African American her-story: Author talks new book on history of black women in America

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Image via University of Pittsburgh

Author and historian Daina Ramey Berry came to Pitt to discuss her new book, “A Black Woman’s History of the United States,” on Tuesday.

By Nathan Fitchett, Staff Writer

The conference room fell silent as Aliya Durham spoke an African proverb before introducing author and historian Daina Ramey Berry.

“Until the lions have their historians, tales of the hunt will always glorify the hunter,” Durham said, hinting at the motivation for Berry’s newest work. 

Faculty, students and community members gathered on Tuesday afternoon to hear Berry discuss her new book, “A Black Women’s History of the United States. The event, organized by the Center on Race and Social Problems at Pitt’s School of Social Work, was held in the Cathedral of Learning as a part of Pitt’s ongoing K. Leroy Irvis Black History Month celebration’s series of events.

The event drew more than 50 attendees and was also livestreamed to Pitt’s Bradford campus simultaneously. Pitt is the first school to host Berry to talk about her new book, which she co-authored with Wesleyan professor Kali Nicole Gross, since its publication in early February. As such, Durham, an assistant professor and director of community engagement for the School of Social Work, began the event by discussing Berry’s many accolades as well as the cultural and historical significance of Berry’s newest book.

Berry currently holds the George W. Littlefield Professorship in American History at the University of Texas at Austin as well as serving as the associate dean of the UT Austin Graduate School. She has authored four other books and is a specialist on slavery, gender and the history of black women in the United States.

“A Black Women’s History of the United States”  is a collection of stories from the lives of black women throughout U.S. history that have overcome injustices and helped to shape the history of our country. The book primarily focuses on women whose stories have been largely forgotten or ignored by historians and seeks to make these women’s voices heard.

Berry explained why she thinks many of these historical stories have been largely overlooked by popular history.

“People have not really cared about black women’s stories, and don’t realize that we were visible and a part of many historical movements, not just the ones in the 1960s,” Berry said.

In the book, Berry and Gross retell the history of the United States through the experiences of black women in different time periods and analyze how these stories have been documented throughout history, ranging from the 17th to 21st centuries.

Berry, Gross and a team of scholars carefully read through the manuscript to fact-check and provide feedback to make sure the stories included in the book were as accurate as possible.

Berry read some select passages from the book at the event, as well as some extra stories that were not included in the final manuscript. One of the stories she discussed was of Isabel de Olvera, who is thought to be the first black woman to step foot on U.S. soil. Olvera was a free woman of African and Indian descent living in Mexico who in the late 1500s petitioned to join an expedition to the “New World” but, suspecting she might face prejudice for her race, boldly stated in her petition — “I demand justice.” However, Berry and her team were unable to confirm whether she successfully joined the expedition — they only knew she made the petition.

“Just like most of the stories here, sometimes black women appear as a flash in the historical record, and then have nothing else after that,” Berry said. “I don’t know whether or not she made it, we assume she made it, but this is just part of the challenge of doing African American women’s history.”

Another story Berry shared was of Millie and Christine McCoy, a pair of black conjoined twins born in America in 1851 to an enslaved mother. Because of the twins’ condition, they were stolen away and sent to Europe to be put on display. Following the 1863 Emancipation Proclamation, their mother traveled to Europe to find them. After three years, she was successfully reunited with her daughters after spotting them at one of their shows. Berry wanted this story to convey the struggles of a black mother who was powerless to prevent being separated from her children.

“We tried to tell their story from the mother’s perspective, so the reader can think about what it’s like to have a child that’s taken away from you that has a physical body that is much different from most,” Berry said.

Berry emphasized the importance of telling these stories because of the lack of societal acknowledgement of the impact that black women have had on U.S. history.

“Telling these stories is important because you’ll learn about aspects of American history that you would not have learned about otherwise,” Berry said. “We add character and shape and sometimes the story before the story — black women were there and present, but they did not get their accolades for doing the things they were doing historically.”

Edoukou Aka-Ezoua, a project support coordinator for the Child Welfare Workforce Excellence Fellows Program in the School of Social Work, shared her thoughts on the importance of telling these stories of black women whose voices have not been previously heard.

“I think it’s important because history has always been told in a certain way, by certain people,” Aka-Ezoua said. “In order for us to understand history and understand these systems of oppression, it’s important to center the voices of those who have always been pushed to the margins. Black women’s history is a good example of what it looks like to center the experiences of individuals who have been fighting to have a voice and share their experiences for a very long time.”

After discussing several passages from her book, Berry answered the audience’s questions about different aspects of the history of black women and how their stories have been told. After the short Q&A, she gave out copies of the book to attendees and did a book signing.

Berry shared what she ultimately wants readers to take away from her book after reading it.

“First, that African American women have contributed to American history in ways that have been previously overlooked and ignored,” Berry said. “And second, that the women we write about just want to be respected and to be acknowledged. That’s it.”

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