The Paula Gordon Show
Weaving the Threads of Hope

Understand the experience of black women in America and you will understand the entire fabric of American history. That‚s historian Darlene Clark Hine‚s conclusion, after a lifetime of study. Dr. Hine is known for her insights about the intersection of race, class and gender in American society. She now tells the stories of black women in America, making a strong case that when we consider what it is to be a human, the very essence of one‚s humanity is tested on the margin. And „marginalš has been the fate of black women in America since 1619, when the first African women stepped onto American soil in colonial Jamestown, Virginia.

Hine and her collaborator offer four centuries of stories about people who not only endured the most trying circumstances imaginable. These women prevailed. Hine‚s work explodes the destructive, self-fulfilling myths about black women often served up by today‚s popular mainstream media. Searching long buried or overlooked slave narratives, autobiographies, letters and oral histories of black women in American, Hine introduces us to some of the hardest working people in the the history of America. Hers is a treasure trove of true stories about women who understood the power of extended families, who understood that unless one served one‚s community, you simply would not survive -- individually or collectively.

Consider black women‚s clubs, whose motto was „Lifting As We Climb.š They were committed to taking everyone in the community up with them. While Hine is cautious about stereotypes, she is willing to generalize that black women still believe in „lifting as we climb.š Just look to grass roots efforts across America, she urges. She sees black women defying the myth of the rugged individual, offering instead another model. She hears them saying,„You must achieve as an individual, but you must use your achievements to serve your community. You must be connected. Everyone has to advance together. Individual advancement is simply not good enough.š

History cannot predict the future, Hine assures us. But we can anticipate the future and prepare for it. How? By telling ourselves good, true stories about the deeds and words of unheralded people -- especially black women heretofore invisible -- who went before. That‚s the way to prepare for the day when, figuratively speaking, another Rosa Parks refuses to give up her seat to injustice.

American black women have spent four hundred years under often unspeakable conditions, cultivating hope, rejecting despair, joyfully affirming life, celebrating themselves and the communities they have built against all odds. These uniquely American women have a lot of practice building the sense of community for which so many people of all races and genders hunger today. And so, curiously enough, we might all learn from the most oppressed part of our society -- the women who offer us a shining thread of hope.

Darlene Clark Hine

. . . is John A. Hannah Professor of American History at Michigan State University and a leading expert on the intersection of race, class and gender in American society. A Chicago native, she was co-editor of Black Women in America: An Historical Encyclopedia and collaborated with Kathleen Thompson writing A Shining Thread of Hope, published by Broadway Books . Dr. Hine lives in East Lansing, Michigan.

Excerpts

Conversation 1

Darlene Clark Hine describes to Paula Gordon and Bill Russell the work historians of black women have done in the past generation. She suggests why black women are not found in standard American history books. She explains black women‚s history as part of a larger movement of women toward a fair and equitable society in which all human beings are respected and appreciated for their intrinsic worth.  Dr. Hine makes a case that understanding the experience of black women in America is crucial to understanding the entire fabric of American history.


Conversation 2

The first African women arrived in colonial America in 1619, in Jamestown, Virginia.  Dr. Hine describes how their status changed from that of indentured servants who might one day be free, to the expectation of lifelong servitude. She tells of the profound consequences of the Virginia colonial legislature departing from English law in 1662, declaring that children of black women would inherit their mother‚s status.

Dr. Hine tells why it is important to revise American history, noting how racism itself evolved as slavery became more legitimized until finally it was the dominant economic system in the American South.


Conversation 3

Dr. Hine analyzes a series of stereotypes and explode them.  She tells stories of black women whose stories were radically different from one colony, then region, to the next. She objects to today‚s negative stereotypes of black women, and demonstrates that black women have, in fact, been some of the hardest working people in America. She urges us to use the powerfully positive stories now available about real black women, rather than reinforcing negative self-fulfilling prophecies of failure. Dr. Hine tells stories that cover hundreds of years, when black women‚s enduring commitment to inclusive models of extended families and their commitment to community were crucial to their survival.


Conversation 4

The very essence of our humanity can be tested at the margins of society, Dr. Hine believes, and that is where black women have spent most of the last 400 years. She tells what we have to learn from the arduous experience of generations of black women who never gave up hope. She objects to „the crazinessš now going on in our society and suggests how the experience of black women can help us get beyond it. She shows how black women have offered an alternative to more conservative black men, contrasting Ida B. Wells to her more conservative contemporary, Booker T. Washington. She tells stories of the powerful role black women have played in education, from slave days to today.


Conversation 5

Dr. Hine tells the story of the modern Civil Rights movement from the perspective of black women, for whom letting others take credit is a 400 year-old tradition. The motto of black women‚s clubs -- Lifting as We Climb -- expressed their commitment to their community which, in turn, allowed individuals a chance to flourish. She explains how radical individualism ultimately puts a person at risk. While calling for efforts to end sexism and racism, Dr. Hine reminds us of grass root activity now taking place in communities across the country. She notes that the civil rights movement was not launched by politicians, it was launched by one woman refusing to give up her seat on a bus in a sleepy Southern town, and a whole group of women (and men) supporting her decision.


Conversation 6

Dr. Hine explains the importance of class as a powerful catalyst when thinking about the experience of today‚s black women.  She reminds us that the vast majority of black women who head families and work earn incomes at or below the poverty line. She suggests ways to use the inherent strength of black women to improve their own lives, the lives of their children, and to improve our larger society. The conversation ends on a hopeful note.


Acknowledgements

Paula Gordon and Bill Russell were both deeply impressed by the potential we all have to learn from the experience of black women in America.  We are grateful Dr. Hine and her collaborator, Kathleen Thompson, did the work from which we learned.

Additional Links:
Darlene Clark Hine‚s book A Shining Thread of Hope is published by Broadway Books


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