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?
Black musical culture (jazz, the blues, rhythm and blues, soul music and most certainly hip-hop) has without a doubt become the lingua franca of American popular culture, along with African-American vernacular speech patterns and phrases and, of course, black dance forms (a process effected by the unprecedented run of Don Cornelius’ historic syndicated television program, Soul Train, which we celebrate in the final episode of Many Rivers).
Then there is a long roster of print, radio and broadcast journalists who have distinguished themselves in every form of media, the integration of executive positions in legal firms, corporate America and on Wall Street, and the thorough integration of the most popular American team sports—even country-club sports like golf (with Tiger Woods [b. 1975]). And of course, the professoriate teaching American literature and history (along with other humanities and social science disciplines and professional schools, especially law schools) have been thoroughly integrated as a result of both the black studies movement and the so-called canon wars of the multicultural movement of the ’80s and ’90s.
All these things, and many more, attest to the mainstreaming of African-American history and culture, their embrace not just by African Americans but by Americans, and the triumph of affirmative action in integrating the most elite professions in American society.
Entering the Corridors of Power
In the aforementioned fields there has been tremendous progress, but in surveying the landscape of recent African-American history, I think the most remarkable accomplishment has been rise of black women, in a blend of what we might think of as black power meets black feminism. So extensive has this phenomenon been that this most recent period can be—perhaps should be—characterized as the era of the Black Woman, an era fueled by increased access to higher education, structural changes in the U.S. economy and dynamic social attitudes and norms.
To take just one example, “Black women currently earn about two thirds of all African-American bachelor’s degree awards, 70 percent of all master’s degrees and more than 60 percent of all doctorates,” according to The Journal of Blacks in Higher Education, which adds, “Black women also hold a majority of all African-American enrollments in law, medical and dental schools.” It is safe to say that few observers could have predicted these outcomes on that day back in 1966 when Stokely Carmichael led the cries for “black power.” In virtually every field of endeavor, black women have risen. While I can’t review all of the remarkable strides black women have made in every field since the ‘60s, a few examples will prove my point.
We can start in the political field, appropriately enough, with the election of Shirley Chisholm in November 1968 as the first black woman ever to serve in the House of Representatives. Four years later, Chisholm would also mount the very first campaign for the presidency, in the same year that Barbara Jordan would become the first black woman from the South to win election to Congress, winning a seat now held by my classmate, Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee (both of us beneficiaries of Yale’s late-sixties commitment to affirmative action). In 1977, Patricia Harris (1924-1985) was confirmed as President Jimmy Carter’s secretary of housing and urban development, the first African-American woman to appointed to a Cabinet post. Two years later, Hazel Johnson (1927-2011) became the first African-American woman promoted to the rank of general in the United States Army, while in 1998 Lillian E. Fishburne (b. 1949) would become the first African-American woman promoted to the rank of rear admiral in the U.S. Navy.
In 1991, Sharon Pratt Kelly (b. 1944) won election as mayor of Washington, D.C., the first African-American woman to do so in any large U.S. city; and in 1992, Carole Moseley Braun was elected to the Senate. To this day, she remains the only African-American woman ever to hold that seat. Just a year later, the astronaut Mae Jemison (b. 1956) became the first African-American woman in space, on the crew of the space shuttle Endeavour.
The church, curiously enough, despite the crucial role of black women in its history and growth, was slow to dismantle its gender barriers, but in 1984, Leontine T.C. Kelly became the first African-American female elected bishop in the United Methodist Church, breaking the stained-glass ceiling. Barbara Harris became a bishop in the Episcopal Church in 1989; Vashti Murphy McKenzie became a bishop in the African Methodist Episcopal Church in 2000; Mildred “Bonnie” Hines became a bishop in the African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church in 2008; and Teresa Snorton in the Christian Methodist Episcopal Church in 2010.
Finding Their Voices Amplified
In the field of journalism in 1968, Nancy Hicks became the first black female reporter at The New York Times. Charlayne Hunter-Gault, the second black female reporter at the New York Times and the first at the New Yorker, became the substitute anchor and reporter for the MacNeil/Lehrer NewsHour in 1979. (She is also credited with convincing the New York Times to switch its usage from “Negro” to “black.”)
Meanwhile, Ethel Payne, former Washington bureau chief of the Chicago Defender and often called “the first lady of the black press,” became the first African-American woman to make the switch from print journalism to a major network broadcast, when CBS radio hired her in 1972. Carole Simpson became the Washington, D.C., correspondent for NBC Nightly News in 1974, and between 1988 and 2003, Simpson anchored the Sunday edition of World News Tonight for ABC. In 1992, she also became the first black woman to moderate a presidential debate.
And in 1977, Lee Thornton became the first African-American woman to serve as a regular White House correspondent for CBS. In 1981, Pamela Johnson became the first black woman to serve as publisher of a general, daily-circulation paper, the Ithaca Journal. And in 1994, Isabel Wilkerson, a former national correspondent and bureau chief at the New York Times, became the first black woman to receive the Pulitzer Prize for individual reporting.
Robin Roberts became the first black anchor woman at ESPN in the 1990’s, and Rene Syler was co-host of CBS News’ Early Show from 2002 to 2006. At one point just this past year, you could tune in to morning TV and see Roberts on ABC’s Good Morning, America, Gayle King on CBS This Morning and Soledad O’Brien on CNN’s Starting Point, followed a bit later on CNN by Suzanne Malveaux.
In 1999, Gwen Ifill, now the co-anchor of the PBS NewsHour with Judy Woodruff, became the first black woman to host a nationally televised political talk show, PBS’ Washington Week. In 2004, she became the first black woman to moderate a vice presidential debate (she did it again in 2008). And, of course, today, many of us eagerly look forward to Saturday and Sunday mornings, to engage in the weekly communal ritual of watching The Melissa Harris-Perry Show on MSNBC.
In the field of Internet journalism, in 2008, Donna Byrd became the first black female publisher of this publication, The Root, and Lynette Clemetson became its first managing editor.
And then there is Oprah Winfrey, who at age 19 became the first black woman (and the youngest person) to anchor the news at WTVF-TV in Nashville, moving in 1984 from Baltimore to Chicago to host AM Chicago. The Oprah Winfrey Show launched a year later and syndicated nationally a year after that, becoming the highest-rated TV talk show in history. In 1988, she created Harpo Studios, becoming only the third woman (after Mary Pickford and Lucille Ball) to own her own studio. And in 2008, she partnered with Discovery Communications to create OWN: The Oprah Winfrey Network. No other network in the history of television had ever been inspired by a single personality before. In 2003, Oprah became the first African-American woman to join Forbes’ list of billionaires, and she is joined in the business world by an increasing number of remarkable leaders, including Ursula Burns, who, as Chairman and CEO of Xerox, is the first African-American woman to head a Fortune 500 company.
There are few fields in this period, it seems, in which black women either haven’t dominated or managed to shatter glass ceilings. In 2002, Serena Williams (b. 1981) won the first of five ladies’ singles titles at Wimbledon, and she and her sister Venus (b. 1980) won the ladies’ doubles. That same year, Halle Berry (b. 1966) became the first African-American woman to win an Oscar for best actress.
In 2005, Condoleezza Rice (b. 1954) succeeded Colin Powell as the United States secretary of state (two African-American secretaries of state back to back!). Four years later, Susan Rice (b. 1964)—and no relation—was confirmed as the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, like Condoleezza Rice, the first African-American female to hold that position.
But perhaps the most symbolic event of all in this long (and partial) list of honors accorded to African-American women was the awarding in 1999 of the Congressional Gold Medal to Rosa Parks, and the issuing in 2013 of a United States postage stamp in her honor. Making it all the more remarkable was the woman inhabiting the White House with her family when it was issued. As the first African-American first lady, Michelle Obama is not only one of the most popular women in the world today; she is using her influence to strengthen the family, support military families and encourage all Americans to lead healthier lives.
While African-American female accomplishments in electoral politics, entertainment and sports would be quite impressive, it would be in the production of literature that African-American women would fundamentally redefine the canon, an unprecedented achievement in our people’s history. Indeed, some scholars characterize the last four decades as the “woman’s era” in the African-American literary tradition, echoing the title of a periodical published earlier in the history of black feminism, during the 1890s. This literary renaissance commenced with the publication in 1969 of Maya Angelou’s (b. 1928) classic autobiography, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, which became an instant best-seller and has remained extraordinarily popular over these last four decades.
The next year saw the publication of the stunningly brilliant debut novels of Toni Morrison (b. 1931) and Alice Walker (b. 1944), The Bluest Eye and The Third Life of Grange Copeland respectively, as well as the canon-defining anthology The Black Woman, edited by Toni Cade Bambara (1939-1995). Octavia Butler (1947-2006) joined the chorus a year later with the publication of her boldly experimental science fiction, neo-slave narrative Kindred. Morrison’s publication of Sula in 1973 signaled that a major author’s talent was impressively evolving. That same year, the National Black Feminist Organization was founded.
In many ways, 1975 was a hallmark year in the history of black women’s writing, not only because Gayl Jones’s (b. 1949) searching novel about slavery and rape, Corregidora, broke new formal ground in the ways in which black women narrate fictional versions of their history, but also because the first formal dramatic critique of black male chauvinism and misogyny took Broadway by storm under the curious title For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide When the Rainbow Is Enuf, by Ntozake Shange (b. 1948). In 1979, Michele Wallace (b. 1952), in what has been thought of as a sort of companion piece to Shange’s play, published a searching critique of the history of black sexism and misogyny, Black Macho and the Myth of the Superwoman, which generated a firestorm of angry reaction from many black male writers and critics, including a special issue of the Black Scholar magazine. But a subject that had long been treated as a taboo—intraracial sexism, especially in the civil rights movement and the black power era—had been opened to debate and would continue to be debated throughout the remainder of the century and beyond.
In one of the most important contributions to African-American canon formation, Alice Walker redefined the concept of African-American women’s literary ancestry by tracing her line of formal descent from Zora Neale Hurston in two essays published in Ms. magazine, the seminal “In Search of Our Mothers’ Gardens” in 1974, and “In Search of Zora Neale Hurston” in 1975. Walker would go on in 1983 to win both the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Award for her stunningly original novel The Color Purple, which was a formal signifying riff upon Hurston’s novel, Their Eyes Were Watching God (1937).
Even Spike Lee’s (b. 1957) first major film, She’s Gotta Have It, which won the best new director award at the Cannes Film Festival in 1986, reflected the force of the black woman’s literary and artistic movement through the depiction of the rigorous independence of its protagonist, Lola Darling, just as Julie Dash’s Daughters of the Dust—the first nationally released feature film by an African-American woman—would as well.
But 1993 stands as the banner year in the history of black women’s writing. On Jan. 20, Maya Angelou gave a powerful reading of her poem, “On the Pulse of the Morning,” at the first inauguration of President William Jefferson Clinton; poet Rita Dove (b. 1952) became the first African-American woman and the youngest ever U.S. poet laureate; and on Oct. 7, Toni Morrison became the first African American to win the Nobel Prize in Literature. Nine years later, Suzan-Lori Parks (b. 1963) would become the first African-American woman to win the Pulitzer Prize for drama, for Topdog/Underdog.
This era of black women’s writing, characterized by a remarkable degree of both creativity and productivity, amounted to its own literary renaissance, one with perhaps more lasting implications than even the Harlem Renaissance of the ’20s. It was capped, most recently, by Elizabeth Alexander’s (b. 1962) reading of her superb poem “Praise Song for the Day,” at the first inauguration of President Barack Obama.
I only wish my own mother, Pauline Augusta Coleman Gates, my greatest hero along with my father, could have lived long enough to see this rise—this meteoric rise—of African-American women from magazine stands to primetime TV, from the Congress (where there are now 16 black women serving) and the State Department to the presidencies of major universities (like Ruth Simmons and Shirley Jackson at Brown and Rensselaer), from the playing field to corporate board rooms. As the proud father of two daughters, I could not be more excited—or optimistic—about this rise, or the rivers that the women in our community will continue to cross as we step off into the next 500 years of African-American history.
Remember to tune in tomorrow night at 8 p.m. ET for the sixth and final episode of professor Gates’ new PBS series, The African Americans: Many Rivers to Cross, “A More Perfect Union (1968-2013).” To check local listings, and to learn more about the series, visit www.pbs.org/wnet/african-americans-many-rivers-to-cross. To order the entire series on DVD, or to purchase the companion book, visit shoppbs.org.
As always, you can find more "Amazing Facts About the Negro" on The Root, and check back each week as we count to 100.
Henry Louis Gates Jr. is the Alphonse Fletcher University Professor and founding director of the Hutchins Center for African and African American Research at Harvard University. He is also the editor-in-chief of The Root. Follow him on Twitter and Facebook.