Ideas to Innovation - Season Two
Intro: Ideas to Innovation from Clarivate.
Neville Hobson: The stories of black women in America and the part they played in the development of the United States are stories of contrast, of constraint and of celebration. Black women have made important contributions to the country in a variety of areas, including politics, science, the arts and social justice. Celebrating and recognizing the contributions of black women during Women’s History Month that takes place this March is an important way to honor the legacy and inspire future generations.
Hello and welcome to Ideas Innovation Season two. I’m Neville Hobson. The multifaceted role of black women I mentioned must also include another reality. Throughout American history, black women have had to navigate the intersection of racism and sexism, often facing multiple forms of discrimination and marginalization.
Despite these challenges, black women have played a crucial role in advancing human rights and freedoms, contributing to our knowledge base and improving our world. Joining me today is a historian with deep expertise in the women who tell our stories, the barriers they continue to face and that we face in learning about them. I’m very pleased to welcome Dr. Ashley Farmer, a historian of black women’s history, intellectual history and radical politics. She’s an associate professor in the Departments of History and African and African Diaspora Studies at the University of Texas at Austin. And she consults with ProQuest, part of Clarivate. It’s a pleasure to welcome you today, Ashley. Thanks for joining us.
Ashley Farmer: Thanks so much for having me.
Neville Hobson: So let’s start a conversation with some history about you, actually. You’ve spoken of growing up with a mother who valued and loved history but could not be a historian. Tell us about that, perhaps adding some reference to the time frame.
Ashley Farmer: Yes. So I grew up in Nashville, Tennessee, born and raised, but I grew up in a house where my mother always read me bedtime stories about black people and particularly black women. She was always, as we moved around Nashville, Tennessee, telling me about famous women, particularly black women, who had helped either establish programs or buildings or committees or laws that helped shape the world around me as I know it.
And I came to find out as I got older that one of the reasons she knew so much about this was that she was an avid reader and an avid historian. However, my mother was also born in 1944 and came of age in the early 1960s. For black women at that time it was rare for you to be able to go to college, let alone an integrated college. She actually didn’t go to that. She went to a college called Fisk University, which is an historically black college in Nashville, Tennessee. It’s part of the reason I grew up there. But the option of being a professional historian was not really one that was open to many black people, let alone black women without any other kinds of means to talk about or learn how to navigate that world.
So she ended up taking on a very different life. But during that time, growing up, I gained a profound respect for how women, in particular black women, had shaped the world I know today and a reverence for the importance of remembering those stories. Much like, you know, remembering my mother’s own story about the work that she did.
Neville Hobson: When we were talking earlier, before having this conversation today, you raised the subject that was very interesting, about archives, something you referenced a great deal in the context of writing your books and then having access to them in libraries. Tell us a bit more about that. The significance of this, particularly in the context of what you just said about your mother, who wanted to be a historian but couldn’t be because of circumstance due to her race and what was going on in America at that time. You struggled with this with your first book as well, didn’t you?
Ashley Farmer: Yes. I’ll actually share how I have struggled with archival issues on both books that I’ve written. So the first book I wrote is called Remaking Black Power, How Black Women Transform an Era, and it’s an intellectual and social history of black women during the Black Power Movement. Now, when I first set out to write this book, which is originally my dissertation, and there were real questions among the people who were advising me about whether I could complete such a project, such a subject, a book length study.
And their issue wasn’t that I was incapable, their issue wasn’t that they thought it wasn’t a worthy period of study. It was that they were extraordinarily concerned that I would not find enough evidence in the archives for such a book study to be committed or to be done. And part of that issue was that they assumed that black women didn’t really take on very prominent roles in the Black Power Movement in the United States, which was not true. And then they also assumed that even if they did, people had not taken the time to catalog these things. Some because we are still relatively close to that time period. I mean, it was in the 1970s and late 60s. Many of these people are still alive, but also because of the biases that are embedded in archival collecting. Generally, when traditional archives collect stuff, they start with men, or they start with leaders of organizations who are more often than not, men.
And so if black women appear in the archive, they usually are far more of an afterthought. But I found that wasn’t exactly the case. It was just that we had to look in different places. So a perfect example that maybe people might be able to understand or reference well is the Black Panther Party. Most people knew that the Black Panthers existed. They had a global reputation, but many people didn’t think that black women did very much in that particular group. So not only was I able to find former Panther women who had their own archives, but also I had to look at what existed in the archives differently. And what do I mean by that? I’ll give you two examples.
The first example is the Black Panther newspaper. Most people had looked at their newspaper that has been digitized and put in libraries around the world over and over again. But everybody had missed a little column in it called the Systems Section that was written by female Black Panthers for female Black Panthers and female readers. Right. They had just glossed over it because they were so focused on the images of people wielding guns and other stuff that they had failed to see that right before their eyes was an example of black women being part of the party since its first episodes and its first editions of the newspaper.
So that’s one example. Another example that the book offered me was having to look in the places where women were able to write down their archives or write down their ideas or write down their records. Sometimes those were like women’s columns and other groups, and people overlooked those because they thought that these women were only talking, say, about home economics or child rearing. But in actuality they were offering really astute political analysis and social analysis and really clear prescriptions about how to engage in struggle for freedom. So it really was a lesson in both broadening my sense of what I thought an archive was, but also reminding myself that people show up in the archive in different ways. And if you’re looking for women in particularly black women, you can’t always follow traditional methods.
Neville Hobson: Okay. That’s interesting. In your your classes at university, in your role, how do you address this with your students there as a way to help them, as they as they progress their educational work at the university?
Ashley Farmer: Yeah, absolutely. So I teach a class called Black Archival Encounters where I help students navigate people who may not be very visible in the archive or are marginalized in society. And we all know that the archive is a reflection of what we find important in society. So those who have been marginalized in society tend to be marginalized in the archive.
So we do a couple of different exercises that are really productive. One is helping them think through when they’re using digital archives like the ProQuest Black Studies, for example, a wonderful database, how they’re going to have to play with the terms that they put into a particular database in order to find the people that they’re looking for, right? So if we’re looking for black people, same black or African-American, but looking in the 1950s or the 1920s or the 1800s, that’s not how people refer to what we call African Americans today. And so you’re going to have to change your term. It might be the same with queer people. We use a lot of terms., sometimes some of those terms would now be seen as offensive, but they were the terms that were being used at that time. So if we’re trying to dig these people up in the record and talk about them in non-offensive ways and in their full humanity, sometimes we do have to navigate the confines of an archive. That’s one example.
The other example is that we have to move beyond the main kind of organizing feature of an archive, which is a finding aid. For listeners who may not know, a finding aid is a document that an archivist puts up that says – this is how a collection is organized, how all the papers in the archive are organized. If you go to this box and you go to this folder, you’ll find generally these things in that folder, and that’s how people try to figure out where the archives they might need are. But just as with the digital databases, these file names and these box names were created by people that may not have had a full understanding of black communities or may be created during a time in which the terms that we use today are not used. So one of the things that I teach them to do is how to search both for those actual things in the archive, but also kind of search what I call around in the areas where they think they might be or their subject might be.
In order to do that, to give you an example from the book I’m writing about a woman named Audley Moore. I knew that she was involved in school desegregation struggles in New York in the 1960s, but I can find no box, no folder labeled like that. But instead I went and looked for stuff labeled boycotts 1960s, right. And in one of those folders, for example, I found a poem written by her at a boycott that she ended up performing. So that woman’s name was never on that file. So if I was just searching for her, I would have never found it. But by knowing my subject and kind of searching around where she might have been, we can get around some of these archival conventions and locate the black women we’re looking for.
Neville Hobson: That’s really interesting, extraordinary challenges I think you outlined. I guess one thought in my mind, listening to what you were saying there actually was, kind of getting at the heart of the fact of black women in this context, what we’re talking about. Because what a lot of this seems to me, is this partly to do with the the difficulties of knowing how to search and what to search for rather than because it’s black women? Or is that not a right kind of point to arrive at, do you think.
Ashley Farmer: Well, we should understand that the archive is made up. What gets collected, put together, preserved and organized is done by people. These people were, and have tended to be until relatively recently, folks who baked those biases of what gets collected and put into the archive there and then wrote about people with these biases intact. So you should understand archiving is coming from a long tradition dating back to really the French Revolution and the founding of the American nation state.
And when we were creating these entities and these ideas, we weren’t including black people or black women in them. So then it’s no surprise that we don’t really have great conventions today for including them into the archives. So some of it is just that the priorities about who and what is remembered and collected follows along the same lines that the social priorities about who we value, that’s one. But even within that, now that we do have more inclusive archiving methods and more archives in general, there are still conventions around how we archive that are limiting and don’t always reflect the communities from which they came from.
Neville Hobson: Okay. Makes sense. I think it’s very intriguing, the way you’ve explained digital archives. It seems to me that the advent of where we’re at with technologies is that it enables people to research far more effectively no matter who you are in society, if you will. But in the context of our conversation, do you think this makes it a lot easier to surface some of these histories that you’re referencing that would not have been surfaced otherwise? Tech’s playing a pretty big role in that, I would say.
Ashley Farmer: Yes and no. Again, we have a backlog in in digitizing and things that are seen as kind of more popular or more focused on the majority are usually digitized first. But like I said, the collections that are becoming available, particularly again, ProQuest Black Studies, is a really, really great example of this. It’s much, much easier. You can now search for a single activist name and you can search not only through a wealth of newspapers that were created by and for the black community, but also these physical archives that I talk about that were in boxes and folders have now been digitized and you can search that way.
So it definitely helps you find people that may be more like finding a needle in a haystack, more quickly. I’ll also say that in addition to the act of creating an archive is also the act of experiencing going to an archive. And biases are baked in there. I talk about this on my piece called Archiving While Black. I don’t think it will be a surprise to listeners to learn that the biases that we talk about in terms of who should be a historian, who has research skills, who has the intellect and the ability to do this work, also falls along racial and gender lines. So coming into an archive for me as a black woman, the kind of treatment I get versus the white man standing next to me is sometimes quite different.
Digital archives solve some of that. Right. I don’t have to be subjected all the time to the biases and the whims of the archivist always in order to get the material that I need. So at both allows us to find different people that may be more marginalized, and sometimes it offers a different level of accessibility and comfort to people who are marginalized in these actual physical spaces.
Neville Hobson: That’s very interesting. Sort of brings us up to the present moment where innovation, principally in technology, can provide, let’s say, digital avenues, a resolution to the barriers to entry we saw in the analog past, how I’ve kind of characterized it. It’s also, I think, a good moment to bring all this into the perspective of Women’s History Month and how we celebrate the contributions of so many black women in America who struggled and succeeded.
And there’s some names worth mentioning in this context, I think, familiar to many people I’d say. Just a few examples: Ida B. Wells, Mary Church Terrell, and Anna Julia Cooper in the fight for women’s suffrage in America. Fannie Lou Hamer, Diane Nash, and Ella Baker in the civil rights movement. Katherine Johnson, Dorothy Vaughan, and Mary Jackson – mathematicians and engineers who worked for NASA and played a crucial role in the success of the space program. In the arts, Maya Angelou, Toni Morrison, and Alice Walker have made significant contributions to literature. And who hasn’t heard of Aretha Franklin, Nina Simone, and Whitney Houston who have broken barriers in the music industry? And we understand, of course, that there are many more women that many people have never heard of because of institutional access barriers. Still, this is all worth celebrating, isn’t it?
Ashley Farmer: Very much so. And I think that we’re also in this wonderful moment where the Internet and digital spaces can offer us perhaps unparalleled insight into these women that we wouldn’t have had before or maybe would have only been able to get had you happen to be with somebody in a classroom, for example, who knew about these women. Now that you can go online and find great, you know, really accessible write ups about these women and their historical importance that have transformed not only how we think about black women in particular, but all women’s contributions. Just to give you one example. I blog with a organization called the African-American Intellectual History Society, and they have a blog called Black Perspectives. And almost every day there is a short article about some aspect of black history that people did not know before, written by those of us who have spent our lives studying. So, you know, you’re getting, you know, reliable quality information. And I often use my my space on that blog to talk about women like Ella Baker, Fannie Lou Hamer, Mae Mallory, Audley Moore. And it offers a great way for people to, you know, at least dip their toe into learning more about these women and hopefully excite them to keep googling and reading about these women and their contributions.
Neville Hobson: Yeah, it’s important, I think, to keep that current. It is most interesting. So I think as we recognize the history and celebrate the achievements of black women in America, here we are in 2023. I wonder what your thinking is about the future. So this is a big landscape we’re talking about. A lot has been achieved. Listen to what you’ve been saying, particularly about the archive picture and there are still challenges that do exist undoubtedly. Taking all that into account, what do you think things are going to look like in the next decade, 2030 onwards? Where will we be when we hit 2030, which is seven years away, that’s all.
Ashley Farmer: My goodness, I can’t believe it’s only seven years, that seems so far in the future. I think that we will have far more non-traditional archives or different understandings of archives. I think black women’s homes, spaces where black women’s organizations worked, will become spaces that people feel are worthy of preservation and have a different kind of access and support that we didn’t have before. I think that we’re going to have and continue to see black women moving into kind of higher spaces and more public spaces in the American political landscape. As you mentioned before, we’ve always been in the cultural landscape, but I think politically there has been and will continue to be a trend towards that. And I mean that in terms of, you know, kind of local level politics, but also potentially in kind of the higher echelons of office.
And one of the things that I hope is that that trickles down into helping people explore these black women to end up being very public facing. But even more, that kind of helped lay the groundwork for that kind of stuff. I mean, we have a much more vibrant field of black women’s history. And I think honestly, we’re going to see a lot more biographies of black women. Really great, well-researched books that tell us about their lives, but use their lives to help us understand particular moments of periods in American history or even global history better.
Neville Hobson: That’s great. Do you have an optimistic outlook, which I think is really, really nice. This is good to to remind ourselves. This is Women’s History Month. And this is all very relevant to what we’re talking about. I guess a final question to ask you, when’s your next book coming out?
Ashley Farmer: We are hoping next year and my next book, speaking of biographies, which I may be a little bit partial to, is a book of a woman named Queen Mother, Audley Moore. If you’ve heard the term reparations it is because of this woman. She is the founder and creator of the modern reparations movement. But she was so much more. She lived from 1898 to 1997 and was a part of every major moment in the black freedom movement. So the biography certainly tells us about her interesting life, but really it’s a story of the 20th century told through black women activists who traveled the world trying to make the world we live in a better place.
Neville Hobson: Terrific. Well, thank you Ashley for sharing your insights on such a significant topic. Thank you very much.
Ashley Farmer: Thank you so much again for having me. It was fun.
Neville Hobson: For more information about Doctor Ashley Farmer and her work, visit ashleydfarmer.com. For detailed information about Women’s History Month 2023 in the US, visit history.com and search “womens history month”. Season 2 of Ideas to Innovation continues with our next episode in a few weeks time: visit clarivate.com/podcasts for information. Thanks for listening.
Outro: Ideas to innovation from Clarivate.