African American studies scholar Daina Ramey Berry reveals untold stories in her new book, A Black Women’s History of The United States.
By Joanne Xu, Headshot by Brenda Ladd, Book cover courtesy of Beacon Press
Daina Ramey Berry celebrates each new book she authors with the same pride she felt at her child’s birth. On the morning of her sixth release, A Black Women’s History of the United States, she’s rediscovering the surreal sensations that come with being a published author. A well-versed scholar in African American studies, Berry’s previous works also recount raw truths on the intersection of gender and slavery in American history—the ones you won’t find in textbooks.
A Black Women’s History of The United States, co-written by Kali Nicole Gross of Rutgers University contains snapshots of the unsung, often-overlooked heroines of black history: enslaved and freed women, brave rebels and activists, queer women before their time, artists-turned-historians. As longtime advocates of underrepresented women, Berry and Gross have waited their whole careers to debut these stories.
Austin Woman caught up with Berry the day her passion project hit the stands on Feb. 4.
Austin Woman: Congratulations on the new book! I’d imagine today is pretty emotional for you.
Daina Ramey Berry: Thanks! It feels really good. When I’m writing, I try not to focus on how the book is going to be received. I’m just trying to be in these stories and tell them as best as I can. But now that the book is out, I can finally feel the catharsis coming out. It’s like, “Wow. It’s in the world now.” It’s almost like for the last several years we’ve been incubating this book. And today we gave birth. That’s why I like calling today the book’s birthday. It sounds funny, but I feel like a mother might feel holding the baby close to your chest for the first time.
AW: What made you and Dr. Gross realize this book needed to be written?
DRB: There are definitely other books out there that cover black women in history, but we were really fascinated by the perspectives of women that don’t necessarily make it into the history books. The women in our book are the ones that your average American citizen doesn’t know about: LGBTQ women, the hidden gems. There’s that quote by Laurel Thatcher Ulrich, “Well-behaved women seldom make history.” We wanted to tell the stories of women who maybe behaved badly, and that’s why they’re not in the book. So, we started digging for stories that otherwise wouldn’t have been told and ended up finding a woman of African descent who came to what’s now present-day New Mexico in 1600.
AW: So, that was your starting point? This woman from 1600s America that had essentially been forgotten from the history books?
DRB: Yes! The historical accounts of black people arriving in America usually start at the year 1619, but we found women of African descent that were on American soil before it was called the United States. When you read about her in the opening chapter, she starts off by demanding justice. So, what does that mean? That there was someone in 1600 demanding justice for black women? And then to think about the progress, or maybe lack thereof, that we’ve made today — it was really a powerful starting point for us to think about.
AW: You must have really had to dig in for the long haul to come up with all these hidden stories.
DRB: One of the biggest challenges with black women’s history in America is that women often enter the historical records as quickly as they exit. So, we really didn’t have much information on some of these women except for one single moment in their lives that was documented. We don’t know where she was born, where she came from, who she was married to, if she had kids. But we do have a single thread, so shouldn’t her story still be told? We think that the 13- or 14-year-old girl who helped stitch an American flag deserves to be part of our history just as much as Harriet Tubman or Michelle Obama does.
AW: Has writing this book felt different than your previously published works?
DRB: It was a really personal and emotional experience for both Dr. Gross and I. There’s a lot of reflection and commentary laced through A Black Women’s History of the United States from our research and personal experiences. One of the most emotional parts for me was reflecting on my time in Ghana in 2007, when I visited the fortifications where enslaved people were housed right before they were placed on slave ships. There’s a passage where I’m describing the room as it is, but really, I’m also reflecting on how I felt when I was in that space, what I saw and heard. With this book, I got to connect certain parts of history to my own experiences. Hopefully this book can connect us all to the past in that way.
AW: You’ve been really vocal in advocating for curriculum reform when it comes to the way slavery is taught in K-12 education. How can this book be part of that change?
DRB: Right now, we’re working with a writer who’s adapting A Black Women’s History of the United States into a version that’s suited for middle-school audiences, so teachers can actually use this book in the classroom. It’s all part of our need for a more inclusive textbook that covers all the groups of people that are in this country, including black women. We need our children to learn about the full American story, and we need them to know that it’s okay for our history to be messy. It’s okay for it to be complex, and it’s okay for our heroes to not be so glorified. I always say that people in glass houses shouldn’t throw stones. So, let’s bring everyone down to earth, and let’s just look at people for who they were. We’re human. My hope is that an average Joe reading this book can just take away some respect for black women, because we get so much disrespect.
AW: Who would be your perfect dinner guest lineup?
DRB: They’d all be enslaved women. There’s this woman named Sinda from Georgia that led a labor strike on a plantation for three weeks. Sojourner Truth, too, because I really enjoy learning about her family and how she cared for her parents. And Mariah Stewart, who was the first woman public speaker in the United States. I don’t know if you can tell, but all these women were bold. They all did something courageous that risked their lives.