Anna Julia Cooper, W.E.B. Du Bois, and Gender

December 31, 2012

The day before the new year of 1930, Anna Julia Cooper wrote to W.E.B. Du Bois in response to the newly published book The Tragic Era: The Revolution After Lincoln, written by journalist Claude Bowers. Historian David Levering Lewis writes that The Tragic Era “congealed racist interpretations of Reconstruction in the popular mind as solidly as had D. W. Griffith’s film, The Birth of the Nation, fourteen years earlier.”

Cooper and Du Bois were contemporaries and colleagues; they attended the 1900 Pan American Congress in London together and were both members of the American Negro Academy. On December 31st, 1929, Cooper wrote to Du Bois:

“It seems to me that the Tragic Era should be answered,- adequately, fully, ably, finally, and again it seems to me Thou art the Man! Take it up seriously thro the Crisis and let us buy up 10,000 copies to be distributed broadcast thro the land. Will you do it? Answer.”

Despite being a colleague of Anna Julia Cooper, W.E.B. Du Bois attributes her quote anonymously to “one of our women,” rather than recognizing her as the author

Six years after the letter was sent, Du Bois published Black Reconstruction in America. No known response to Cooper has been recorded.

In “Anna Julia Cooper and Black Women’s Intellectual Tradition: Race, Gender, and Nation in the Making of a Modern Race Women,” Errol Tsekani Browne argues that this interaction, and the relationship between Cooper and Du Bois, was emblematic of the “complicated” relationship between black male and female intellectuals, “characterized by mutual exchange on one hand, and Black male neglect of female perspectives and contributions on the other.” Scholar Mary Helen Washington asserts that their relationship “underscored how women got left out of black political life.”

Despite existing in the same intellectual circles, Du Bois did not offer Cooper the same public acknowledgement and recognition that she afforded him. In her introduction to A Voice from the South, Washington comments, “I cannot imagine Du Bois being similarly faithful to Anna Cooper, offering to publicize her work, or being willing to hawk 10,000 copies of one of her speeches on women’s equality.”

Du Bois’s most famous citation from Cooper is in his 1920 text Darkwater: Voices from Within the Veil. In his essay, “On the Damnation of Women,” Du Bois includes Cooper’s well-known “when and where I enter” quote from A Voice from the South. Yet despite being a colleague of Cooper, Du Bois attributes her quote anonymously to “one of our women,” rather than recognizing her as the author.

The legacy of this oversight and the larger gendered dynamic it represents is still evident today, as the scholarship and recognition of Cooper remains eclipsed by that of her male colleagues.

A full bibliography for cited texts can be found here.

The full text of Anna Julia Coooper’s December 31st, 1929 letter to W.E.B. Du Bois can be found in Charles Lemert and Esme Bhan’s collection The Voice of Anna Julia Cooper.