The Era of the Black Woman

100 Amazing Facts About the Negro: When did the golden age of black female achievement begin?

Nobel laureate Toni Morrison (C) accepting the applause of partygoers Susan Taylor, Rita Dove, Oprah Winfrey, Angela Davis, Maya Angelou and others
Nobel laureate Toni Morrison (C) accepting the applause of partygoers Susan Taylor, Rita Dove, Oprah Winfrey, Angela Davis, Maya Angelou and others Will McIntyre/Time Life Pictures/Getty Images

Editor’s note: For those who are wondering about the retro title of this black-history series, please take a moment to learn about historian Joel A. Rogers, author of the 1934 book 100 Amazing Facts About the Negro With Complete Proof, to whom these “amazing facts” are an homage.

Amazing Fact About the Negro No. 56: When did African-American women hit their stride in professional achievement?

It is fitting that my latest PBS series, The African Americans: Many Rivers to Cross, draws to a close tomorrow evening at 8 p.m. ET with episode 6, “A More Perfect Union (1968-2013).”  After all, Thanksgiving week is a time for reflection, family, community and the humble expression of gratitude dating back to the Civil War, when, in a proclamation issued on Oct. 3, 1863, President Lincoln wrote, “They are the gracious gifts of the Most High God, who, while dealing with us in anger for our sins, hath nevertheless remembered mercy. It has seemed to me fit and proper that they should be solemnly, reverently and gratefully acknowledged as with one heart and one voice by the whole American People.” Earlier in the year, Lincoln had issued another proclamation—the Emancipation Proclamation—setting the slaves of the Confederate South on the road to freedom. “We have not come this far alone,” as the black tradition so wisely says. What’s more, “We have come this far by faith.”

With this in mind, let me thank the readers of The Root, and the millions of viewers who have given your time and attention to our six-hour television series tracing the 500-year sweep of African American history across many rivers, from the age of exploration to the re-election of a black man as leader of the free world. Over these past six weeks, I hope I have provided you, your friends and families with fruitful conversation for the Thanksgiving table and, I hope, beyond, especially in our schools. Without doubt, the challenges we face as a people can feel daunting at times—from mass unemployment to mass incarceration, persistent childhood poverty to underfunded schools in crowded cities, public health concerns, increasing inequality and what my friend and colleague Larry Bobo has called “laissez-faire racism.” But if the stories of real people, our people, animating this series have taught us anything, it is that history—like the future—is ours to shape.

While none of us will be around to witness the next 500 years of history (if only the first African American, Juan Garrido, had found that elusive fountain of youth!), we share an obligation to bend its arc toward justice, to borrow from Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Of all the “amazing facts” that have defined the last 40 years of African-American life (what, in the companion book to the series, we title “From Black Power to the White House: 1968-2013”), perhaps none is more significant than the rise of African-American women into leadership roles in nearly every sphere of culture, influence and power in American society, so that today, every black girl and boy with the capacity to dream has a role model. For many, those role models will also be the heart and soul of the Thanksgiving meal on Thursday. It is fascinating to reflect on how this profound transformation happened, starting with the black arts period and the birth of affirmative action.

From the Margins to the Mainstream

At the dawning of the 21st century, it is fair to say that the black power and black arts movements (the 1960s’ versions of black cultural nationalism) have “gone mainstream.” To take one example dear to my heart, just think about the controversial creation of African-American studies departments, which at several colleges and universities have become top-ranked research programs and even Ph.D.-granting programs that attract a wide cross-section of the student bodies at historically white institutions of higher learning. Long gone is the violence that characterized the birth of black studies on the campus of UCLA in January 1969, replaced today by the sort of healthy debates over the interpretation of historical events that represent the best of academic inquiry.

Each January we have the annual national observance of Dr. King’s national holiday. It serves as the entrée to Black History Month, which virtually every K-12 school and institution of higher learning observes in its meaningful way, and which the United States Postal Service commemorates as well, with its Black Heritage series of stamps (usually issued in February).

Kwanzaa, invented in 1966 by that pioneering theorist of black cultural nationalism, Dr. Maulana Karenga, stands alongside Christmas and Hanukkah as a staple of the American December holiday season, and of many public school curricula. Who would have thought these things possible the day that Stokely Carmichael coined the phrase “black power” during the March Against Fear in Mississippi in June 1966?