Washington, D.C. has contributed to this nation in a number of ways: from its slaves building the White House, to birthing award-winning actors and rappers, and developing world-renown critical thinkers. Chocolate City natives like Regina Hall, Dave Chappell, and Taraji P. Henson have been staples in the entertainment industry. Unfortunately, not much is known about the African-American women who were instrumental in shaping the District of Columbia’s academic and non-academic spaces.
Thankfully, this subject is being brought to the forefront, thanks to the self-proclaimed “Diva Feminist Scholar”, Professor Treva B. Lindsey. The D.C.-bred, and graduate of both Oberlin (B.A., 2004) and Duke (Ph.D., 2010) universities, recently published her brilliantly researched book, Colored No More: Reinventing Black Womanhood in Washington, D.C. (University of Illinois Press).
In Colored No More, Dr. Lindsey, associate professor of women’s, gender, and sexuality studies at Ohio State University, examines historical and a la mode experiences of black women in the nation’s capital.
“Using a black feminist approach, I examine how black women resist systems of oppression and cultivate generative spaces for black women’s creativity,” Prof. Lindsey tells VIBE. “I specialize in African American history, black feminism, popular culture studies, histories of violence, and hip-hop studies.”
Capping out at 137 pages, Lindsey traces the lives of black women professionals, sex workers, mothers, beauticians as well as artists and activists while shedding light on the many challenges these women faced.
“I was born in Chocolate City when it was still Chocolate City,” Prof. Lindsey remembers. “Surprisingly, there was very little historical scholarship on African Americans in Washington- and more specifically, black women in D.C. I wanted to trace the footsteps of my formidable foremothers. I knew the women of my city were pioneers, trailblazers, and everyday women figuring out how to survive, live and thrive under Jim Crow and widespread sexism. I felt compelled to tell a part of their stories.”
Lucy Diggs Slowe is one of the women Prof. Lindsey unveils in Colored No More. Slowe, born July 4, 1885, excelled on the tennis court, resulting in her becoming the first African American to win a national championship in any sport. But Slowe, a 1908 graduate of Howard University, also kicked a** off of the tennis court.
“Lucy Diggs Slowe [is] the first Dean of Women at Howard University,” says Prof. Lindsey. “In addition to her tremendous work advocating for black female students, faculty, and staff at Howard, Slowe was a tireless activist for the power of education as a transformative force in the lives of black women. She challenged anti-black racism and sexism both within and outside of the black community.”
Lindsey also excavates the voices of other D.C. women such as Nannie Helen Burroughs, Anna Julia Cooper – who was very instrumental in the Black Women’s Club movement – and Mary Church Terrell, the subject of Professor Brittney Cooper’s recently published book, Beyond Respectability: The Intellectual Thought of Race Women. Terrell, who’s also the first president of the National Association of Colored Women, is known for her tireless work in black women’s suffrage movement, among other issues. Mary Church Terrell also became the first African-American woman appointed to a school board before serving on a committee that investigated the alleged police mistreatment of African Americans.
“Additionally, I hone in on communities of black women – many whose names are not as familiar, but are equally important to understanding the history of the nation’s capital,” Professor Lindsey says.
Intellectual spaces for black women were not limited to classrooms, either. Black women’s fashion and beauty played major roles in challenging many stereotypes that peered down at black goddess in D.C., as Lindsey outlines in Colored No More.
“Black beauty culture was and is an industry that pivots around the desires, skills, consumption, and innovation of black women,” Lindsey explains. “For black women, during the late 19th and early 20th centuries, beauty culture functioned as one of the many fronts black women challenged racist and sexist stereotypes about black women. Beauty culture thrived as a space of reclamation, self-determination, and invention. Black women made a culture about them and it was complex, multidimensional, and expansive.”
Despite contributions that women made to intellectual spaces in D.C. and the prestige that follows Howard University, the women of H.U. were not exempt from double standards of being black as well as black women.
“Although Howard welcomed black women as students, faculty, and staff during its first several decades, sexism and rigid ideas about the roles of women in modern life proliferated,” Professor Lindsey shares. “Black women like Slowe fought back against lower expectations and demanded equal opportunities to become leaders in their communities. Black women at Howard pushed the university towards recognizing and nurturing the potential of black women. These battles were not easy but were significant in shaping one of the most prestigious institutions of higher learning in the country. These women affirmed that Howard could not be pro-black if it devalued black women.”
Lindsey’s brilliantly researched book adds to black culture by mapping out the intersections of various identities of African-American women who shaped black life on a local and national scale.
“These women are significant figures in freedom and equality struggles of the early twentieth century,” adds Lindsey. “Their stories tell us more about what it meant to be a “free” black woman, post-slavery. Black Washington women affected local and national change. We should never erase the work of our foremothers – they fought too hard to be forgotten. This book introduces readers to a community of black women who fought to make the world more just and equitable. As we currently fight against anti-blackness, knowing these histories of resistance and radical creativity is a powerful weapon.”
What’s great about African-American history is the fact that the lives of black people are so rich and complex that there’s always a crevice that has yet to be discovered.
“I would love to see more work on black women and pleasure. I want us to continue studying and uncovering histories of violence and oppression, but I also desire to engage more research interrogating what black women created and how they found ways to establish intimacy and joy. There are countless areas ripe for exploration, so I would encourage people interested in studying black women to dig in with a sense of purpose and justice. Black women have been freedom fighters for centuries and we need their stories in as many accessible forums as possible. Black women have been and will continue to be a huge part of how we change the world.”
Professor Treva Lindsey is also a fervent hip-hop head, hailing from the school of Nas, OutKast, A Tribe Called Quest, Lauryn Hill, and others.
“Right now, I have Rapsody on replay. I listen to such a range of hip hop and love the diversity within the genre. I love the party and bullsh*t stuff too,” she says.
Back in 2014, Dr. Lindsey published an intriguing article titled, Let Me Blow Your Mind: Hip Hop Feminist Futures in Theory and Praxis, which examined hip-hop feminism.
“This article maps a history of hip-hop feminist theory and thinks about it as a tool of resistance in current social justice movements,” Lindsey recalls. “Hip-hop feminism is a term coined by writer and cultural critic [Joan Morgan] nearly twenty years ago. The term continues to resonate as a powerful tool for critiquing oppression and for imagining and creating new worlds of possibility.”
Colored No More can be purchased over at Amazon.com.