Anna Julia Cooper

Only the Black woman can say when and where I enter

Written by Olivia Jobe

In response to Dr. Kiefer Lambert

Edited by Katya Zabelski

Illustrated by Maia Walcott

Only the Black woman can say when and where I enter; She holds me in a place embraced by warmness and soothed by the beat of her heart. It is her push that brings me into the world and out into the light. I may scream and cry; she tells me I will be alright. It is her warm skin that will lull me to sleep. When my eyes close, I see them, those that look like her but are not her. They greet me and tell me their stories of days playing in the tall grass. Others tell me of their happiest moments, watching young faces jump the broom and seeing new life every spring. Some tell me to be wary of the world. When I awaken, it is your face I see, ready to greet me back into this world. 

Only the Black woman can say when and where I enter, in the quiet; To go quietly into the night is an understatement. The world demands that I exist in the quiet. My body is too loud, my skin speaks with a vibrating vibrato, my eyes proclaim the names of those who came before me, and my hands tell stories you wish I would forget. Yet I exist in the quiet. 

Only the Black woman can say ‘when and where I enter, in the quiet, undisputed dignity of my womanhood; Ain’t I a woman? Am I not the one who greets you at the beginning and the end? Is it not the curves of my hips and crests of my breasts that sustain you? Don’t the whispers of my song comfort you in your deepest rivers and highest mountains? Is my skin not the amalgamation of our beauty? Ain’t I a woman?  

Only the Black woman can say ‘when and where I enter, in the quiet, undisputed dignity of my womanhood, without violence and without suing or special patronage; The violent memories live in my body. The strange men who appeared to take us away live in my body. The darkness and rhythm of a long journey live in my body. Bent backs and cracks of lightning live in my body. Fearful chances in a dark forest, led by a northern star, live in my body. A war between the North and South live in my body. Marches, picket lines, and boycotts live in my body. The contorted faces of strange fruit swinging from trees live in my body. The soulful croons of Ella, Billy, and Rosetta live in my body. Small brown hands that reach to kiss your face live in my body. A love that began with a grandmother, passed on to a mother and left with a daughter live in my body.     

Only the Black woman can say ‘when and where I enter, in the quiet, undisputed dignity of my womanhood, without violence and without suing or special patronage, then and there the whole Negro race enters with me; I am the cradle of our people. Behind me stand hundreds of faces painted in the colors of the soil from the Earth, accompanied by curly coils that hug their heads, and soft eyes that encourage me to take another step. In their eyes, I am reminded of who I am. The quiet places I reside in. My hopes and dreams are not just for me but for all of us. I write this as a Black Woman of the South. 

Olivia Aminatta Jobe is a writer, TEDx speaker, and master’s candidate in Sociology at the University of Oxford. She has published work with FreshU, Radical In Progress, and Harper’s Bazaar. Her writing and research focus on the lived experiences of Black people across the diaspora through the intersections of race, gender, religion, and fashion.

Anna Julia Cooper

“Not unfelt, then, if unproclaimed has been the work and influence of the colored women of America. Our list of chieftains in the service, though not long, is not inferior in strength and excellence, I dare believe, to any similar list which this country can produce.”  

– Anna Julia Cooper, A Voice from the South (1892), page 140.

Written by Dr Kiefer Lambert

Edited by Jessica Hannah

Illustrated by Maia Walcott

Anna Julia Cooper led a long and extraordinary life. She was born into enslavement in North Carolina to an enslaved mother named Hannah Stanley Haywood. She was probably born in 1858, though we cannot be certain. After emancipation, Cooper’s mother sent her to St Augustine’s Normal School and Collegiate Institute, a newly opened school for Black students, in 1868. Institutional sexism at St Augustine’s meant that Cooper’s abilities were stifled, and she recalls that she “constantly felt (as I suppose many an ambitious girl has felt) a thumping from within unanswered by any beckoning from without” (Cooper 75-77). Nevertheless, she spent fourteen years at St Augustine’s, first as a student and then as a teacher (Hutchinson 4, 14, 22). She then went to Oberlin College, Ohio as a student and a tutor (1881-1884) and had a brief spell at Wilberforce College, Ohio in charge of the “department of modern languages [and] science” before returning to teach at St Augustine’s in 1885. Cooper then moved to Washington, DC to teach at M Street School (then called the Preparatory School) in 1887 and rose through the ranks to become Principal of the school by 1902 (Hutchinson 30, 39-40, 45, 47-48, 56; May 12). Her tenure as Principal was brought to an unfortunate and premature end in 1906 by the “M Street Controversy” – an unfounded smear campaign against Cooper by those who opposed her powerful position within the school (Hutchinson 67-83). She then took up a teaching role at Lincoln University in Jefferson City, Missouri, and returned to study at Oberlin in the summer months between 1907 and 1910, before once again becoming a teacher at M Street. In the summers of 1911, 1912, and 1913, Cooper travelled to Paris to study French, History, Literature, and Phonetics. Between 1914 and 1925, Cooper pursued her doctorate at Columbia University, New York (1914-1915) and the University of Paris (1923-1925). Her studies were interrupted when, in 1915, she became the guardian of five children who had been orphaned by the death of her adopted nephew and his wife (Hutchinson 131-132). Cooper defended her thesis on “The Attitude of France on the Question of Slavery between 1789 and 1848” in Paris on 23rd March 1925 and was awarded her doctoral degree at Howard University, Washington, DC on 29th December 1925 (Hutchinson 136-141). In 1930, Cooper became the President of Frelinghuysen University in Washington, DC. She remained at Frelinghuysen for the rest of her career, taking on reduced responsibilities as a professor from 1941-1943, and finally serving as the registrar of the university until the early 1950s (Hutchinson 155-173; May 12). She died in 1964, when she was about 105 years old.

Amongst all of her achievements, Cooper is most commonly remembered for her 1892 book, A Voice from the South. That text is the source of her famous statement that “Only the BLACK WOMAN can say ‘when and where I enter, in the quiet, undisputed dignity of my womanhood, without violence and without suing or special patronage, then and there the whole Negro race enters with me’” (31). In the quotation, Cooper reworks the words of the prominent African American public figure Martin R. Delany, whom she paraphrases a page earlier:

The late Martin R. Delany […] used to say when honors of state fell upon him, that when he entered the council of kings the black race entered with him […] But our present record of eminent men, when placed beside the actual status of the race in America to-day, proves that no man can represent the race. Whatever the attainments of the individual may be, unless his home has moved on pari passu, he can never be regarded as identical with or representative of the whole. (30; emphasis original)

Cooper’s reworking of Delany’s words into her own “only the Black woman” statement corrects claims made by prominent nineteenth-century Black men that their success represented success for all African Americans, regardless of their sex, gender, or social status. In doing so, she highlights the need to recognise that Black women’s experiences are related to, but can be distinct from, the experiences of Black men. 

Cooper’s reworking of Delany’s words typifies the incisiveness of her work in A Voice, which features a complex combination of history, social philosophy, theology, and rhetorical flair, to scrutinise the historical, political, ideological, and economic forces behind the oppression of Black women and men in the US. That content and complexity means that the text is an ideal selection for undergraduate courses: not only does the book provide valuable insights into the experiences of Black women and the racist-sexist systems of power that oppress them, but examining how Cooper builds her arguments is a real test of close reading and analytical skill. Moreover, students could be prompted to do that analysis through one simple question that is central to the text: who is the narrator? The book is written by Cooper, and it is not a work of fiction, so it is easy to assume that it is her voice that we hear throughout the text. However, Cooper complicates things by stating that the work is by “A Black Woman of the South” on the title page. Having been asked to identify who the narrator is, students could be asked to consider why Cooper chose to represent her narrative voice as a Black woman of the South instead of simply writing as herself. She was, after all, a Black woman of the South. One potential answer to that question is that the anonymity of being a Black woman of the South, rather than being specifically Cooper, creates a generalised identity for the narrator that appears more representative than a named individual, and therefore makes Cooper’s attempt to represent all Black women in the South more convincing. The possibility that Cooper sought to create a more representative identity through which to convey her ideas is interesting when considered alongside her correction of Delany’s claim to be representative. That comparison between Cooper’s and Delany’s approaches to representation would be ideal for a class debate that questioned whether the use of a representative narrator complicates, or even detracts from, Cooper’s dismissal of the capacity of Black men to have representative voices. Additionally, students could be asked to question how Cooper’s representative narrator compares to Delany’s claim to be a representative of all Black people, what reasons she may have had to use her own representative narrative voice, and how those reasons might compare with Delany’s reasons for claiming to be representative.

Selected Bibliography

Baker-Fletcher, Karen. A Singing Something: Womanist Reflections on Anna Julia Cooper. The Crossroad Publishing Company, 1994. Internet Archive, URL: https://archive.org/details/singingsomething00bake/mode/2up. Accessed 23 January 2022.

Bhan, Esme, and Charles Lemert, editors. The Voice of Anna Julia Cooper, edited by Charles Lemert and Esme Bhan, Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, 1998.

Cooper, Anna Julia. A Voice from the South. The Aldine Printing House, 1892. Documenting the American South. URL: https://docsouth.unc.edu/church/cooper/cooper.html. Accessed 15 June 2023.

Hutchinson, Louise Daniel. Anna J. Cooper: A Voice from the South. Smithsonian Institution Press, 1981.

May, Vivian M. Anna Julia Cooper, Visionary Black Feminist: A Critical Introduction. Routledge, 2012. 

Moody-Turner, Shirley. “‘Dear Doctor Du Bois’”: Anna Julia Cooper, W. E. B. Du Bois, and the Gender Politics of Black Publishing.” MELUS, vol. 40, no. 3, 2015, pp. 47-68. Oxford Academic, doi: 10.1093/melus/mlv029. Accessed 24 January 2022.Ndounou, Monica White. “Drama for ‘Neglected People’: Recovering Anna Julia Cooper’s Dramatic Theory and Criticism from the Shadows of W.E.B. Du Bois and Alain Locke.” Journal of Dramatic Theory and Criticism, vol. 27, no. 1, 2012, pp. 25-50. Project Muse, doi: https://doi.org/10.1353/dtc.2012.0041. Accessed 15 June 2021.

Kiefer Lambert (né Holland) completed his PhD and a short postdoctoral fellowship at the University of Edinburgh between September 2018 and October 2023. He now works in professional services at the University of Manchester, where he supports academic staff with their funding applications.

Maïa Walcott is a multidisciplinary artist working across mediums and specialising in illustration, painting and sculpture. Her focus is on British Caribbean home-making traditions and how Caribbeans used art and culture to make a new ‘home place’ in Britain. She has illustrated for major organisations like the Wellcome Collection and has contributed her art to publications such as The Colour of Madness and The Bad Mind Zine.

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