Lifting As We Climb: Racial Uplift and Gender in Historical Accounts of Black Women in America

At the turn of the twentieth century, black Americans engaged in a nation-wide brainstorm over the direction, philosophy, and actions to take in their struggle for survival and empowerment. Deborah Gray White quotes Anna Julia Cooper “declaring that ‘the race is young and full of elasticity and hopefulness of youth, all its achievements are before it’” (38). Black women took advantage of this moment of elasticity by stretching the bounds of femininity. Like white women at the time, black women used “the popular belief that women were more nurturing, moral, and altruistic” to rationalize that “women were better suited than men for social welfare work” (37). Furthermore, many black women believed that “the criterion for Negro civilization is the intelligence, purity and high motives of its women” (43). Whether or not they advocated women’s involvement with public speaking and electoral politics, black women believed that their own uplift would bring about the uplift of the race, “lifting as we climb.”

But what, exactly, is the “up” that black women so often referred to? Did all women agree on the definition or the direction of racial uplift? In Too Heavy a Load: Black Women in Defense of Themselves, Deborah Gray White notes the tension black clubwomen experienced between those who thought women’s place was in the home and those who felt that women should engage in public and private race work as they pleased, but she does little to address the details or philosophy of race work itself. Did most black women agree with the terms of ‘uplift’ that clubwomen laid out? What does Deborah Gray White say about uplift and its problematic association with assimilation?

Femininity, either in traditional or progressive terms, was tied to racial uplift. How then, were femininity and uplift defined, and by whose standards were they measured? The purpose of this paper is to look at how historians Deborah Gray White, Glenda Elizabeth Gilmore, and Eileen Suarez Findlay have addressed issues of racial progress, femininity, and assimilation in their works about race and gender at the turn of the 20th century. First, I explore accounts of how black women defined racial progress and how gender is wrapped up in the process of assimilation. Second, I consider instances of resistance to assimilation and how choices in gender expression reflect resistance to white culture. Lastly, I consider at how historians have depicted non-assimilationist forms of racial uplift and how breaking away from white values, traditions and models encouraged a wider range of gender expression.

Racial Progress: Gender and Assimilation

The three works I focus on address race and gender at the turn of the 20th century, but from different geographical and political standpoints. Deborah Gray White’s Too Heavy a Load: Black Women in Defense of Themselves reveals that elite black clubwomen adopted a distinctly Victorian gender performance. Glenda Elizabeth Gilmore’s Gender and Jim Crow: Women and the Politics of White Supremacy in North Carolina is a political history that details how whites, especially white men, used a white supremacist discourse on sexuality to oppress (by condoning violence against and exclusion of) black people. Eileen Suarez Findlay’s Imposing Decency: The Politics of Sexuality and Race in Puerto Rico explores the relationship between political change and discourses on sexuality in the city of Ponce. All three historians identify a discourse around racial uplift that associates progress with the adoption of distinctly white cultural values and norms. Implicit in this assimilation is a specific performance of womanhood associated with race and class propriety.

In Too Heavy a Load: Black Women in Defense of Themselves, Deborah Gray White portrays a group of women who attempt to impose a set of moral standards on other black people, especially women, in the name of racial uplift. White writes that “chastity became the litmus test of middle-class respectability….Middle-class status in black society was associated as much with ‘style of life’ as with income” (70). Performance of gender, then, was also a performance of class, specifically tailored to a white audience: clubwomen’s “defense of black womanhood was based on their own insistence that black women were as feminine and as worthy of respect as white women” (66). Black clubwomen attempted to debunk racism by proving their ability to assimilate to white cultural values.

Glenda Elizabeth Gilmore reveals similar attitudes in Gender and Jim Crow: Women and the Politics of White Supremacy in North Carolina. Gilmore writes that middle-class black men and women “called themselves the ‘better’ classes” and adopted Victorian values and middle-class habits to “prove that they belonged among the Best Men and Best Women, regardless of color” (xix). As with the black clubwomen of White’s study, black men and women of North Carolina attempted to prove to whites that they belonged in the elite class based on merit and performance, not race. Gilmore does not mention that the women and men of these ‘better’ classes were assimilating into the same class-based system that allowed for slavery to exist in the first place.

In Imposing Decency: The Politics of Sexuality and Race in Puerto Rico, Eileen Suarez Findlay described similar conceptions of middle-class respectability as tied to race and class, but revealed a working class that was acutely aware of the meanings underlying such discourse: “discussions of sexual morality or unruliness became a prime way for Puerto Ricans to talk about race and create racial labels, without directly naming racial distinctions” (7). Along with Gilmore and White, Findlay notes that womanhood is marked by race, class, and cultural performance: “the self-proclaimed ‘respectable womanhood’ of the early feminist movement was undeniably white, whereas the immoral, unruly women of Ponce’s streets during the 1890s became symbolically black, whatever their phenotype or biological ancestry” (205). In each of these histories, phenotype plays as much of a role in race and class as does performance of specific cultural values.


Looking Down as We Climb

In black women’s attempts to climb the American social/cultural/economic ladder, they left most black people and much of African American culture behind them. Whether clubwomen were actually “lifting as we climb,” or really just looking down at the majority with disapproving eyes remains to be debated. In Too Heavy a Load, Deborah Gray White writes that clubwomen felt “the masses of black women did not measure up to middle-class standards” (71). To meet their standards of cultural refinement, one must be fluent in white culture and values: “Clubs wanted intellectual development and cultural refinement, not the emotionally charged religious services of most black churches” (72). Ironically, one woman simultaneously chastised a black church for teaching children that blackness represented evil when she was actively involved in denigrating any cultural associations of blackness, which she considered “common” (74).

Glenda Gilmore illustrates similar tendencies of middle-class blacks to disapprove of those ‘below’ them: “most middle-class black women agreed that they should speak to, and often for, the uneducated women of their race…. Middle class black women saw uneducated women as dangerously unprepared to articulate their politics to a white power structure….and fretted about how whites might garner political currency from young African Americans’ actions” (102). Such sentiments show that elite black women harbored a lack of faith in and a sense of superiority over their peers.

Elite Puerto Ricans also looked down on lower classes: “According to the Liberals, the resultant rampant interracial promiscuity corroded the productive capacities of the rural poor” (56). The Puerto Rican bourgeoisie created a discourse which reinforced a dichotomy between black and white, moral and immoral, and purported that “the sensual power that allegedly exuded from Afro-Puerto Ricans and all that they touched ultimately had to be expunged” because “it feminized and weakened the rational, orderly, European potential of Puerto Rico’s male elite” (57). In each of the books, the authors place race, class, and gender into value dualisms which denigrated cultural expressions of blackness or female sexuality. Elite black women divided themselves against most of their race in order to uplift themselves.

Gender and Resistance

Where Victorian femininity was a corollary of assimilation to white culture, alternative gender expressions were imbued in resistance to assimilation. In Too Heavy a Load, Deborah Gray White writes that “rural blacks did not always appreciate the ‘high falutin’ style of clubwomen” (80). White describes an instance where one clubwoman tried to bring urban hair straightening techniques to rural girls, but “the mother, who’s own hair was wrapped in a traditional multicolor head wrap, did not appreciate the standard of beauty that Fields brought with her from the city” (80). The mother’s resistance shows how performances of femininity were wrapped up in performances of culture, race and class. Apparently black clubwomen came up against resistance often enough for their ideologies to become “increasingly out of step with a mainstream black America that was bolder in its demand for civil and political rights” (86).

Time brought a new boldness to North Carolinians as well. Gilmore concedes that bourgeois individualism was sometimes at odds with cooperative values: “By 1900, a laundress, as a second-generation freed-person, might see Sarah Dudley Pettey’s upward climb as class distance—as part of the problem—rather than her own lifeline out of oppression” (100). While Gilmore overlooks a discussion of anti-assimilationist black women’s gender expressions, she elegantly articulates many diverging forms of masculinity in her discussion of race and manhood. As a new generation of free black men came of age in the 1890s, “a rising African American youth culture…proffered a competing image of manhood…. While black Best Men screened their private lives behind lace curtains, young African Americans were public men…who believed that African American manhood did not have to prove itself to whites at all” (76-77). The New Negro offered a new definition of manhood that rebelled against the definition of manhood as white.

Eileen Suarez Findlay explores black and working-class women’s resistance to gender assimilation the most. Puerto Rican working women “defied both parental and elite definitions of them as passive and helpless. A significant number also implicitly questioned the legitimacy of marriage; by leaving undesirable partners and publicly choosing new ones, women of the popular classes helped create a distinctly plebian moral norm of serial monogamy” (47-48). Here, as with Gilmore’s and White’s histories, the gendered anti-assimilationist gestures of black women and men were a significant part of resistance, but also contributed to articulating alternative visions of racial uplift. Moreover, they reveal that gender is an important tool in the making of race and class in the larger political trajectory of cultural imperialism.


Progress on their own terms

It is important to note that resistance to assimilation, if it was not preserving existing cultural practices, was creating new ones. As White describes in Too Heavy a Load, new cultural icons of blues women and the New Negro offered young blacks alternative examples of how to be in this world: “they made black female sexuality desirable” and “shouted female independence and individualism” (127). Clubwomen’s disapproval did little to curb these new trends, especially since “the mood and culture of the blues women and the New Negro more closely matched [ordinary women’s] situation” (132).

Glenda Gilmore shows in Gender and Jim Crow that black women and men did not simply join society the way whites had designed it. Rather, they kept their own various values even as they negotiated with the competitive, wage labor system and made choices for their survival. Importantly, southern black men and women valued gender equality decades before whites had significantly made such changes. Gilmore writes, “coeducation gave substantial numbers of black women access to a kind of learning that remained rare among white women in the South” (37). Black women were also “a generation ahead of [whites] in forging companionate partnerships” (18). In such important areas as education and love, black women and men designed “uplift” in a way that did not match, but contradicted and preceded white practices.

Eileen Suarez Findlay illustrates in Imposing Decency that gendered cultural performances are a corollary of resistance to assimilation: “Women and men of the popular classes could gain acceptance into the feminists’ ‘gran familia’ only through combining hard work, education, and unquestioning adherence to bourgeois norms of sexual propriety” (74). However, “Popular women’s morality, which embraced premarital sex, serial monogamy, and concubinage as eminently respectable social practices, remained beyond the feminist pale” (74). Because plebian women had their own cultural practices, especially in terms of love and marriage, bourgeois feminists had little impact on changing what, in many women’s opinions, need not be changed.

Furthermore, plebian practices of love and relationships fed into the radical movement in Puerto Rico: Findlay writes that Puerto Rican leftists “consciously rejected rigid, often racialized divisions between respectable and disreputable womanhood,” and some “began to articulate a politics of free love” (151-152). The theory and practice of free love cannot be solely attributed to European and Argentinean anarchist influences, Findlay argues, because these politics were based on “the moral norms of the popular classes within which they came of age” (152). Thus, resistance to assimilation went hand in hand with the affirmation of plebian cultural values and practices, and together they led to the development of radical politics based on resistance to cultural imperialism on the stage of gender performance.


While women did not unanimously agree on the definition or the direction of racial uplift, gender performance was both a signifier and a means to whatever direction they chose. For those who aspired to integrate into white culture, Victorian femininity—chastity, purity, middle-class ‘respectability’—was a first requirement. It was so important, in fact, that women in each of the books considered it a first priority to imbue their lower-class counterparts with moral codes and beauty standards that measured up to that of elite or middle-class white womanhood. These histories tell of social practices around respectability in which gender performance could often push the boundaries of race and class perceptions. Phenotype, while of course was the rule of the day when it came to racism, was and is only part of the composition of racial relations. This understanding problemetizes how we look back on black clubwomen’s activism. Were they really lifting as they climbed, or were they looking down at the majority disapprovingly? Even if it was a bit of both, elite black women divided themselves against most of their race in order to uplift themselves. As women’s historians, it is important to look not just at gender but at gender in relation to race, class, and cultural imperialism. Black women at the turn of the 20th century faced difficult negotiations and made choices based on limited options. That said, it is important for present day studies in race, class, gender, and anti-colonialism/imperialism to understand that black women’s aspirations for better, safer lives did not necessarily include assimilation to white American prerogatives. It is time to start searching for and valuing these dissident voices, which, in Gilmore’s and White’s texts more than Findlay’s, were marginalized and subsumed those voices which were less threatening to white supremacy.


Leave a Comment »

No comments yet.

RSS feed for comments on this post. TrackBack URI

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s

Create a free website or blog at WordPress.com.

%d bloggers like this: