Wednesday, November 22, 2006

Reviews on the Reprinting of Anna Julia Cooper's "Slavery and the French Revolutionists," a Pioneering Study on the Impact of Haiti's Uprising

Slavery and the French and Haitian Revolutionists

by Anna Julia Cooper.
Edited and translated by Frances Richardson Keller.
New York: Rowman & Littlefield, 2006.

Waiting for her doctoral dissertation to be read,
Frances Keller spent three glorious months in the
Regenstein Library at the University of Chicago,
browsing in the history stacks and selecting any
book that interested her. There she found a slender
volume—a doctoral dissertation written in French
by an American woman. The subject interested her,
but so did the woman herself. This Black American
educator and scholar, born in slavery, had lived
through Reconstruction, the period that had been
the focus of Frances’ graduate study. She felt an
immediate connection with Anna Julia Cooper.

Little is known about how Cooper , born in 1858,
managed to achieve her higher education, but her
intellectual gifts must have been recognized early.
She attended a school in Raleigh, North Carolina
established to educate freed slaves to become
teachers of other freed slaves. She is primarily
known for her work as an educator at institutions
such as the prestigious M Street Colored High
School in Washington D.C., where she was
principal for many years, and Freylinghuysen
University, an adult school that she established in
her own home. She died in 1964 at the age of 105.

Her scholarly work has been relatively unknown here,
mainly because it was written in French. Frances's
translation of Cooper's dissertation, the greater part
of this book, is therefore a significant contribution.

In her introductory essay, "The Perspective of a
Black American on Slavery and the French
Revolution," Frances states that she believes
Cooper brought a unique viewpoint to the study of
the colony of San Dominge in the tumultuous years
of 1789-1804. Although Cooper was only five when
slavery was ended, she experienced first-hand the
legacy of slavery in the United States—the
institutionalized racism that persisted in the South
throughout her adult life.

The situation that Cooper presents is one of complex interrelationships: between revolutionary ideals and
pragmatic concerns; between colony and mother country;
between competing interests in France; between
class and race in San Dominge. It was France's
largest, most prosperous colony, producing sugar,
coffee and cotton, occupying the western third of
the island of Santo Domingo. On the eve of the
French Revolution its population was over 550,000,
of whom 500,000 were black slaves; a little over
30,000 were whites. These numbers were, however,
less significant than the issue of class and caste.

Among the white population, there were deep
divisions between planters, who were strong
royalists even as they campaigned for greater
political autonomy, and "petits blancs"— the
artisans and shopkeepers whose loyalties would be
with the new regime after the Republic was
established. Although the great majority of blacks
were slaves, there was a significant population of
mulattos (the term used by Cooper), many of
whom, as landowners and slave owners, were more
hated by the slaves than the white slave owners.

Throughout the early 1790s, parallel developments
in San Dominge, where slave insurrections had
begun, and in France, where the Revolution became
increasingly radicalized, intensified the debates
about abolition. On page 93 Cooper writes: "...each
of the happenings of the Revolution had its
repercussions on the unfortunate island." Only here,
it seems, is she guilty of understatement.

For this new edition of the book, originally
published by Mellen Press in 1988, Frances
included new photographs of Cooper and a preface
that provides non-specialists with background
information about slavery, colonization and the
history of Haiti—as San Dominge was called after
achieving independence in 1804.

Because this new edition is clearly intended for a broad readership, and because the dissertation assumes considerable
familiarity with the history of the Revolution, it
might have helped to include a chronology and
perhaps a glossary. For this non-specialist, the
insights of the dissertation were well worth some
additional delving into history texts.

Joanne Lafler

Anna Julia Cooper

Born in North Carolina to a slave named Hannah Stanley Haywood and Haywood's white master, Anna Julia Cooper rose from these unpromising beginnings to establish herself as one of the leading black scholars and teachers of her day. Her remarkable career in education began quite early, when at nine she was offered a scholarship to attend St. Augustine's Normal School, an institution founded to train teachers for service among the ex-slaves. Cooper stayed there for roughly fourteen years, eventually joining the school's faculty. It was while teaching at St. Augustine's that she married George Cooper, a Bahamas-born Greek instructor. In September 1879, however, her husband died, and Cooper remained single for the remainder of her life.

In 1881 Cooper entered Oberlin College, graduating in 1884 with two other black women, one of whom, Mary Church (Terrell), would gain considerable celebrity as an important activist of the time. After teaching briefly at Wilberforce, Cooper returned to St. Augustine's in 1885. In 1887, she received a master's degree in mathematics from Oberlin and then moved to Washington, D.C., where she began a long and at times stormy tenure at the distinguished Washington Colored High School, also known as the M Street School. Cooper became principal there in 1902.

The 1890s constituted an especially productive period for Cooper. In June 1892, she helped to organize the Colored Woman's League of Washington, D.C.; the following year, she and two other black leaders, Fannie Barrier Williams and Fannie Jackson Coppin, addressed the Women's Congress in Chicago, convened during the Columbian Exposition held in that city. Cooper spoke on "The Needs and the Status of Black Women." In 1895, she played an active role in the first meeting of the National Conference of Colored Women; and in 1900 she traveled to London, where she participated in the Pan-African Conference along with W.E.B. Du Bois.

Cooper also helped edit The Southland, a magazine founded in 1890 by Joseph C. Price, the head of Livingstone College in North Carolina. More importantly, Cooper published A Voice from the South: By a Black Woman of the South in 1892, a collection of essays in which she addresses a wide range of issues concerning black women at the end of the nineteenth century.

The conceptual core of A Voice from the South is Cooper's contention that "the fundamental agency under God in the regeneration, the re-training of the race, as well as the ground work and starting point of its progress upward, must be the black woman." Or, as Cooper put it, "Only the BLACK WOMAN can say 'when and where I enter, in the quiet, undisputed dignity of my womanhood, without violence and without suing or special patronage, then and there the whole Negro race enters with me.'" The dominant position that Cooper accords the black woman in her vision of racial progress reflects, in part, the influence of nineteenth-century bourgeois ideals of "true womanhood," which assumed that women constituted the moral center of a society. At the same time, Cooper consistently argued for the unique position of black women in a male-dominated, racist society, contending that they brought to bear on contemporary problems an invaluable perspective forged in the crucible of multiple and intersecting oppressions.

Therefore, the full development of their talents—especially through formal education, Cooper argued—would be of inestimable value not just to women or blacks generally but to the nation as a whole. It also follows that no one could or should speak for the black woman; to Cooper, it was critical that the black woman's voice be raised on her own behalf.

By the mid-1890s, Cooper had come to be recognized as an important member of the black intelligentsia. She was active in the Bethel Literary and Historical Association in Washington, D.C., and she even received an invitation to join the American Negro Academy, the previously male-only organization of such leading black thinkers as W.E.B. Du Bois, Francis Grimke, Alexander Crummell, and Carter Woodson.

Cooper's distinguished record as a scholar and teacher, however, did not protect her from scandal. She became embroiled in 1904 in what became known as the "M Street School controversy." Under fire for allegedly condoning smoking and drinking by her students and morally questionable behavior by her teachers, she herself was the target of rumors linking her romantically with a member of the school's faculty whom she happened to have raised in her house.

Despite the support of many local blacks, Cooper was dismissed in 1906. After teaching in Missouri, she returned in 1910 to the M Street School (known as Paul Laurence Dunbar High School after 1916), where she worked until her retirement in 1930.

The remainder of Cooper's life was marked by academic achievement and commitment to ensuring the welfare of the black community through education and social service organizations. After studying at Columbia University, Cooper earned a Ph.D. in French from the University of Paris in 1925 despite extraordinary obstacles, including lack of support from her employers. In so doing, Cooper (then in her mid-sixties) became only the fourth black American woman to receive a doctorate.

During this time, she continued her efforts to improve conditions within the local black community as well, taking a leadership role in the Colored Settlement House in Washington, D.C., and in the local Colored Young Women's Christian Association. This involvement culminated in 1930 in her accepting the presidency of Frelinghuysen University, a school founded in 1917 to serve black Washington, D.C., residents (especially working people) who might otherwise have little access to higher education. At one point, in an attempt to save the school, Cooper moved its operations into her home. Anna Julia Cooper's educational and community activities continued to the end of her life, one as long and rich and full of dedicated service to her race as that of her far-better-known contemporary W.E.B. Du Bois, whom she outlived by six months.

Richard Yarborough
University of California at Los Angeles


By Anna Julia Cooper

Translated with forward and introductory essay by Frances Richardson Keller. The Edwin Mellen Press (hard bound), 1988
ISBN: 0-88946-637-8

Reviewed by Bob Corbett

The slaves of San Domingue (colonial Haiti) rose up against their French and mulatto masters in 1791. This long complex revolutionary struggle finally ended in the Jan. 1, 1804 founding of the free Republic of Haiti.

However, the battle for freedom not only raged in Haiti, but slavery was an important issue in France as well. After the French Revolution began in 1789 slavery presented a very difficult problem to the revolution. How were they to deal with slave ownership.

The "Amis des Noir" (The Friends of the Blacks), a French abolitionist group was founded in 1787. They fought hard for people of color. Their primary battle was two-fold: to articulate the principle that The Rights of Man, conerstone of the French Revolution, had to apply to all humans. Secondly, in the politics of the Revolution they fought the more immediate battle for equal and full rights of citizenship for all free people of color in San Domingue.

Anna Julia Cooper's book, actually her doctoral dissertation, makes the strong case of showing the important influence on San Domingue of these political battles being fought out in Paris. Cooper details the battle between the Amis des Noir and its estimated 500,000 members, on the one hand, and The Massiac Club, voice of the French planters and marintine French bourgeoise, on the other.

The Assembly had a terrible choice:

-follow principle and free the slaves
-but, in the process destroy two of France's most vital -economic resources
-the colony itself
-the valuable slave trade that went with it.

Cooper demonstrates how the battles in Paris, especially in the years 1789-1794, impacted the revolutionary activities in San Domingue. Not only did the black slaves revolt to seek their freedom, but the white planters were driven toward succession from France because of the victories of abolitionist forces in France.

Cooper's book is more about the political struggles in France than the revolutionary history of Haiti, but it sheds a good deal of light on the interconnectedness of the French and Haitian Revolutions.

The book stands on its own, but translator, commentator and discoverer of this lost work, Frances Richardson Keller, does not present the book for its own sake. Keller "discovered" this work by accident. "Running my finger along the shelves in a remote section of Regenstein library, I came upon an inconspicious black volume, the work of Anna Julia Cooper." (p. 1).

Keller's interest seems to be much more with Cooper's admittedly fascinating life than with the book itself. Anna Julia Cooper was born an American slave in 1859. At age 66 she presented the present volume as her doctoral dissertation at the University of Paris in 1925. In a long 105 year productive life, this ex-slave produced scholarly works and incredible feats for a woman and black of her time.

Nonetheless, I found Keller's focus on the author, rather than her provocative book, to be somewhat demeaning. Certainly Cooper achieved extraordinary things, especially given her color and sex in the period she lived. But SLAVERY AND THE FRENCH REVOLUTIONISTS (1788-1805) stands as a scholarly achievement independent of any biographical data of the author.

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