Fellow Explores Gender Roles in Black Communities

Mar 31, 2003

The African-American author Maya Angelou once said, "I am overwhelmed by the grace and persistence of my people." That same passion seems to drive Wilson Center Fellow Sharon Harley, herself an author and professor, who is immersed in writing a new book on gender dynamics within African-American communities.

Harley's book, which she is writing while at the Wilson Center, will portray how black communities came to construct gender roles from the time of emancipation through the 1990s. A number of contemporary questions beg for historical response, she said, such as why segments of the black community doubted Anita Hill's harassment allegations against Justice Clarence Thomas and why more African-Americans did not oppose the Million Man March given that it excluded women.

"A key element in addressing these questions is the history of racial subordination," Harley told Centerpoint. "To counteract the effects of slavery and racism, African-Americans traditionally (and for good reason) focus on race loyalty and less, at least publicly, on gender tensions." Racism, she explained, has a longer historical narrative, whereas gender represents a newer concept that more scholars, policymakers, and journalists are examining.

The very title of her book suggests gender tensions and the intersection of race and gender. She chose the title, Dignity and Damnation: Gender, Work, and Citizenship in Africa-American Communities, 1865-1995, to reflect the dignity of labor, versus the damnation of women often condemned for working, particularly if they had assumed traditionally male-dominated jobs or worked for wages outside their homes.

Beginning in the 17th century, said Harley, "black women were forcibly brought to the Americas to work. Consequently, after the abolition of slavery, some men withdrew their wives from the fields, partly as a symbol of their freedom and 'new' roles as household heads. But the limited freedom that emancipation afforded late 19th-century African-Americans meant that black women, regardless of marital status, had to remain in the wage labor force for the family to survive."

In the late 20th century, most of the national leaders in the civil rights movement were men, with women frequently assuming behind-the-scenes roles.

"Black liberation was the greater cause," said Harley, "with some men reacting negatively to women's liberation and to women considered 'too aggressive.'" Today, some of these issues confront young African-American women, especially those who express a concern about being "too educated" thereby intimidating men. These contemporary gender-related concerns necessitate a redefinition of race that includes historical examination of the interconnected role of race and gender.

Harley, associate professor of Afro-American Studies at the University of Maryland, recently co-edited a book Sister Circle: Black Women and Work (Rutgers University Press, 2002), in which 15 women—including herself—met over a 10-year period to assemble this collection of essays.
Each contributor connected her own life history to the subject she surveys.

Although serious public discourse about gender roles in African-American communities began in the 1970s, Harley maintains that there has not been enough exploration into the issue. In her new book, she will attempt to further that dialogue.