This was a really good book for what it was—a survey of Black women’s roles throughout 400 plus years of North American history—but the relatively small 219 page count just wasn’t enough space to really get into the sorts of details I really love when reading about history. I don’t think we can discount the impact of the purpose of the book, though, since its entire aim is to place Black women back into the historical record, and it very much succeeds in that goal.
The book is also a hybrid creation of historical scholarship and popular writing, as the authors plainly state in their introduction that they wanted the book to be accessible, even approachable, by the general public. Honestly, I’m not quite sure they succeeded in that second aim. I don’t think anyone who doesn’t already like reading about history will much enjoy this as it’s pretty dryly written, and especially in the first half when historical details are less plentiful, the authors use a lot of generalizations. (By this I mean, they make well-educated guesses based on the historical evidence they have, it’s just there isn’t very much of it to work with.)
Basically, this book was very informative and will be very helpful going forward as a way to place Black women in more historically active narratives, but I wanted more detail and less of a general survey feel, which was not this book’s aim. Each chapter is structured around a particular era of history, and named after an individual woman, but again this is sort of misleading. The chapter on Shirley Chisholm, for example, features about a page and a half, maybe two, of Shirley Chisholm, and about twenty pages of a bunch of other Black women we only meet very briefly. I think it would have been helpful for me to know going in that I wouldn’t be getting a deep dive on any particular woman or era out of this book.
The perspective the authors bring from telling the familiar (aka white) stories of historical eras from this new perspective was really interesting, and in most cases, quite damning. For example, in just one act of fuckery, infamous explorer Francis Drake once marooned a pregnant Black woman on an island with two Black men because she was pregnant, after his crew (and possibly himself) had gang-raped her. But the authors don’t just aim to illuminate all the bad things that happened to Black women throughout history, they also aim to chronicle Black women as movers and makers of history, and key drivers of progress. If anything, I felt the book was often missing the middle of the road perspective between those two extremes. The book is also full of small details I’d never learned before, like that Black women were sometimes slaveholders themselves, but mostly they did so in order to keep their families together when some members were free and some were still enslaved.
Definitely worth checking out, especially if you like history, or have an interest in Black women’s history