Scholars Reveal, Remember, Give Voice to Those Forgotten by History

By Anne SteinJanuary 8, 2016

Until recently, W. E. B. Du Bois was written out of sociology texts. Despite his groundbreaking scholarship in that field, he was regarded by the mainstream academy as a black intellectual teaching and writing at a time when African Americans were deemed second-class citizens at best. He was marginalized, with his ideas instead credited to white academics.

Unfortunately, the omission of Du Bois is not an anomaly. Northwestern research reveals how certain individuals and groups have been excluded from our literature — and classrooms — for decades because of their race, gender, ethnicity, or economic status. This absence has deprived our nation of vital role models and resulted in an incomplete, skewed version of American history.

Today, a new generation of academics, including some from the very groups that have been marginalized, are committed to ameliorating this injustice.

At Northwestern, the work of John Alba Cutler, English, celebrates the rich literary and cultural history of Latinos. Darlene Clark Hine, African American studies, offers a valuable new understanding of the role and accomplishments of black women. Aldon Morris, sociology, sheds new light on Du Bois and reveals the racial biases that confronted black scholars during much of the 20th century.

Invisible Women Come into the Light

Harriet Tubman. Sojourner Truth. Rosa Parks. With the exception of a handful of names, American history books have rarely acknowledged the role of black women, leaving us unaware of remarkable people who did extraordinary things under difficult circumstances. It’s an omission that is changing — in large part due to Darlene Clark Hine, the Board of Trustees Professor of African American Studies and Professor of History.

Only a few black women rose to the stature of Parks, for example, during the Civil Rights Era. But, says Hine, there were many others whose actions helped shape, sustain, and organize that movement and eventually make it successful.

Progress sometimes emerged from unspeakable tragedy.

For instance, after 14-year-old Emmett Till was abducted and murdered in Mississippi in 1955, his mother, Mamie Till, left her son’s casket open to reveal racism’s true horror. She also delivered speeches that helped mobilize Americans to advance greater equality. Her actions ignited a national and international firestorm in response to the institutionalized prejudice that increased disparity between whites and blacks.

“There was an assumption in the past that what women contributed to society and to America’s evolution wasn’t as important as the contributions of men,” says Hine. “In the late 19th century, because of their heritage as slaves and manual laborers, African Americans, with few exceptions, were considered not to have made any noteworthy contributions.” Because of their gender, race, and class, black women were rendered nearly invisible, at the bottom of what US society considered to be significant.

Hine herself gained greater awareness in this area when she began researching black women’s history in 1980. Members of the Indianapolis chapter of the National Council of Negro Women approached her to chronicle black women of Indiana. They brought thousands of pages of documents that Hine reviewed over the course of a year. “There were records, but they weren’t housed in archives and libraries in our nation, because no one considered the records of the lives of black women to be important enough to conserve,” says Hine. Instead, those records remained with families, churches, black-owned businesses, and other black institutions.

Hine’s project also included two years of intensive archival research, which often involved obtaining valuable documents from individuals who had stored them in basements.

In addition, she compiled articles from black newspapers and black church and women’s club newsletters and collected personal diaries and photographs.

“A lot of records were lost when people died, but quite a few elderly black women hung onto family papers,” says Hine. A year after writing the history, she initiated the Black Women in the Middle West Project, to collect and properly archive historic materials — including those she gathered to write the Indiana history.

The project effectively launched the field of black women’s studies, now considered an essential component of the women’s studies major that emerged during and after the women’s liberation movement in the 1960s and ’70s. “Archivists and librarians became aware of the need to collect and preserve these documents, and historians became aware of the fact that they had excluded black women from their history narratives.”

The work changed Hine’s own focus, leading to her two most important books: Black Women in White: Racial Conflict and Cooperation in the Nursing Profession, 1890–1950 (Indiana University Press, 1989) and Black Women in America (Oxford University Press, 1994; second edition, 2005), a multivolume encyclopedia she edited that is considered a foundational resource in black women’s history.

For her scholarship in this field, Hine was one of nine women recognized in 2015 by the National Women’s History Project. President Barack Obama presented her with a 2013 National Humanities Medal for work that has “shown how the struggles and successes of African American women shaped the nation we share today.”

Understanding the historical roles of black women facilitates the production of inclusive new narratives, says Hine. “We now ask different questions and better comprehend the complexity of social movements. A new generation of young scholars is rethinking the gender dynamics of the Civil Rights movement and is identifying an array of unsung black women, without whose contribution modern social change and social transformations would have been impossible.”

A Scholar No Longer Denied

Without question, Du Bois is recognized as one of the 20th century’s great intellectuals. The first black man to earn a doctorate from Harvard, he is remembered as a social scientist, humanist, journalist, novelist, and poet. But he was also a pioneering American sociologist who until recently was given little or no credit for his work in that field.

“Other scholars have written about Du Bois and touched on his sociology, but sociologists haven’t done it,” says Aldon Morris, the Leon Forrest Professor of Sociology and African American Studies and the author of The Scholar Denied: W. E. B. Du Bois and the Birth of Modern Sociology (University of California Press, 2015). “For his work as a sociologist to be truly understood and appreciated, the research needed to be done by a sociologist.”

For years, Morris knew that Du Bois’s work had been unappreciated. Studying sociology in graduate school, Morris was not exposed to Du Bois. Nor was Du Bois part of the curriculum when Morris taught at the University of Michigan and, later, arrived at Northwestern.

Yet in The Scholar Denied, Morris argues that Du Bois was the founder of empirical sociology in America — two decades before the Chicago School, which instead was credited with the breakthrough. Du Bois also built one of America’s first sociology departments, at historically black Atlanta University. (In his day, racism prevented Du Bois from getting a position at a rich and prestigious “white” university.) “Du Bois pioneered many of the major methodologies that we still use today,” says Morris. These methods include interviews, statistics, observations, and ethnography.

He used these tools to challenge the accepted wisdom at the time: the consensus in white society, as well as in academia, that black people were inferior.

“Du Bois established a school of sociology at Atlanta University to prove black people were not inferior, biologically or culturally, and so deserved all the same citizenship rights as anyone in America,” explains Morris. Du Bois attracted a cadre of young black scholars to work with him. But his ideas threatened the status quo, and his research emerged from a small, black, resource-poor institution. For these reasons, and because he was a black scholar, his work was sidelined and made invisible for more than a century.

“Finally we are circling back to see what really happened in early 20th-century social science and sociology,” says Morris. “Du Bois is emerging as the pioneer and giant of the school of thought he founded.”

This transformation has accelerated now that several generations of black scholars have a place in the social sciences.

In writing his book, Morris researched major archives, personal letters between Du Bois and leading intellectuals of his day, speeches, published works, and first-hand accounts to reveal Du Bois’s accomplishments.

“It might be hard to understand the degree in the first half of the 20th century that black people were considered inferior,” says Morris. “Universities reflected the thought of the larger, white society.” The example of Du Bois, he notes, is not so much a narrow indictment of a bygone era at the University of Chicago, but rather one sign of the systemic historical marginalization of minority voices within the academy.

“In the early 20th century, the denial was more deliberate and political. As time went on, it became ignorance because scholars just didn’t know about Du Bois. They didn’t have to read him,” says Morris. “We’re saying to sociologists that we have to change the curriculum. We have to go back and resurrect a new understanding of our discipline. There’s no excuse now for this ignorance.”

Poetic Past Creates New Possibilities

In the rich world of Mexican American literature from World War II to the present, the reality of assimilation — expressed in poetry, novels, and plays — is often at odds with how early- to mid-20th-century sociologists explained the typical immigrant experience, argues John Alba Cutler.

“I have great respect for contemporary sociologists,” says Cutler, assistant professor of English and author of Ends of Assimilation: The Formation of Chicano Literature (Oxford University Press, 2015). “But in the 1920s to ’40s especially, sociologists tried to quantify how assimilation happens scientifically, characterizing it as a choice that individuals make.

In fact, there are a lot of things about how people experience social and cultural change that are out of their control.” Instead, argues Cutler, society plays an important role in choosing the extent to which newcomers will be integrated and welcomed.

For example, asks Cutler, what happens when communities are physically separated, or when people are barred from the middle-class neighborhoods and economic opportunities they seek? “Then you have a great example of people who might aspire to the middle class, but conditions are out of their hands and keep them away from that.”

As an example of this experience, Cutler compares the poetry of Sandra Cisneros (My Wicked Wicked Ways),which focuses on life in a Latino neighborhood in Chicago, and that of Gwendolyn Brooks (A Street In Bronzeville), which explores her black community, also in Chicago.

“Both writers are really attuned to how racialized segregation of neighborhoods has led to marginalization and stagnation of Latino and African American communities.”

The literature, especially from the Chicano and Puerto Rican political movements of the 1960s and ’70s, serves other important historic and cultural purposes, says Cutler: It’s written in a beautifully lyrical, inventive English, allowing Latinos to lay claim to this English as their native language. Latino literature, he adds, has always been innovative and exciting. “I was so thrilled and surprised when the new US poet laureate, Juan Felipe Herrera, was announced, because his poetry is so different from past poet laureates. His poetry crackles. This is an aspect of Latino literature that people don’t realize: It pushes boundaries of what literature can be and do.”

The literature also provides an identity to those who once felt invisible, articulating and sustaining cultures that were often undocumented or marginalized in history books.

“The literature was crucial for affirming to the Latino population that a lot of their culture was historical in nature,” says Cutler. “It showed that people could be proud of a history that went back centuries.” For example, Rodolfo “Corky” Gonzáles’s epic poem I Am Joaquin documents 500 years of Mexican American history, describing the struggles of assimilation, achieving equal rights, and maintaining one’s own cultural heritage.

Says Cutler: “This poetry reminds Chicano youth who never saw themselves reflected in the history curricula in schools that they really have a history. When you feel that, you feel legitimated as a person in the present.”

Originally Appeared: 
Darlene Clark HineAldon MorrisJohn Alba Cutler