Wednesday, February 8, 2012
February 8, 2012: Remembering Anna Julia Cooper
[In honor of Black History Month—which was created by my first Memory Day nominee!—this week I’ll be remembering amazing African American writers who should be a more central part of American literature and identities. For more on the month’s themes and ideas, see http://www.africanamericanhistorymonth.gov/. This is the third in the series.]
Remembering an American writer and scholar whose pioneering life and achievements are equaled in inspirational value by her wide-ranging and compelling voice.
One of the more interesting tensions that come with an American Studies approach has to do with how and where inspiration can be found. The historically minded side would emphasize particular lives and experiences, and the especially inspirational moments within them: Yung Wing volunteering for the Union Army during the Civil War; Albion Tourgée making the case against segregation before the Supreme Court; José Antonio Vargas “coming out” as an illegal immigrant. But the literarily minded side would focus instead on inspiring textual moments: the concluding chapter of Charles Chesnutt’s The Marrow of Tradition; the final, titular images of Carlos Bulosan’s America is in the Heart; the search for love and hope at the heart of Mark Doty’s poems.
Fortunately, as is the case with so many of these interdisciplinary questions, there’s no reason we have to pick a side—and in fact, some of the most inspiring Americans offer both kinds of inspiration. Today’s case in point is Anna Julia Cooper, who was born into slavery in 1858 and nearly seventy years later (in 1924) became the fourth African American woman to earn a PhD. Her degree was in history from France’s University of Paris-Sorbonne, and her dissertation, on French perspectives on and debates over slavery, reveals the breadth and depth of her historical, cultural, and transnational knowledge and ideas. And that educational achievement was only many across Cooper’s inspiring life; she was also (at the still youthful age of 35) one of only three African American women to deliver a speech at 1893’s World’s Congress of Representative Women (held as part of the Chicago Columbian Exposition), among many other exemplary moments.
More than three decades before she received her PhD, though, and even a year before the World’s Congress speech, Cooper published a book that would, even if it were her only achievement, be more than enough to cement her inspirational qualities. That book, A Voice from the South: By a Woman of the South (1892), significantly resembles, and predates by more than a decade, one of the most important works of American nonfiction: W.E.B. Du Bois’s The Souls of Black Folk (1903). Cooper’s book is similarly multi-generic, blending personal essays, philosophical and spiritual treatises, literary and historical analyses, and political polemics, among other genres. Throughout it weds an extremely impressive erudition with a genuine and personal tone and voice, elements that reflect Cooper’s compelling oratorical style yet that exemplify the best qualities of essayists such as Ralph Waldo Emerson. It is, in short, a singular and hugely significant American book, and one that in its form and content inspires on every page.
Share Cooper’s life and book this February, if you would! Next in the series tomorrow,
PS. Any inspiring lives and/or texts you’d highlight?2/8 Memory Day nominee: Kate Chopin, the late 19th century regionalist and realist author whose over 100 short stories and two novels helped take American literature and culture in significant new directions: from the ironic feminism of “The Story of an Hour” to the shocking sexuality of the unpublished “The Storm” to her masterpiece The Awakening, quite simply one of the greatest American novels.