You might be surprised to know that sign language, like spoken language, has dialects, accents, and regional differences, not to mention that there are multiple different languages beneath the umbrella of sign language. American Sign Language (ASL) is a different language than Chinese Sign Language (CSL) which is a different language than Spanish Sign Language (LSE) and so on. You may have heard of Black English, but did you know that Black American Sign Language (BASL) also exists?
Early American Sign Language, influenced by French Sign Language, was originally taught at schools for the Deaf, however, in the 1870s and 80s, white schools for the Deaf became more focused on oralism, which emphasizes speaking and lip-reading rather than signing. People didn’t care about Black Deaf kids enough to teach oralism, so Black Deaf schools continued to teach sign language and many sign language instructors moved to Black Deaf Schools. Consequently, modern BASL is more closely aligned than ASL to early American Sign Language. BASL evolved into its own language, and by the time schools were desegregated, Black Deaf students often struggled to communicate with their white teachers and peers. From that point on, ASL was used in the classroom, but BASL’s usage was continued among family and friends.
Since ASL was taught in schools from that point onward, it is now considered the standard, and just as Black hearing people code-switch between standard English and Black English to fit in in the classroom or among white people, BASL users frequently code-switch between BASL and ASL. Chair of the newly created department Black Deaf Studies at Gallaudet University and co-author of the book Black ASL, Dr. Carolyn McCaskill was one of the first Black students to attend Alabama School for the Deaf. She is quoted saying “So when I was with white people, I would sign that way. And then when I was with Black Deaf people, I would communicate it differently.”
So how is BASL different from ASL? People who use BASL tend to use more facial expressions and use more space with their signing. BASL users also tend to use two hands for signs where ASL users would use one. Additionally, BASL places signs on the forehead more often than ASL, which tends to place signs on the body. While BASL and ASL are very closely related, some signs are completely different. Over time BASL has incorporated terms that are common in Black English. When asked about BASL, Dr. McCaskill responded “[BASL] felt so free to me. It felt good to just communicate. You know, that was who I was. That was my culture. That was my identity.”
Research on BASL is a long way behind research in ASL; however, with the growth of the Black Lives Matter movement, BASL is now gaining more recognition. It is estimated that 50% of Black Deaf people in the United States use BASL. This was made possible by BASL being preserved intergenerationally through Black Deaf families and also the Black Deaf community. Black Deaf signers are now taking to social media to teach and preserve this important part of Black Deaf culture and identity.
This article is a factual summary of BASL and its history written by a white hearing person. If you are interested in learning more about BASL and the culture surrounding it, check out the videos below:
Kai Hansen is a sophomore at the University of Kansas, double majoring in English & Biology with a minor in Dance. A member of the University Honors Program with plans to become an English professor, Kai is actively engaged in the study of Black and queer literature.
April is National Poetry Month. The sun is out, the temperature is finally above freezing, there are even some flowers in bloom. Spring is finally here! And what better way to appreciate the warming days than by finding your favorite sunspot and reading some poetry?
Not sure where to start with poetry? Looking to expand your poetry palate? Or just aware that Amanda Gorman’s incredible inauguration poem, “The Hill We Climb”, is now available as a book but too new for the KU Library to have yet and excited to read some more Black poetry?
Here’s a short recommendation guide:
If you want to read The Modern Classics, try:
Audre Lorde – Audre Lorde was a Civil Rights and Gay Liberation icon whose activism and writing were deeply intertwined. Just like her activism, her bibliography is expansive and varied. Start with: The Collected Poems of Audre Lorde
Langston Hughes – Novelist, children’s book author, playwright, essayist, poet, and Lawrence, KS hometown celebrity, Langston Hughes’s keenly observational work endures. Start with: A New Song
Maya Angelou – Maya Angelou may be one of the most widely read and quoted Black poets in America. At the time of her passing in 2014, she had published seven autobiographical novels and seven books of poetry. You may know “I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings” but there’s even more to discover. Start with: I Shall Not Be Moved
June Jordan – Like her contemporaries, June Jordan was a prolific artist and activist. Her bibliography includes over 27 books! In 1991, she founded Poetry For The People – a center that engages the Bay Area community in creating poetry and social change. Start with: Naming Our Destiny: New and Selected Poems
If you’re looking for Contemporary Social Activist Poets, try:
Alexis Pauline Gumbs – Dramaturge, activist, and self described Queer Black Troublemaker and Black Feminist Love Evangelist, Alexis Pauline Gumbs combines prose, poetry, and theory into new worlds. Start with: Spill: Scenes of Black Feminist Fugitivity
Morgan Parker – Morgan Parker is an NEA-award winning essayist and novelist, as well as a prolific and celebrated poet. As part of Poets With Attitude, she uses her poetry as a platform to uplift other poets of color. Start with: There Are More Beautiful Things Than Beyoncé
Jericho Brown – Winner of the 2020 Pulitzer Prize for Poetry, Jericho Brown is one of the most famous and accomplished poets of today. He is also a longtime educator, helping students find their own voices in poetry. Start with: The New Testament
Claudia Rankine – Jamaica-born Claudia Rankine has worked in nonfiction, stage play, and, of course, poetry, all to great success. When Rankine won the 2016 MacArthur Grant she created The Racial Imaginary Institute – an interdisciplinary journal and art’s space that engages the topic of race. Start with: Citizen: An American Lyric
If you’re looking for national leaders in poetry, try The Poet Laureates:
Gwendolyn Brooks – Gwendolyn Brooks is the first Black writer to receive the Pulitzer Prize in 1950, the first Black woman inducted into the American Association of Arts and Letters, the Poet Laureate of the United States from 1985-86, and the Poet Laureate of Illinois from 1986 until her death in 2000. She was also from Topeka, Kansas, just a short drive from KU. Start with: Annie Allen
Rita Dove – In 1993, Rita Dove became the youngest writer to be named Poet Laureate. She used her position to bring the writing of African diaspora writers to the forefront of US poetry and emphasized the role poetry can play in engaging public imagination. Start with: American Smooth
Natasha Tretheway – Poet Laureate from 2012-14, Natasha Tretheway’s poetry blends free verse with traditional formalist style. Her work investigates public memory, especially about the Civil War, and won her the 2007 Pulitzer Prize in poetry. Start with: Native Guard(Listen to a conversation with Tretheway, part of HBW’s 2013 “Don’t Deny My Voice” poetry institute)
Tracy K. Smith – Tracy K. Smith, a recent Poet Laureate (2017-19), has cited the influence of previous Laureates on her work, especially Rita Dove, as well as her time in the storied Black poetry group Dark Room Collective. But Smith’s rhythmic poetry is ultimately all her own. Start with: Duende
Of course, the scope of Black poetry is much wider than our recommendations here! The Project on the History of Black Writing hosted two NEH Summer Institutes focused on poetry, Don’t Deny My Voice (2013) and Black Poetry After the Black Arts Movement (2015). The Furious Flower Poetry Center, our partner in both those NEH Institutes and the nation’s first academic center for Black poetry, serves creative writers, literary and cultural scholars, and poetry lovers everywhere. If you’re feeling like you want to take a deep, thoughtful dive into Black poetry, you can discover more by clicking on the links.
Have a favorite poem by a Black author? Share it with us and your friends on Twitter, Instagram, or Facebook (@ProjectHBW)! We can’t wait to read with you.
Brendan Williams-Childs is from Laramie, Wyoming, and is a graduate student pursuing his Master of Fine Arts in Fiction. His future plans are either to continue working in academic research to support projects HBW’s Black Book Interactive Project (BBIP), or to enter publishing. As a Graduate Research Assistant with HBW and the HathiTrust Research Center, Brendan continues BBIP efforts by helping HathiTrust identify gaps in their collection.
Announcing the publication of The College Diaries by DeAsia Paige, former HBW Social Media Coordinator (2018-2020). Her memoir follows her journey through a predominantly white institution as she explores the intersection of race, gender and culture. This blog is an in-depth review of Paige’s book provided by Shawna Shipley-Gates.
DeAsia Paige, HBW alum and author of The College Diaries: How a Budding Black Feminist Found Her Voice, has boldly produced an intimate yet informative debut memoir. Her message clearly emphasizes that “there’s beautiful power in Black women choosing to liberate themselves from the choices already created for them” . Using herself as an example, the author reveals her evolving freedom while challenging her religious beliefs exploring her sexual liberation, and ultimately experiencing the necessary healing from traumatic life events. Besides the utilization of relevant timelines and Black feminist scholarship, The College Diaries centers the strong relationship between the author and Black musical artists to discuss her personal experiences with sexual assault, abortion, and mental health.
Divided into six parts, the book covers three important years in Paige’s life from Summer 2016 to Fall 2019. Framing the period between the murder of Alton Sterling by Baton Rouge police on July 5, 2016 and the fatal robbery of Brooklyn rapper Pop Smoke on February 19, 2020, Paige brilliantly references pertinent events in Black culture to provide context for her readers. For example, she reflects on the police-related death of Philando Castile on July 6, 2016 as it dampened her excitement to start college the following fall. Paige even recalls the fifty-two percent of white women who voted for Trump in November 2016 and her own questioning of Hillary Clinton’s ostensible white feminist agenda to exemplify her initial interest in Black feminist scholarship.
The influence of Black feminists and Black radical women are undeniably evident in the depictions of her growing political activism and unapologetic sex life. While attending the Women’s March 2017, the author gains inspiration from Angela Davis, Audre Lorde, bell hooks, and Assata Shakur, to add her voice to those who aim to dismantle what hooks famously calls “white supremacist capitalist patriarchy.” According to Paige, Black feminism introduced her to concepts of sex positivity and pleasure politics through the kind of sex education that embraces views the Black women’s sexual liberation as a conscious revolutionary act against hypersexuality tropes and conventional religious norms including marriage, virginity, and monogamy.
Along with Black feminist scholarship, The College Diaries focuses on the therapeutic impact of Black musical artists on the author’s emotional well-being throughout her undergraduate years. Due to her deep connection to black church music as a member of the choir since childhood, Paige shows readers music as her love language, so much so that “[if] we can’t sing along to Lauryn Hill’s ‘Ex-Factor,’ mimic Nicki Minaj’s delivery in every lyric of her verse on ‘Monster,’ or trade our favorite J-Dilla-produced songs, then I’m not sure if we can really be friends” . In Summer 2016, Rihanna’s eighth album “ANTI”— her first project with complete creative control—motivated Paige to consider college the perfect opportunity to take control of her own life. Solange’s “A Seat at the Table” is the Spring 2017 soundtrack when the author is struggling at a predominantly white institution and desperately in need of Black female empowerment.
Paige’s deep connection to music also serves as healing from her devastating experiences with sexual assault, abortion, and mental health challenges. Following her July 7, 2018 sexual assault, Brandy’s album “Never Say Never” offers lyrical solace while Frank Ocean’s “Blonde” encourages the author to be vulnerable and honest about her feelings. She vividly replays the painful events that led up to her abortion beginning Saturday, October 26, 2019 – her 21st birthday. Relying on her gospel musical roots, the author listens “to nothing but Tasha Cobbs and Kirk Franklin just to escape the fact that I was pregnant. I desperately needed to hear something from a higher power… I needed to feel a divine connection” . While depression is a major focus, the author also identifies her prioritization of men’s feelings to seek happiness as another mental health issue. During a summer of therapy, routine gym workouts, and a dream internship at VICE in 2019, Megan Thee Stallion’s lyrics reassure her that she may not have a man in her life but she “simply didn’t need a nigga” .
Unabashedly raw, the memoir is a welcome recommended for everyone but especially for Black women who have struggled not only with college but also with unhealthy societal labels, misogynoir, religious beliefs, sexual violence, unplanned pregnancy, and/or mental health concerns. The College Diaries successfully normalizes sexual and reproductive health-related conversations among Black women. At the same time, it dismantles monolithically harmful stereotypes, destigmatizes mental health in Black communities, and highlights the severe lack of culturally tailored mental health services and supportive social networks within our educational institutions. Perhaps the book’s strongest appeal is the critical role it can play in helping other budding Black feminists find their voices.
Shawna Shipley-Gates is a graduate student in Women, Gender, and Sexuality Studies. Her research interest highlights the cultural literacy of black women’s sexual health behaviors and how those cultural experiences can be translated into effective yet sex-positive education; healthcare and wellness practices; and policy and advocacy work. She is also the owner of Cupcake Noire, which is a sex-positive brand for black cis, trans and non-binary womxn.
“Among her many professional friends and colleagues, we consider Miriam DeCosta-Willis the godmother of Afro-Hispanic Literature and culture. Her footprints and magnanimous contributions as a scholar-civil rights activist will forever be inspirational and trailblazing to those of us who regard her as one of Maya Angelou’s phenomenal women.” – Dr. James Davis, Associate Dean, Academic & Student Affairs & and the Humanities, Howard University
Miriam DeCosta-Willis passed away on Thursday, January 7, at the age of 86. A consummate scholar-activist, she was a writer and a college professor known for breaking down barriers. DeCosta-Willis lived a life filled with firsts, guided by her commitment to social justice inside and outside the college classroom.
Born on Nov. 1, 1934 in Florence, Alabama, DeCosta-Willis was raised in the South by her educator parents, Beautine and Frank DeCosta. Her family, especially her mother, played an important role in her upbringing as a strong-willed fighter. From a young age, she faced the challenges of being an African American in the South, however, she faced them head-on and fought for change. From organizing student protests during her time at Wilkinson High School to attending the Montgomery Bus Boycott with her mother, DeCosta-Willis’s values were instilled early in life.
Denied admission to Memphis State (now University of Memphis), she went on to complete her undergraduate education at Wellesley College, and her PhD at John Hopkins, one of the first Black students to do so. Ironically, she returned to Memphis State to become its first Black professor in 1966, teaching Spanish, the foundation for most of her work. While there, she became a leader for Black students and staff.
In 1970 DeCosta-Willis joined the faculty of the then Department of Romance Languages and Literatures at Howard University and by 1974, she had become chair. Her most enduring legacy during her years at Howard was the establishment of doctoral programs in Romance Languages in French and Spanish. Under her leadership, Howard became the first HBCU to offer the Doctor of Philosophy in Romance Languages and remains a center for the study Romance languages throughout the Black Diaspora.
Her first work, Blacks in Hispanic Literature (1977), is a groundbreaking study of literary works by writers of Latin dissent in Africa and the Americas. Daughters of the Diaspora: Afra-Hispanic Writers (2003), was also a monumental addition to the field of Afro-Hispanic studies. “…the creative writing in Daughters of the Diaspora is spring-loaded: impassioned, forthright, and fresh, but also innovative, lyrical, and sensual. While there are dangers in grouping together this diverse collection of writers, their writing (much of it poetry) explores, among other themes: masking and identity, race and sexuality, colonialism and slavery, political commitment, national identity, and class.” -Douglas Field, African American Review 2004
DeCosta-Willis’s early work and countless scholarly articles she published provided a bridge between Latin American and Black Studies scholarship.
“Dr. Miriam DeCosta-Willis was a phenomenal scholar in the field of Afro-Hispanic Literature/Studies, especially on the works of Black Latin American female writers, many of whom did not get much publicity at the time they wrote and published in their own countries. In fact, she mentored many of us who emerged from graduate schools and began our careers during the mid- to late-1970s. It was through her that we made contacts with the above women writers, whom she interviewed in their countries and/or invited to conferences at our universities here in the United States. Dr. DeCosta-Willis’ many books and articles brought these authors to the attention of scholars globally and helped boost their careers. From time to time, she collaborated with us on edited volumes, so I worked very closely with her. For example, Dr. DeCosta-Willis solicited articles to publish Singular Like a Bird: The Art of Nancy Morejón (1998), Afro-Cuban poet, and Daughters of the Diaspora: Afra-Hispanic Writers (2003), which broadened the scope to include writers like Shirley Campbell (Costa Rica), Cristina Rodríguez Cabral (Uruguay) and Yvonne América-Truque (Colombia/Canada), among many others. It was truly exciting to work with her.” – Dr. Dellita Martin-Ogunsola, Professor Emeritus of Spanish, Department of Foreign Languages and Literatures, University of Alabama at Birmingham.
DeCosta-Willis’s scholarly agency made another imprint in the foundational work in gender studies. Erotique Noir (1992) is a literary anthology written by Miriam DeCosta-Willis, Reginald Martin, and Roseann P. Bell, a pioneering work in the field of Black erotica. It features works from a large range of authors, poets, essayists, and scholars. Erotique Noir is described as being an intellectual, emotional, and sensual exploration of Black erotica. While celebratory, reviewers considered the book “bold, triumphant and heady, rich in its imagery, passion, and sense of adventure… [reclaiming] the fullness of Black life.”
Over the course of a 40-year career in higher education, her influence was felt by students not only at Memphis State, and Howard, but also at LeMoyne-Owen College and George Mason University.
“Dr. Miriam DeCosta Willis is one of the most important and influential scholars/criticism the history of Afro/a Hispanic literary studies. Her pioneering publications on Nancy Morejón, Luz Argentina Chiriboga, and others, are classics and remain generational scholarly models of inspiration for us all”. – Marvin A. Lewis, Professor Emeritus-Romance Languages/Literatures, University of Missouri-Columbia.
DeCosta-Willis’s focus on family was legendary. In 1955 she married Russell Sugarmon, a civil rights attorney. Together they had four children, Tarik, Elena, Erika, and Monique. DeCosta-Willis married to A.W. Willis Jr. in 1972, also a civil rights activist, who died of cancer in 1988. Following her retirement, DeCosta-Willis enjoyed speaking and continuing to write, centering her life around her four children, eight grandchildren, and seven great-grandchildren.
According to her former close colleague at Howard, James Davis, “We were always awestruck by her seemingly unending scholarly productivity while maintaining a ‘normal’ family life with her beloved offspring. Not only was she a brilliant scholar and writer, but she was also an endearing mentor to so many.”
One of the fastest growing fields today is Afro-Hispanic and Afro-Latinx [Latin American] Studies, but we know only pieces of a larger origin story. Like many hidden and forgotten narratives, DeCosta Willis’s story is one of them.
Selected Publications by Miriam DeCosta-Willis
Blacks in Hispanic Literature: Critical Essays. Port Washington, NY: Kennikat Press, 1977.
Érotique Noire/Black Erotica. New York: Anchor Books, 1992.
Notable Black Memphians. Amherst, NY: Cambria Press, 2008.
Homespun Images: An Anthology of Black Memphis Writers and Artists, Miriam DeCosta Willis, Fannie Delk, and Philip Dotson (eds.). LeMoyne-Own College, 1989
“Can(n)on Fodder: Afro-Hispanic Literature, Heretical Texts, and the Polemics of Canon Formation,” Afro-Hispanic Review, April 2002, Vol. 21 (1/2), pp. 53-62.
“Martha K. Cobb and the Shaping of Afro-Hispanic Literary Criticism,” CLA Journal, Vol. 45 (4), June 2002, pp. 523-541.
“Meditations on History: The Middle Passage in the Afro-Hispanic Literary Imagination,”
Afro-Hispanic Review, April 2003, Vol 22 (1), pp. 3-12.
Victoria Garcia Unzueta is a KU sophomore, majoring in journalism with an emphasis in strategic communications. Originally from Dodge City, Kansas, she was editor- in-chief of her high school’s newspaper and yearbook. For Victoria, these experiences helped to shape her passion for journalism and community advancement, which led to her connection with HBW, where she is currently the social media coordinator.
HBW would like to thank Dr. James Davis, Dr. Marvin A. Lewis, and Dr. Dellita Martin-Ogunsola, colleagues of Dr. DeCosta-Willis, for their contribution to the creation of this blog.
Tomorrow’s Tomorrow: The Black Woman by Joyce Ladner celebrates its 50th anniversary of publication this year. Dr. Ladner, author and sociologist, spent four years (1964-1968) working as a research assistant interviewing, observing, and socializing with more than one hundred girls. Those interviews provided the framework for Tomorrow’s Tomorrow: The Black Woman (1970) which examines womanhood through the lens of young Black girls living in the city.
Fifty years ago, Joyce Ladner published her groundbreaking study Tomorrow’s Tomorrow: The Black Woman. Through interviews conducted with teenage girls in and around the Pruitt-Igoe housing campus in St. Louis, the study refutes America’s long held ideals of womanhood and challenges mainstream stereotypes of urban living. This entry is an attempt to reassert the significance of Ladner’s approach to the scientific world and to illuminate the contingencies that exist in Black womanhood.
To put Ladner’s pioneering work in a larger context, it is important to note the dominant discussions of Black women. E. Franklin Frazier’s seminal piece, The Negro Family in the United States(1939), is considered shortsighted by many Black feminists and other scholars in general due to its historical and sociological focus of the Black family during a period when scientific studies helped to perpetuate biological and psychological theories of racial inferiority. Perhaps one of the twentieth century’s most controversial studies was Daniel Patrick Moynihan’s infamous The Negro Family: The Case for National Action (1965). Widely known as “The Moynihan Report,” it became famous for its descriptions of the Black woman as domineering and emasculating. Arguably, both works place the Black woman in a negative light. Ladner identifies the studies as examples of the “disorganization perspective”(271). That is to say, it equates the working-class Black woman and her family as deviant and pathological by bourgeois standards, which privileges monogamy, patriarchy, and the nuclear family. Ladner’s work brilliantly shows that a sociohistorical analysis fails to give voice to the economically challenged Black woman’s plight succinctly. Tomorrow’s Tomorrow, as explained by sociologist Bonnie Thornton Dill, proposes a dialectical mode of analysis. According to Thornton Dill, it seeks to “make explicit the complex interaction of political, social, and economic forces in shaping the broad historical trends that characterize black women as a group as well as the particular lives of individual women” (101). Hence, Ladner’s four-year study introduces readers to over 100 girls whose experiences are as varied as the ways they see themselves.
“After reading too many trite, stereotyped and incorrect appraisals of the Black family and Black women, Miss Ladner’s enlightening and provocative book is especially refreshing. It also serves to nullify the erroneous conclusion that many social scientists, both white and Black have reached about Black women scientists, who began their work by asking the wrong questions and by holding biased assumptions” Angela Blackwell, The Black Scholar 1973
Although Ladner’s study shows poverty had relegated a population of people to one section of the city, the girls’ sense of a positive self-image was not lost. In response to the question, “What did it mean to be a poor black girl?,” one participant answered, “I’ve always been proud of being Black because I think it is a superior color. I never thought of being… well, you know, white is pure and black is dirty. I’ve always thought of being Black as a way, a will. If you see someone Black it’s not a dirty thing… Black stands out against any color” (81). What is striking about the fifteen-year-old participant’s reply is the way in which she resists social constructs, such as stereotypical notions of race, to determine how she thinks of herself. Moreover, being poor did not detract from the value she placed on being Black. Ladner’s approach allows the respondent to affirm her own experience. Patricia Hill Collins agrees that, “Ladner’s explicit goal was not to assist bureaucracies in controlling, managing, or working with the girls. Instead, her goal was empowerment…”(114). Hill Collins’s statement returns us to Ladner’s compelling introduction and her she definitive statements about her role as a Black woman sociologist. Ladner explains:
“I began to perceive my role as a Black person, with empathy and attachment, and, to a great extent, their day-to-day lives and future destinies became intricately interwoven with my own. This did not occur without a considerable amount of agonizing self-evaluation and conflict over ‘whose side I was on.’ On the one hand, I wanted to conduct a study that would allow me to fulfill certain academic requirements, i.e., a dissertation. On the other hand, I was highly influenced by my Blackness⸺by the fact that I, on many levels, was one of them and had to deal with their problems on a personal level. I was largely unable to resolve these strands, this “double consciousness,” to which W.E.B. DuBois refers. It is important to understand that Blacks are at a juncture in history that has been unprecedented for its necessity to grope with and clarify and define the status of existence in American society. Thus, I was unable to resolve the dilemmas I faced as a Black social scientist because they only symbolize the larger questions, and dilemmas of our times” (xiv).
Ladner’s decision to take on the role of participant-observer delimits the restrictive nature of sociological examinations to produce objective studies. Her research shows that she could recontextualize mainstream ideas about a particular demographic by relating to those at the center of her research. Furthermore, approximately 13 years before Kimberlé Crenshaw coined the term intersectionality, Ladner’s work convincingly illustrates how the intersections of race, gender, and class affect working-class women in a way unlike it did their white middle class peers. The study is a classic redefinition of womanhood stretching readers to consider it as a multifaceted institution. In the closing lines of chapter 6, “Becoming a Woman: Part 1,” Ladner declares, “Black womanhood has always been the very essence of what American womanhood is attempting to become on some levels” (239). Published at the height of the feminist movement along with other late 1960s and early 1970s works, such as Anne Moody’s Coming of Age in Mississippi(1968), Maya Angelou’s I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings(1969) Toni Cade Bambara’sThe Black Woman: An Anthology (1970), Mari Evans’s I Am a Black Woman: Poems (1970) or Toni Morrison’sThe Bluest Eye(1970), Tomorrow’s Tomorrow served as a blueprint for those searching for a model of possibilities. I insist it continues to do that for us today as well.
“Determined to get beyond stereotypes, she challenged previous research models that regarded the behavior of poor blacks as deviant. She took great pains to understand these lives in their historical context, tracing the changing roles of black women since being taken from Africa, through slavery, Emancipation and the Great Migrations to the cities.” Ronda Racha Penrice, The Black Book Review Feb 28, 1996
To locate contemporary discourse on diverse experiences of Black girlhood, look to scholars and writers such as Ruth Nicole Brown’s, Black Girlhood Celebration: Toward a Hip-Hop Feminist Pedagogy (2009), LaKisha Simmons’s Crescent City Girls: The Lives of Young Black Women in Segregated New Orleans(2015), Nazera Wright’s Black Girlhood in the Nineteenth Century(2016), Aria Halliday’s The Black Girlhood Studies Collection(2019), Venus E. Evans’s Black Feminism in Qualitative Inquiry: A Mosaic for Writing Our Daughter’s Body(2019), or literary authors Jesmyn Ward’s Salvage the Bones(2011) and Jacqueline Woodson’s Brown Girl Dreaming(2014). Placing these works in conversation with Ladner’s Tomorrow’s Tomorrow makes the study key to the emerging field of Girlhood Studies. Aligning with academe, other institutions, like the National Museum of African American History and Culture, have recorded visual histories of Black girls and women through exhibitions such as Women thereby expanding the topic of Black womanhood to a broader audience.
The title, Tomorrow’s Tomorrow, is taken from the lines of a poem by Haki Madhubuti, formerly Don L. Lee. Its assertiveness provides a futuristic framework for those of us who are vested in examining the lives, experiences, and narratives of Black women. The closing words of the book are most prescient to our 21st Century:
“Black women must join all Black people in the process of defining who they are, what their goals are to be, who their prophets and heroes⸺past and present⸺are and what the strategies of survival will be; whether we will allow ourselves to become assimilated into the mainstream on the oppressor’s terms or whether we will fight the ominous extermination that is already taking a toll on the lives of college students, political activists and anyone else who defies the social system in ways which have been forbidden” (286).
In a world where it seems Black women are in a perpetual cycle of defining and making space for herself through slogans like #Say Her Name, CiteBlackWomen or collaborations like Crunk Feminist Collective, Ladner’s study becomes a valuable resource for the continual reexamination of the plight of Black Women.
Dill Thornton, Bonnie. “The Dialectics of Black Womanhood.” Feminism and Methodology.
Edited by Sandra Harding. Indiana P, 1987. 97-108.
Hill Collins, Patricia. Fighting Words: Black Women and the Search for Justice. U Minnesota P, 1998.
Ladner, Joyce. Tomorrow’s Tomorrow: The Black Woman. Doubleday. 1971.
Join HBW and the Margaret Walker Center as we celebrate Tomorrow’s Tomorrow 50th anniversary. Holding a discussion between Dr. Joyce Ladner, Shelia Bonner, and Dr. Thornton Dill as they reflect on Tomorrow’s Tomorrow 50 years later. Happening on March 25 at 6 PM CST via the Margaret Walker Center’s Facebook page.
Shelia Bonner is an American Studies doctoral candidate. Currently, she is the Andrew Mellon visiting scholar at the Margaret Walker Center, located on the campus of Jackson State University. Bonner’s research interest is broadly African American history with a particular interest in Black women’s life-narratives, literature, and visual culture. Through her research, Bonner seeks to understand how Black women navigate oppressive systems and the mediums they use to articulate those experiences. Her dissertation examines the life of Joyce Ladner. Bonner investigates events that compelled Ladner to join the movement as well as how her experiences, specific to Mississippi, shaped the activist’s identity as a budding intellectual.
If you ever took a class on medicine or human biology, you may have heard of the HeLa cell line. You may have learned that they were the first human cells to be successfully cloned, that HeLa is the oldest and most researched cell line in history, or that HeLa cells have been used to test the polio vaccine, used in cancer research, and even sent into space. You may not have learned how the HeLa cell line came to be and the important discussion it brought to light regarding informed patient consent.
It all started when Loretta Pleasant, later Henrietta Lacks, was born on August 1, 1920, in Roanoke, Virginia. The name Henrietta came from the nickname Hennie that her family gave her growing up. Her mother died during childbirth when Lacks was just four years old. Her father, unable to care for all ten children on his own moved the family to the small town of Clover, Virginia, where the children were split among extended family members. Lacks ended up with her maternal grandfather.
On January 29, 1951, Lacks went to Johns Hopkins in Baltimore Maryland, the only hospital in the area that treated Black patients, because she was experiencing pain in her abdomen as well as some bleeding. She had hesitated because of the treatment Black patients typically received at the time. Lacks described a “knot” in her stomach, which the doctor ignored, telling her only that she was pregnant. It wasn’t until after she gave birth and had severe hemorrhaging that her doctors did a biopsy. The misdiagnosis at the time was a malignant epidermoid carcinoma¹ of the cervix. In 1970 research revealed that she actually had adenocarcinoma².
During her treatment, two samples were taken from her cervix without her knowledge or consent. One set of the samples taken were healthy and the other, cancerous. The cells collected from Lacks were given to Dr. Otto Gey, who had been unsuccessful up to that point in keeping cells alive. Henrietta’s cells were the first to survive and reproduce after being separated from the body. The cancerous cells would become some of the most researched cells in history and are part of the immortal HeLa cell line. Lack’s cells continue to been used in medical research globally.
Research on the HeLa cell line has furthered the advancement of medicine in many fields. Their ability to reproduce rapidly, they have been used in vaccine research, cancer research, and even COVID-19 research. Henrietta’s cells have helped develop drugs for treating herpes, leukemia, influenza, hemophilia, and Parkinson’s disease. They have been used to study lactose digestion, sexually transmitted diseases, appendicitis, and human longevity. The use of these cells is infinite, and their lifetime is eternal.
One of the first major uses for the HeLa cells was the development of the polio vaccine. The research done on the cells using the virus that causes polio helped create the vaccine that every child now gets. The ongoing impact of the HeLa cells use can be seen in radiation for cancerous cells and AIDs research. The use of HeLa cells in COVID-19 research has allowed for a greater understanding of the mechanics of the SARS-COV-19 virus, which can be used to curate treatment of the disease.
However, the successful story of advances in health and medicine is not all good. These cells were taken without the consent of Henrietta Lacks or anyone in her family. The family only learned that her cells were taken when there was a mix-up in a lab. Twenty years after Henrietta’s death, the family was contacted about providing samples to help differentiate between Henrietta’s cells and the cells of other people. The cells were taken at a time when a patient’s consent was not required. As a result, the practice of cell harvesting without consent was very common. Because the cells were used for public experimentation, her records became public in 1980, again, without the consent of her family.
Although Henrietta Lacks made amazing contributions to science and medical research her story is a great example on why informed consent is crucial. Not only was this a lack of consent, but there was also no knowledge provided about the use of her cells. As a result, the family received neither the credit nor the compensation they deserved.
There is a long and dark history of medical experimentation on Black people by medical professionals who take advantage of an inequitable system compounded by racist practices historically especially with regard to the African American community. While Henrietta’s cells have led to major gains in the field of medicine, her family still lives with limited access to healthcare, unable to access the very medicines Henrietta made possible. Henrietta’s story is significant because of the ongoing meaning of her life to science and medicine. At the same time, that she was never made aware of the way in which her body was being used or was unable have a say in it is a travesty. Even with safeguards against the this type of exploitation, we still have a long way to go in addressing the systemic nature of racism as it operates in health care and medical research.
More on Henrietta Lacks
Rebecca Skloot’s book The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks.
¹epidermoid carcinoma: Epidermal (skin) cancer which forms from squamous cells and usually appear in hollow organs such as the digestive system and respiratory track.
²adenocarcinoma: A type of cancer that begins in mucus producing glandular cells.
Aubrey Kerbs is an undergrad student majoring in history. After graduating next spring with a history BA, Aubrey will be pursuing a master’s in Library and Information Sciences. Afterwards Aubrey will be looking for work at either university libraries or government libraries. The goal is to one day work at the Smithsonian Institute. Aubrey works as a research assistant with the BBIP team.
[ By Dominique Waller and Victoria Garcia Unzueta ]
*This blog has been excerpted and edited*
For Women’s History Month 2017, then HBW staffer Dominique Waller wrote “Forgotten Figures for the Resistance,” a blog highlighting figures overlooked in history. For this Women’s History Month 2021, The Project on the History of Black Writing would like to extend her blog by adding more hidden figures, who demonstrate the many ways in which feminist activism presents itself.
From Dominique Waller
Through research on HBCUs (Historically Black Colleges and Universities) by my colleague Shelia Bonner, I stumbled upon a forgotten Kansas treasure who attended Western University (1865-1943), one of the many colleges for African Americans founded after the Civil War. Eva Jessye (1895-1992) was an African American musician, composer, actress, and author from Coffeyville, Kansas. Jessye is acknowledged for being the first Black woman to win international distinction as director of a professional choir. Her choir performed many styles of music including spirituals, work songs, mountain ballads, ragtime, jazz, poetry, and opera. A pioneer in African American music, she was committed especially to preserving its most cherished traditions.
Lucy Hicks Anderson (1886-1954) was married twice, fined multiple times, and jailed by the government for marrying and receiving benefits reserved from same-sex spouses. In defiance, she declared “I defy any doctor in the world to prove that I am not a woman. I have lived, dressed, acted just what I am, a woman”. Anderson was a pioneer for Trans rights and marriage equality long before the famous Stonewall uprising.
We’Wha of the Zuni
We’Wha (WAY-wah) was a two spirit who advocated for the rights of their people during the late 1800’s. The Zuni (federally recognized Native American Pueblo people) royalty mingled with politicians and local elites, as well as befriending the US speaker of the House and his wife. At the time, there was no one who doubted that We’Wah identified as female although born male. We’Wha grew up and drew traits of both male and female in a socially recognized third gender known as two-spirit. The fact that such an individual could be representative of the Zuni shows the degree that individual differences in gender and sexuality were accepted at the time. In fact, the ability to combine male and female skills and qualities was viewed as a gift. Not surprisingly, the Zuni people traveled thousands of miles, overcoming language and cultural differences, to live and converse with leaders of our nation.
Florynce “Flo” Kennedy (1916-2000) was a Kansas City native, feminist, Black Power activist, and lawyer. Kennedy was active in 1960-1970, a time in which many activists were fighting for Black liberation. She was one of the founding members for the National Organization for Women, the Feminist Party, and the National Black Feminist Organization, along with many other organizations with which she was associated. Known for her outspoken, fiery nature and empowering activism, Kennedy often appeared in her signature getup, a Stetson, false eyelashes, pink sunglasses, political buttons bearing slogans like “Kick Ass” and “If you want to know where apathy is, you’re probably sitting on it,” and always carrying a whistle. Kennedy played a vital role in many court cases such as Abramowicz v. Lefkowitz, which helped legalize abortion in New York and served as a precedent for Roe v. Wade. However, she is often hidden behind other feminists of the time like Shirley Chisholm, Gloria Steinman, and Betty Freidan.
Wangari Maathai (1940-2011) was a professor of biology and a world-renowned environmentalist. With a degree from Mount St. Scholastica College in Atchison, Kansas, she completed graduate studies in Germany and Kenya and became the first Black woman to win the Nobel Peace Prize in 2004. An early environmentalist who continued the fight to “promote ecologically viable social, economic and cultural development in Kenya and in Africa,” she founded the Green Belt Movement in 1977, an organization dedicated to environmental conservation, climate resilience, and sustainability. Maathai was recognized as Time Magazine’s “Hero of the Planet” in 1998 for her pioneering efforts. Her work continues its inspiring legacy although her name is not often included in conversations about one of the most important movements of our time.
Andrea Jenkins (1961- ), City Council member, representing Minneapolis’s 8th ward, became the first openly transgender person of color in the US when she was elected to a public office in the 2017. Before taking office, Jenkins had already amassed 25 years of work in public service and policy, was a nonprofit executive director, poet, writer, and performer. Today, Jenkins is the Vice President of the Minneapolis City Council, which was put in the limelight following the murder of George Floyd in that city. Days after Floyd’s death, Jenkins addressed the reality of police brutality and racism. She said, “Until we name this virus, this disease that has infected American for the past 400 years, we will never ever resolve this issue.”
Waller drew a contrast between the popular Star Wars Resistance movement and social justice in her initial post, suggesting that fighting for justice is a resistance movement in its own right for women. She concluded in her 2017 blog post, “…feminism is nothing without intersectionality. For a movement to succeed it must be inclusive. The “Resistance” will fail if we can’t support each other.” HBW would like to invite our audience to take this Women’s History Month as an opportunity to focus on the forgotten figures and to strive to make all activism intersectional and inclusive.
Dominique Waller is a 2020 KU graduate and actor with numerous performances with KU theatre, including …And Jesus Moonwalks the Mississippi, as Jesus/Great Tree(2017); One Man Two Guvnors, as Pauline Clench (2019), and As You Like It, as Phoebe (2020). She had the lead role as Martha in a 2020 film The Light We Lose. She published “A Gospel of Tales,” in KU’s very own Kiosk 57: Renaissance. Dominique is continuing her acting career while serving as a manager at Kohls.
Victoria Garcia Unzueta is a KU sophomore, majoring in journalism with an emphasis in strategic communications. Originally from Dodge City, Kansas, she was editor- in-chief of her high school’s newspaper and yearbook. For Victoria, these experiences helped to shape her passion for journalism and community advancement, which led to her connection with HBW, where she is currently the social media coordinator.