Once upon a time, there was white male history. The black movements of the 1950s and '60s brought social and political change for all Americans, and black history was spotlighted. But by and large, it focused on the male perspective. With the women's liberation movement came women's studies, which with few exceptions focused on white middle-class women.
So the unique experiences and lives of black women were largely bypassed. Their dreams and visions were left in a void.
Now a new book, "All the Women are White, All the Blacks are Men, But Some of Us Are Brave"--edited by Gloria T. Hull, Patricia Bell Scott and Barbara Smith, and published by The Feminist Press--focuses on the history of black women in a way that should begin to erase some of the self-doubt and denial.
The book calls for a feminist, prowoman perspective that acknowledges the reality of sexual oppression, as well as the oppression of race and class, in the lives of black women. So the authors take a giant step in naming another discipline--black women's studies. Colleges around the country are slowly catching hold of the idea.
Why do we need this? Maybe because of sentiments the book quotes such as those that William Faulkner wrote in l932 in "Light in August":
"But now and then a negro nursemaid with her white charges would loiter there and spell them letters on a sign aloud with that vacuous idiocy of her idle and illiterate kind."
But Some of Us Are Brave" declares that it is time to stop merely focusing on the outstanding achievers and focus instead on the mass experience of ordinary women, those descendants of Faulkner's nursemaid who still live with a double yoke, race and sex, in this white, male world.
This is the message of Alice Walker's opening poem:
They were women them
My mama's generation
Husky of voice--Stout of
With fists as well as
The real world still makes many black women not want to think about themselves--either to be sad about themselves or glad about themselves. Depression is their companion as their dreams and visions are still in the void.
So black women's studies is not so much a history that is entirely separate as it is an attempt to place in proper perspective and proper importance an element of American history that has not found its proper niche. It will become more popular as black women assume a more balanced role.
For now, this book must speak of the "terrible isolation" black women face. They are, for instance, isolated in academia, in corporations. Many are alienated from their roots and cut off from real contact with their own people--and from a part of themselves, from their own history.
This book notes the needs of the emerging woman--"coming just to the edge of new awareness," jerked to life by the civil rights movement, politically active and seeking new meaning in roots and tradition.
Only some women read books like "But Some of Us Are Brave" or "This Bridge Called My Back: the Writings of Radical Women of Color" or the serious themes of Alice Walker--books that probe the psyche like a blunt instrument exploring a wound.
Some of my friends restrict their reading to the wild and fantastic such as the prosaic escapist spy thrillers of Robert Ludlum.
They seem to be divided among those who want to read serious, probing books, and those who read for escape, who don't want to be "depressed" by reminders of the real world.
I've been thinking a lot of what one's choice of books says about the person, and what it says about the times.
Are the women who seek only escape dangerously cut off from what should be real in their lives?
When the women relentlessly seeking escape are black women, do they become symbolic of how much is still unknown and unresolved in their own distinct history?
I like to think of the women who bury themselves in escapist reading as emerging, trying to live as whole people amidst the contradictions and negations they face each day. They have a long way to go, but books such as "But Some of Us Are Brave" will ease the journey.