Untold Stories: Dr. Daina Ramey Berry, Dr. Kali Nicole Gross, and Evette Dionne

African American women’s history takes center stage in this fascinating discussion between three esteemed writers.

“History is not the past. It is the present.” We have been reflecting on these words by James Baldwin, and they echo particularly strongly these days. It was powerful and poignant to read both A Black Women's History of the United States and Lifting as We Climb in the same year. In a crucial and necessary corrective to what we were taught in school, these books center the extraordinary and underrepresented histories and perspectives of African American women. Black women’s scholarship is life-changing and paradigm-shifting, so we are truly grateful for the diligence, rigor, and hope that Dr. Daina Ramey Berry, Dr. Kali Nicole Gross, and Evette Dionne bring to U.S. history. It’s an honor to listen to them share the breadth and depth of their work.

-Aminatou & Ann

Author

Kali Nicole Gross

Kali Nicole Gross is the Martin Luther King, Jr. Professor of History at Rutgers University–New Brunswick and she is the National Publications Director for the Association of Black Women Historians. Her primary research explores Black women’s experiences in the U.S. criminal justice system and her expertise and opinion pieces have been featured in BBC News, Vanity Fair, TIME, HuffPo, The Root, The Washington Post and more.

Author

Daina Ramey Berry

Daina Ramey Berry completed her BA, MA, and PhD in African American Studies and U.S. History at the University California Los Angeles. She is an associate professor of History and African diaspora studies, and the George W. Littlefield Fellow in American History at the University of Texas at Austin. An award-winning historian, she is also a Distinguished Lecturer for the Organization of American Historians.

Author

Evette Dione

Evette Dionne is a Black feminist writer and the editor-in-chief of Bitch Media. Her writings about race, gender, and culture have appeared in Teen Vogue, Refinery29, Bustle, Self, The Guardian, and The New York Times, among other publications. Before becoming a writer and editor, Dionne taught eighth graders about social justice and tenth graders about world literature.

  • “History is not the past. It is the present.” We have been reflecting on these words by James Baldwin, and they echo particularly strongly these days. It was powerful and poignant to read both A Black Women's History of the United States and Lifting as We Climb in the same year. In a crucial and necessary corrective to what we were taught in school, these books center the extraordinary and underrepresented histories and perspectives of African American women. Black women’s scholarship is life-changing and paradigm-shifting, so we are truly grateful for the diligence, rigor, and hope that Dr. Daina Ramey Berry,  Dr. Kali Nicole Gross, and Evette Dionne bring to U.S. history. It’s an honor to listen to them share the breadth and depth of their work. 

    -Aminatou & Ann

    June 23, 2020

    Kali

    Evette, it’s lovely to meet you.

    Evette

    It’s lovely to meet you. I’ve been so excited about having this conversation!

    Daina

    It’s great to be here.

    Kali

    I really enjoyed your book. I learned so much. One of the things that I love about Black women’s history is that even though there’s all this rich, incredible scholarship that has been done, there are still so many stories out there that we’ve yet to fully excavate and discover. So, it was great to read your work and learn about all these folks. I never knew about Hetty Reckless before. I was completely psyched to learn about her and so many other women that you talk about. 

    Daina

    To add to what Dr. Gross was saying, I love, first of all, how accessible your book was, and I like the photos. I know that sounds very simplistic, but it’s great to have images to go along with people that you’re writing about. 

    Evette

    Thank you. That was actually the toughest part, compiling the photos. I had to explain to my publishers that prior to the Civil War there aren’t many of these photos. It was a quest to find photos, and there were many people in the book who don’t have photos because they just don’t exist anywhere in a public sphere.

    Daina

    We were limited to the number of photos that we could use, but we had the exact same challenge and didn’t want the images to be 20th century heavy—or even 21st century heavy—but we didn’t have much of an option because there are so few images of Black women during the 19th century.

    Evette

    Exactly.

    Kali

    I think that really gets at the heart of what is so challenging about doing work on Black women’s history. One of the things that Daina and I worked toward in our book was aiming to get at those conflicting elements that diminish and tug away at Black women’s humanity.

    On one hand, our bodies and offspring are used and exploited to build a nation, to swell the country’s coffers. But on the other hand, Black women are maligned as immoral, deemed unworthy of protection—they’re vulnerable to brutality and sexual violence. They’re foundational but somehow have been, and kind of remain, among the country’s most marginalized.

    Evette

    That actually was a question that I had because I am not a trained historian. I’m just a very curious journalist. And one of the things that you said early on in the book that was striking to me was about the obstacles you encountered in academia because you wanted to study Black women’s history. Do you think that has progressed at all, in terms of having more Black women in the field doing that work? Or do you still encounter some of those same obstacles?

    Daina

    I think that’s a great question. I would say a little bit of both. One, the field has changed. Both of us finished our PhDs around the same time, in the late 90s, and I remember knowing the 101 Black women historians. There were only 101 in the Association of Black Women Historians and I think there were 101 total, in general.

    I remember meeting some at conferences and being mentored by some, but I think now—and Kali can certainly say a lot more because she’s in leadership in the Association of Black Women Historians—there’s three or four generations of historians now. And so the women that were around before have students, and their students have students. The field is exploding in a way. I feel like we’re still capturing that moment and we tried to think about how we could include all generations in the writing of A Black Women’s History of the United States.

    Kali

    I would agree with everything that Dr. Berry said. The only thing I would add is that I do think a lot of the challenges that we faced are still there. I think they manifest themselves in different ways. So now you do have this increased representation of Black women in the pipeline—Black women who are obtaining their degrees in history, Black women who are doing phenomenal work. But there are still challenges in terms of getting that work acknowledged on a widespread scale.

    Daina

    Absolutely.

    Kali

    And that’s whether it is getting your work reviewed in mainstream publications and before prize committees, getting your work licensed even for audiobooks. All of these things still remain firmly entrenched challenges—and I know that Dr. Berry’s very involved in this effort as well, this whole hashtag about citing Black women—because the scholarship that we do is still showing up in other folks’ works, but Black women aren’t getting the credit for it. 

    Daina

    It’s very frustrating. The ways in which Black women scholars do a lot of labor in the academy, and we also do a lot of labor in published work, whether it’s contributions to reference volumes, popular press, or textbooks, and then also our own scholarly research—I feel like we’re approaching a number of different areas, but we don’t, as Dr. Gross was saying, always get credit or recognition. We don’t always get cited. We’re fortunate, we’ve received awards for our work, but there are a lot of other scholars who have been publishing work and have been in this field for decades and have never been recognized.

    We find that we have to celebrate ourselves. We have to have conferences and we need to proliferate and be a part of editorial boards, which gives us more work and more labor in the profession. We need to be on book prize committees because oftentimes there’s an argument that one book that’s by a Black woman is on the list because they need to have diversity in the selection, but from where we’ve both sat, they don’t always get a fair review. I think there’s still lots of work to be done.

    I have a question for you, Evette. As a journalist, how was it delving into this history? Was it difficult to do? I’d love to know more about your process.

    Evette

    This book project originally began as a short, 800-word article for Teen Vogue, of all places. They approached me about a series they were doing, “OG History,” I think it was called. Essentially, “Tell us about white suffragists.” That was the first time I actually started to dig into it. To be honest, I was blown away. 

    Knowing that the centennial of the 19th Amendment was coming up, Viking approached me about writing the book because they thought it was an important corrective to another book they were releasing on the same subject, but told, of course, from white women’s point of view.

    I say that journalism prepared me to write this book because it was rigorous research. That was a large part of journalism school in general for me—rigorous research, asking a lot of questions. I found myself putting a lot of puzzle pieces together.

    Daina

    Welcome to Black women’s history.

    [Laughter]

    Evette

    I was very grateful to get a lot of assistance from librarians all over the country, digging into digital archives. I kept asking myself,

  • Candles
    “We know the dominant narrative, but who else would have been here?”
    Evette Dionne
  • Evette

    Once I had a timeline figured out for the book and all the women in it, then I figured out what those women were doing at that time, and kind of worked backward from there to build the narrative around it.

    Kali

    In your work, I know you discovered a bevy of incredible Black women suffragists, and women who fought for the right to vote even after technically the 19th Amendment was ratified.

    Who had the most impact on you? If you had to choose one or two women that you wanted to be the takeaway, who would it be?

    Evette

    That’s a tough question because I feel like I’ve spent so much time with these women—two years.

    Firstly, probably Sarah Mapps Douglass. That’s primarily for a vain reason. I could not find a single photo of her, so I think, what did she look like and what was her life like? You’re born free in Philadelphia, but then you realize that freedom is very fragile, so you get involved in this movement. I wonder what she would think about the time we are in currently. I think a lot about her, and that’s probably because I don’t know what she looks like. So I envision her in my head and I would love, too, if what I see in my head is who she is.

    The second, I would say, has to be Ida B. Wells. Since I decided to be a journalist, Ida B. Wells has been a guiding light. Particularly in the realm of this book, I think she has stuck with me because of her fearlessness. You witness lynching and instead of allowing the fear to stifle you, you decide to document it and battle not only white women but white men and Black men in your community for decades, only to make marginal progress. It is both sobering to me, but also inspiring because I feel she knew that what she was fighting for would take longer than she was alive to see but it was still important. For me, it made it imperative to continue to do the work of documenting history in the way that she did.

    I would ask that same question to you. Which women in your book really stuck with you?

    Kali

    Like you, there are so many whom you just become bonded to in some respects; you live with them for so long. One of the women who really struck me was Frances Thompson. After the Civil War she makes this choice to live as a free woman in Memphis. Unfortunately, she’s among the scores of Black women who are brutalized during the Memphis riots of 1866. This is when these mobs of angry white men—a number of police among them—destroyed Black homes and businesses, robbed Black people, raped Black women and girls.

    In spite of that trauma, Frances was joined by 4 other brave Black women and testified before a congressional committee. They go on record to say they did not consent, which is really powerful for Black women, who for so long didn’t have control over their bodies. That testimony helps to usher in this wave of new kinds of acts that divide the South into these military districts and have troops there to ensure that African American civil rights are protected. This is when we had that swell of Black people voting; we had Black men in Congress and occupying all these positions. 

    Ten years later, we see Frances again in the record, testifying again. This time it’s after an arrest. She’s been targeted, harassed by police. There’s this white doctor who is insistent she’s not actually a “woman.” They subject her to humiliating exams by four white physicians who decide that, in fact, her “true sex” is male. Even though she swears that she is “of double sex.” She’s incarcerated and ridiculed and imprisoned. She survives that term and dies shortly after.

    And then a year later, basically, Reconstruction dies, too. They used that arrest to discredit that earlier testimony. The Tilden-Hayes fiasco… they removed those troops from the South and basically plunged African Americans back into another almost 100 years of second-class citizenship. And even though it isn’t one of these traditionally heroic tales, I feel like she’s super important. She seized every opportunity to live her truth and to fight for justice for herself and other women who had been victimized.

    This episode in history is important because it marks this crossroads, what can happen when the country doesn’t stay on that path of righteousness and racial justice. When they rolled back those voting rights, it hugely and adversely impacted all of American society—African Americans, but untold generations of poor whites as well.

    She’s someone who has always stayed with me.

    The other woman who I’m always indebted to is Mary Lucille Hamilton, the Black woman who, in 1963 went to jail in the segregated South, in Alabama. She’s already arrested for protesting and then she’s incarcerated again because she refused to answer the white judge until he referred to her as “Miss Hamilton.”

    I love that spirit. Imagine the gumption of this Black woman who fought this all white, Jim Crow justice, and we know from your work how brutalized these Black women were when they were in police custody. That story you tell us about Fannie Lou Hamer is harrowing and demonstrative of scores of untold Black women who met the same fate in Southern jails. So, what she risked was life-threatening. And still she refused, saying that he would acknowledge her as “Miss Hamilton.” Fought it all the way to the Supreme Court and finally won. So, she’s the other person for me that’s a hero in my eyes.

    Daina

    Mine’s kind of easy. The first woman that I’d like to talk about is one of the first women that we discovered working on the book, Isabel de Olvera. She’s the woman we open up with, Chapter 1, because you have this woman that goes to the city court and she requests permission to go on an expedition and she says that she demands justice. She’s not bound by marriage or slavery and that says so much. That’s one of my favorite sentences. It’s hilarious to me; I love it and it also shows the power of Black women’s voices.

    Even on the eve of the arrival of many more people of African descent—before there are people that look like her, that come to what becomes the United States later—the risk that she took to be a part of this. I would say Isabel de Olvera and if I could learn more about her, I would. I think Kali and I exhausted all the resources we could during the research phase of this book. 

    It was just amazing—there are so many powerful Black women in these stories in both books that I hope some of these women become household names for younger kids and other generations to see that there are Black female role models for them to look up to.

    Evette

    There are two women we share, Nannie Helen Burroughs and Maria Stewart, who are in both of our books. I love the fact that Maria kind of kicks off your book, almost as if you’re saying that you build on the foundation that she has set. Why was that so important to you?

    Kali

    She is a phenomenal figure, as is Nannie Helen Burroughs, as is Shirley Chisholm, who we also have in common.

    Evette

    Shirley Chisholm!

    Kali

    Because there are these Black women who are pioneers in terms of making their voices heard. Canvassing the country, seizing the right, whenever they could, to speak truth to power. That’s one of the things that blows my mind about Black women’s history—how committed they are to speaking their truth to power. 

    Evette, what choices did you make in telling the story about Black women’s suffrage to young readers?

    Evette

    I used to be an 8th grade teacher and teach this class called seminar—it was a social justice class. We spent six weeks on race and sustained activism, six weeks on class, and on and on. I realized very early on that I had underestimated children. I thought the things I was teaching—abstract, not tangible—that they wouldn’t be able to grasp. And then I watched them sit down in circles and bounce ideas off each other about things I didn’t even understand until I was 21. 

    So, I came into this book having that knowledge and wanting to be as honest as possible with children. I did not want to hide anything. I didn’t want to take out the more brutal parts of the book, because I feel like children can handle it. That was something that I pushed for with my publisher. Do we call it racism? Yes. Do we call it lynching? Do we describe lynching? Absolutely. Because my goal here is for children to learn correct history from the start so they don’t have to unlearn like I did. If that is the underlying goal, I need to be as truthful as possible.

    With that said, this is probably the hardest book I’ve ever written in my life—trying to then make it as accessible as possible for children is another battle entirely. Things you inherently learn as you get older and feel first nature to me as an adult, I had to break down for children. My editors were good about saying, you know who Shirley Chisholm is. Or, you know who Martin Luther King, Jr., is. Or, you know about Fannie Lou Hamer. Break it down for them. Give them context about who these people were, what was happening in that time. Because they don’t know—they weren’t alive then; they don’t have the hindsight. So, make it as contextual as possible for kids.

    Daina

    That’s great. I appreciate you sharing that. That’s something that I’ve experienced professionally, in talking to young kids. I do a lot of work with K-12 kids, and people, parents, sometimes school districts, principals, and teachers think that young kids can’t handle the topics that are the themes of African American history. I always respond by saving enslaved children were 5 years old and had to deal with very adult things. Some of the best conversations I’ve had about African American history have come from kindergarteners. The best questions I’ve had have come from 4th graders. The best analysis I’ve had has come from 8th graders. I really appreciate you pushing back against it. I think it’s the adults who get in the way of the children’s learning. We need to share this history and allow them to learn. 

    I’m not sure if you know this but we have an adapter working on a young adult version of our book.

    Evette

    I’m so glad! That was going to be my question.

    Daina

    We might reach out to you because we’re thinking about making this a work in progress—bringing in young girls to work with us as we talk about how to teach this history to them, and get their feedback so that they can have exposure and experience with the editorial process, and understand what it’s like to write, craft, and construct a Black women’s history from their perspective. I think you would be a great advisory person. I love what you shared.

    Evette

    I would absolutely love to and I’m so glad because I have two nieces. That’s the reason why I agreed to write this book; I knew my eldest niece would be in 5th grade when it was released. This is something that she needs now. To know that she comes from a legacy of Black women who have overcome all sorts of things.

    Daina

    Also, if we think about our current political climate, we’ve seen historically—and you’ve written about some of these same women—Black women have always been political activists in every moment of this history. And they’ve been leaders of forms of political activism. If there’s a chance that in the next year that we have an African American woman vice president, this gives context to the legacy that these young women are coming from.

    Evette

    Agreed. Completely.

    Kali

    I would echo everything that Daina said. I’m super excited to share this with my daughter. It’s awesome.

    Daina

    I have a niece who’s 14, and I think she’ll love it. We talk about commemorating different moments in history, and there are a lot of trying moments in our history. But it’s nice to look at suffrage—this is a happy moment, an achievement. It’s great to be able to provide a volume for young girls to read, to know about this history and to learn about it, and take pride.

    There are so many young African American girls who grow up in school systems looking at textbooks where no one looks like them. No one reflects them. Even the teachers, there are not as many African American teachers. I’m not saying that there aren’t any. But to have these role models I think we’re at a really important turning point in our history. And I think it’s great to have scholarship like this available for our young children.

    Kali

    What I like about your work, as I said, is that you don’t dumb it down. You get at the complexities these Black women suffragists encountered in trying to work with white women, who were themselves biased. Also, in confronting sexism in the community when they tried to assert themselves. It’s a rich text.

    Evette

    Thank you.

    Kali

    … and super timely in every sense. 

    I’m interested, because you are a journalist and you’ve done all this historical research, how has the process of researching and writing changed how you are processing this current moment and documenting the challenges and the social movements that are going on today?

    Evette

    Journalism right now is undergoing a reckoning. Journalists are taught very early on in the J-School education that objectivity rules the roost, basically. You have to be objective; everything has two sides. I genuinely bought into that notion as a 19, 20-year-old—until I went to grad school. 

    What I say about grad school is that it made me think differently. So writing, reporting, and researching over time has dismantled the idea that you can be objective, that journalism is an unbiased field and we’re just trying to do public good. It has made me approach it from the idea of needing to shift our perspective entirely. I have done intentional rebuilding of a publication with all women of color and Black women, because I know that together we can do something special. None of us buys into this idea that in order to do public good you have to pretend that every issue has two sides. There aren’t two sides to racism—there’s racism and there’s white supremacy.

    Daina

    It’s pretty clear.

    Evette

    There are not two sides to reproductive justice. Either you’re on the side of creating a world that allows people to raise their children in safe environments or you don’t. There are not two sides to that. And that frees us to tell important stories without feeling obligated to appeal to people who will never see it from our point of view, who will never be on the side of freedom and liberation. 

    It allows me to express my opinion more, to think about being part of a lineage of Black women who have done similar work, and to see there are blueprints for it already. That I don’t have to work on it from scratch because it already exists.

    Daina

    Wow, that’s powerful. It’s also encouraging because from our perspective, writing for an academic audience and then also a popular audience—as we go into our profession and through the promotion and tenure process, we’re constantly writing for an audience of our peers in our field. That’s what we were doing early in our career. It was important for us to write a book for the people, the American people. And that was something that we wanted to do with this book.

    One of the things that we came across early on is that we had so many different voices in there, when we shared the book with our colleagues, they said, “You have to anchor it with people we’re familiar with.” So, we had to go back and put in some familiar stories. Don’t leave out Rosa Parks. Don’t leave out Harriet Tubman. Don’t leave out Sojourner Truth. Because that might help people understand some of the other women that you write about here.

    I think it’s true, Kali, that we felt really free to write and tell this history. I didn’t feel constrained at all—I wanted to make sure we were telling a story that people understood. 

    Kali

    I would agree. This was the hardest book, to date, that I’ve helped write and participate in. Much of that was because I felt a weight of responsibility. The last book or survey that had been done about Black women in the United States was published in the late 90s. So we were working on how to create a Black women’s history that would be accessible, that would have an impact on mainstream audiences, but also that would serve the needs of young, Black women readers in the 21st century.

    So in wanting to incorporate a breadth of experiences—rural, urban, every part of the country, all kinds of women, including history around mass incarceration, weaving in the work of artists and athletes, trying to represent Black queer experiences throughout history—we definitely felt the weight of it. But it was a collective endeavor. We had so many other sister scholars from all over the country weigh in and work with us on it to try to get it right, to strike the right tone. I think it has changed how I look at and think about the current moment that we’re in. 

    I feel like we’re on the precipice and that it’s urgent to fight hard for change on the street but also to make sure our votes count. I’m deeply concerned about what will happen if we get plunged into another period where people try to reinscribe white supremacy at every turn.

    I’m invested in this moment and thinking about it from a historic perspective, I’m also trying to create a different kind of archive of Black women’s voices. I’m looking in newspapers, at Facebook posts, and tweets. At the Association of Black Women Historians, we have our own YouTube channel so we’re trying to get as many Black women’s voices out there as possible to comment on this moment. There are so many instances where, even now, experts that we have in this field, Black women’s voices aren’t represented. So, we’re trying to use some of the ways that we do history or push back against that move to continue to erase or silence us.

    Daina

    I think, too, that because of the global pandemic that we’re experiencing, it’s changing the way we interact. Before, we would interact in conferences. We’ve now been able to have conversations on the ground instead of waiting for a national conference that comes once a year in October or December. We can say, let’s get a group of scholars together and have a conversation about this particular issue. Or, let’s talk about what happened last week in Minnesota. Or let’s talk about what happened in Kentucky. Let’s talk about it now. And let’s bring in four or five experts.

    That is something that, pre-pandemic, was happening, but they were more structured conversations that were pre-planned well in advance and not necessarily on the spot. As Kali was saying, right now we’re on the precipice of change but we’re also in the middle of a major civil rights movement. I don’t even know if “civil rights” is the term we’ll use for this. We’re in the middle of it and we can now comment on it in real time. I’ve struggled over the last couple weeks, even in speaking about what we’re dealing with, because I want to make sure I’m thinking about this historically. But it’s not past yet. It’s really been a challenge.

    Evette

    I would say this is the first time in my life I feel like I am living history. My children and my grandchildren are going to ask me about this time. I’ve never had that experience before and it’s mind-blowing.

    One of the things that was appealing to me about this book and drew me in is the way that it is structured. I wanted to ask about the choices you made around that and how you arrived at the decision to use an individual woman as the peg for each chapter.

    Daina

    We actually struggled for a while about the structure. One of the challenges we had was using a typical textbook narrative, the temporal narrative of the arc of American history. And as we talked about it, we realized that if we were looking at the history of the United States from a Black woman’s perspective, there are different dates that we’d identify that really set us apart: 1600, if we look at Isabel de Olvera; the 1662 and 1663 legislation. Those are important legislations about the status of the enslaved as defined by the mother.

    Moving all the way forward in time, that would change the arc. We were sort of struggling with that and we had this workshop that Kali hosted at Rutgers University…

    Kali

    That’s what I was mentioning before about all these sister scholars who had read the work and contributed. We got 10 sister historians in the field, different ranks and different specialties, to read outlines and rough chapter drafts. As a writer, you’re incredibly vulnerable when you share these drafts. It was super powerful.

    In the end we felt that it was important to feature a vignette of a single Black woman in each one, to help draw readers in, personalize it, and demonstrate that we’re talking about and giving our overview of this history, but we’re also demonstrating how the themes in that era really influenced a single Black woman’s life. And also vice versa: how a single Black woman could change history. And the country.

    Daina

    The other thing I would add is that to think about it from that perspective allowed us to focus on women of different ages as well. Some of these women are very young. Mary, she was a young enslaved girl in the Civil War. We were able to go across different age ranges and think about the developing field of Black girlhood studies, which is really exploding as well.

    We would go back and forth on whom we would select and who represents some of the other themes that are covered in that chapter, and what’s a great way to open the story so we can then move in. We were allowing these young Black girls and women to usher us into a moment of history—the way they experienced it.

    Evette

    I appreciated that because it introduced me to women I had never heard of, but also because it reminded me very much of the structure of how I approach personal essay—starting with the individual person to move into a broader realm. 

    I love what you said about the timeline because that was a revelation for me in the process of writing. Typically, the suffrage timeline is Seneca Falls to 1920. When it hit me that I had to think both before that and after it. I already knew the after part—we’re going to at least have to go until 1965, and the book moves into our current moment—but I had never thought what happened before Seneca Falls. Also, why were Black women not at Seneca Falls? I had to think that through, too. The timeline for white women suffragists is far different than the timeline for Black women abolitionists, who became suffragists, who now fight voter suppression… all in a single timeline. That’s when the pieces started to fit together.

    Kali

    Awesome. I think that’s probably our time.

    Daina

    Thank you.

    Evette

    Thank you so much.

    Kali

    This was phenomenal!