Prof. Casselberry on the Historic Contributions of African American Women

casselberryAssistant Professor of Africana Studies Judith Casselberry gave a presentation called “Why so African American Women Matter in America?” in Ladd House this week. Her talk was part of a larger “Why African American [Blank] Matter” series organized for Black History Month by the African American Society and Africana Studies Program.

Casselberry focused on three important African American women in history: Elizabeth Key, Ida B. Wells, and Fanny Lou Hamer. She also stressed the need to incorporate intersectionality into historical analysis. Intersectionality is the study of overlapping social identities — such as gender, race, class, sexual orientation and religion — and how they relate to oppression or discrimination. “I want to emphasize the importance of pushing back against single axis analysis,” she said.

Casselberry began by introducing Elizabeth Key, a slave of John Mottram in Virginia who filed a suit in 1665 against the Mottram estate, after John died, for illegally enslaving her. Key primarily argued that her birth status as the daughter of a free white Englishman, Thomas Key, made her a free subject according to English common law. While Key took advantage of a legal slippage of the time, the loophole was finally closed in 1662 when the Virginia House of Burgesses passed a law stating that a person’s legal status is determined by the mother, not the father. Casselberry argued that this new law “enabled the rape of black women, and codified the sexual economy of black women breeders.”

Casselberry moved onto 1884 when Ida B. Wells filed suit against the Chesapeake and Ohio Railroad Company after a train conductor ordered her into the Jim Crow car. While Wells lost her case before the Tennessee Supreme Court, Wells became the first black editor for Free Speech and Headlight, an anti-segregationist newspaper started by Reverend Taylor Nightingale. Casselberry argued that Wells used her writing to illuminate how representing the black man as a sexual predator of white women distracted the public eye’s attention from the rape of black women by white men.

Casselberry concluded with Fannie Lou Hamer, a woman who stood before the Democratic National Convention to challenge a pro-segregation Mississippi delegation, only to be interrupted by Lyndon B. Johnson. Casselberry asked, “Why was LBJ so scared of Hamer’s testimony? He was scared that her testimony would reveal the gravity of black women’s experiences in the South.” Hamer’s testimony and her activism would reveal the sexual violence inflicted upon African American women, including the sterilization of “six out of 10 women,” according to Casselberry.

Casselberry emphasized the impossibility of separating race politics from women’s politics and called for a reclaiming of the “complexity” of historical analysis and future policymaking. She said, “We should not lose sight of real women who put their lives on the line so we may live justly. They matter.”

 

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