—but when a letter of hers comes up for auction, no one seems interested in what the letter says. They treat it as an antiquarian artifact or regard it as an article of fascination—that a former slave can read and write. We wanted to ask about what she actually says."

Each of the essays included in Toward an Intellectual History of Black Women furthers this understanding of black women as the producers of ideas. Altogether, the essays examine two-and-a-half centuries of intellectual work, from the women of African descent who survived the Middle Passage to those whose political savvy influenced the 2008 election.

"The women written about here are religious leaders, novelists, essay writers, activists, and lawyers," Jones said. "We wanted to redefine and recognize that intellectual work happens in a diverse range of spaces, and black women come to the surface in nearly all those realms."

Jones added her hope that the book will spark new conversations in the academic space about intellectual history, with the essays used as examples of how scholars may approach and analyze that question.

"The greatest tribute to this collection would be for a new generation of scholars to realize that there is such a field as the intellectual history of black women and to continue developing the work that we offer up here," she added.

Jones is currently finishing her latest book, Birthright Citizens: A History of Race and Rights in Antebellum America, due out in 2016. (Video)​

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