‘Vanguard’: A history of Black women’s power

A screen capture from a Harvard Bookstore virtual discussion about “Vanguard: How Black Women Broke Barriers, Won the Vote" (2020) is pictured. Devina Bhalla / The Tufts Daily

On the day of its publication, author Martha S. Jones, joined by Nikole Hannah-Jones, discussed her new book “Vanguard: How Black Women Broke Barriers, Won the Vote, and Insisted on Equality for All” (2020) in a Harvard Book Store virtual event on Sept. 8.

“Vanguard” is a book about the political history of Black women in America and how their work has affected the United States as a whole. It lays bare how essential the advocacy of Black women in American politics has been to this country.

“The idea for this book came precisely because I knew the 100th anniversary of the 19th Amendment was coming,” Jones said during the event. “And we were in danger perhaps of entering into this anniversary year and overlooking Black women quite literally.” 

Jones is an American cultural and legal historian as well as the Society of Black Alumni presidential professor at Johns Hopkins University. She also wrote the highly regarded and awarded book “Birthright Citizens: A History of Race and Rights in Antebellum America” (2018).

Ibram X. Kendi, author of “Stamped from the Beginning” (2016) and “How to Be an Antiracist” (2019), said in a book review, “Martha Jones is the political historian of African American women. And this book is the commanding history of the remarkable struggle of African American women for political power.” 

With the 19th Amendment’s centennial in mind, Jones engaged in intense research, using generations of Black historians’ work to put together this comprehensive review of the political accomplishments of Black women, many of which are often forgotten, overlooked or simply not taught in historical narratives.

Jones’ goal was “to offer up one volume that would really permit all of us to fully appreciate the role that Black women played in political culture,” she said. At first, she thought that the book would be full of “Black women firsts,” but as she began, she realized that “there was a core principle that Black women arrived at 200 years ago and carried forward to now: the idea that American politics should have no place for racism and sexism.”

Jones noted that Black women have long promoted this view. 

“When I realized how long they had been alone in carrying that [platform] forward and setting that ideal in front of us, I realized they were indeed an intellectual and political vanguard,” she said. 

“Vanguard” opens with a personal story about the matriarchs in Jones’ family history. With the power of a personal history opening the book, she uses her family story as a way into the conversation. 

At first, she didn’t know where her ancestors fit in her book, but by uncovering their stories she stumbled on an interview her grandmother gave in 1978. In the interview, her grandmother talked about the struggle for Black voting rights in the 1950s and 1960s. Jones said she let her ancestors’ history guide her to tell a Black woman’s perspective on voting and political rights for Black women. 

Part of the event’s discussion was about the unique position of Black women and how they are sidelined for both their race and gender, which is the heart of “Vanguard.” The history of the Seneca Falls Convention is often told as if it was the faceoff of white suffragists, like Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony, versus Black men such as Frederick Douglass. “Vanguard” dispels this idea by including the perspectives of the Black women that were crucial and important parts of the conversation as well.

Jones talked about how this version of history that excludes Black women — such as Frances Harper, one of the first Black women to publish a book in the United States — does a kind of violence to Black women, as if they weren’t involved. Another theme that runs through “Vanguard” is that of violence that Black women activists have experienced and continue to experience, which has been punctuated by the exclusionary harm of hiding or burying their stories.

Both Martha S. Jones and Nikole Hannah-Jones, who is a Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter covering racial injustice and the creator of the 1619 Project, discussed how so much of the work that Black women have done has been buried by white people and Black men. Jones explained how the bodily presence of Black women somehow seems to deprive people of hearing their words clearly.

“Yes, we are here to claim our political power and exercise our rights, but we come to do that in the interest of all of humanity.” Jones said.

Jones discusses the lives and work of Black women from the beginning of this country to the 19th Amendment to the 1965 Voting Rights Act and beyond.

“This book needed to be a history that insisted that Black women were there, that they understood and analyzed, and thought through and organized,” Jones said. “It’s an honor to come back to that material and distill it for readers … History reminds us that Black women have shown up even in the darkest [moments].”

As more and more firsts are achieved for Black women in America, especially in light of California Sen. Kamala Harris being chosen as the Democratic vice presidential nominee, “Vanguard” gives us the history of those firsts.

“The firsts didn’t come out of nowhere. And the firsts came because of the organizing of millions of nameless faces of Black women who made sure that this could happen,” Hannah-Jones said. 

The legacy of these women continues today, and “Vanguard” highlights how Black women are intellectual and political pioneers. 

“Black women are a force that is here to stay in American politics,” Jones said.


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