walkitout (walkitout) wrote,

_Righteous Discontent_, Evelyn Brooks Higginbotham

I bought this a Really Long Time Ago (October 1998, from University Books in Seattle, so if you're keeping track, I'd retired the previous month from a different bookstore in Seattle). I started reading it a couple February's ago, IIRC, and have finally just decided there are only two chapters left, I can do that, so I did.

Subtitled: _The Women's Movement in the Black Baptist Church, 1880-1920_

On the one hand, it's a really interesting book in a lot of ways. There is good documentary history here about post-Civil War efforts by women, mostly, but not entirely, black women in particular, but not exclusively, to educate and uplift their race out of poverty and oppression. It fits very well into reading I had been doing before starting reading this book (and books I had bought in roughly the same time frame) about the WCTU, and _White Women's Rights_, which is a somewhat flawed book about racial friction within earlier stages of the women's movement. The extensive use of quotations allows the reader to grasp rhetorical techniques that the author isn't necessarily drawing attention to, but which are interesting (turns out that people have been saying, "it's just as bad/worse than slavery" since very shortly after the end of the Civil War. Who knew? And not just white people, I might add.).

Activists used multiple strategies to advance the cause of equality and social justice, and the author devotes individual chapters to major ones. By directing group resources to the education and nurturing of particularly able individuals ("the talented tenth"), the group hoped to benefit by showing that blacks could be doctors and lawyers and learned preachers and academics. By emphasizing manners and demeanor, the group hoped to benefit by showing that while they were poor and oppressed, they adhered to the supposed codes of whites better than they did. Little mention is made of women in the Black Baptist Church and the women's suffrage movement (one gets the sense that they weren't particularly involved, but I'm not clear on that. It was so difficult for black men to vote that there was probably some prioritization going on there). Descriptions of coordination between white women activist groups and individuals and black women activist groups and individuals are included occasionally.

If there is something missing, it is any kind of detail on conflict in goals and strategies between the separate groups. Sure, there were some heinously bigoted women who said awful things, but they weren't typically all that great on women's issues for white women or black women. I feel some confidence that there _was_ conflict on goals and strategies, but I'm sort of feeling a little weird that I've now read two academic books (well respected ones) that should have given me a sense of where that conflict was, and I still just am not understanding. Perhaps it is my fault. (And before you ask, YES, I do understand the pre- and post- Civil War prioritization of abolition vs women's suffrage. And that's exactly why the weakness on where the Women's Convention was on suffrage stood out for me. Was that perceived at the time as a major difference in priorities/goals? How did groups and individuals talk about that? _Did_ they talk about that?)

It's a monograph. Because it's a monograph about a church, a good chunk of the middle is about women engaging in theology and/or preaching. That may have limited appeal. The author makes an effort to draw some larger themes out of the theology and preaching, but it is tough going. 19th century moralizing is not an attractive activity. At all, and I don't care _who_ is doing it. It just sounds terrible.

The book does provide a fairly good context for the civil rights movement(s) of our own era (it's imperfect, because the section on railroads and separate but equal doesn't get into any of the details of Plessy v Ferguson, which is a real pity, however, scope matters, and including details about women activists trying to get better bathrooms, or at least segregated by gender, was pretty amazing. Having to press for soap and towels is kind of shocking, altho again, this is in the era of lynching, so there's plenty of shocking to go around).

If any of the components of the topic (race, gender, religion, politics, education and activism) are of interest to you, and you have any tolerance for monographs at all, it's a good one.
Tags: book review, non-fiction, women
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