Williams explores history of black power, female activists

Rhonda Williams is pictured. Courtesy Rhonda Williams

The Jonathan M. Tisch College of Civic Life hosted Rhonda Y. Williams, author and professor of history at Vanderbilt University, during a Civic Life Lunch on March 3 in Barnum Hall’s Rabb Room. Williams presented her most recent research and writing, in a talk titled “Black Power and Rethinking U.S. History.” 

Williams’ scholarship covers a wide range of historical topics, including race, gender, political identity, citizenship, civil rights and black liberation struggles, according to her Vanderbilt biography.

Both during and after college, she was exposed to foundational experiences and literature that led her to study the history of marginalized peoples. Among those experiences was being mistaken for an intern at the Charlotte Observer, when she was in fact a full reporter.

In light of her education at University of Maryland, College Park, and her early experiences and understanding of journalism, Williams aimed to write a more diverse and complete story about people, and one which she thought was more correct.

During the discussion, Williams spoke about her decision to work in journalism and recognized the negative portrait painted by the media of communities of color.

“I thought these are not the people I know, this is not the complicated story I know about where I live and this is not the history I know,” Williams said. “And at that young age, when I didn’t know a lot, I knew that that was not the full story.”

Williams’ talk then turned to her more recent work, particularly her book “Concrete Demands,” which explores the roots of the Black Power movement, its female activists and the historical context of its oppositional approach to civil rights.

Particularly relevant to her reasons for writing this book was the perceived dialectic between the Black Power movement and the mainstream civil rights movement, according to Williams. She also explained the roots of the Black Power movement.

“The proliferation of struggles around black power, and the use of that language as a rallying cry was out there … it’s not like black power was not already existent in communities,” Williams said. “I mean black people were pushing for liberation, self-determination and sovereignty, and against white supremacist and racial suppressive systems and patriarchy for quite some time.”

In light of that broader context of the term Black Power, Williams began her book at the turn of the 20th century with an aim to challenge the movement’s historical context, and emphasize preeminent reformers such as Ida B. Wells.

In the spirit of presenting history from underrepresented and grassroots perspectives, Williams is undertaking a new project, writing for the “ReVisioning American History,” series of books from Beacon Press.

Apart from being accessible to the general public, not solely scholars, Williams shared some of the central questions that the books aim to address and answer.

“What would the U.S. history look like, if we not only incorporated stories in a central, non-peripheral way, but also the stories and experiences of vulnerable and exploited peoples?” Williams said.“What would it look like if they wrote the history, and created a framework through their lenses?”

Williams’ scope is broad in her forthcoming book. She shared that in her section of “ReVisioning American History,” she will begin not only with research on The Middle Passage, but also with the racial mistreatment of the Irish by the British.

Williams emphasized that racism and discrimination are complex processes, and that people tend to think that racism always existed in its current form.

“The new book starts with a discussion of white power and black power as a dialectic; there is a need for black power and self-determination because white power exists,” Williams said. “And I will trace how this dialectic changes over time.”

After she presented some of her recent work and spoke about her upcoming projects, Jessica Byrnes, program administrator for Tisch College, opened up the floor to questions from the audience.

The conversation then transitioned to the Black Lives Matter movement, the nature of the responding All Lives Matter movement and the contrasts and contradictions between the two.

Williams emphasized her accord that “all lives matter,” but pointed out that a central point of the Black Lives Matter ideology is responding to the fact that black lives historically have not been treated as part of the “all lives” classification.

“People act out of their own un-interrogated philosophies, upbringing, cultural identity, geographic region, without paying attention to what people are actually saying,” Williams said. 

The discussion then shifted to questions regarding the patriarchy, which Williams hopes to interrogate in the contexts of both white and black power in her forthcoming book.

She told a story about how an enslaved woman received a far more brutal retribution than her male cohorts for attempting to overthrow the crew while aboard a ship crossing The Middle Passage.

Williams also spoke to the difficulties of finding accounts of female resistance and activism in her research.

“I am working within the limits of the archive itself,” she said.

Williams is currently serving as Martin Luther King, Jr. Visiting Professor at MIT, as part of her sabbatical year from serving as a professor of history and John L. Seigenthaler Chair in American History at Vanderbilt University. 

The event was also sponsored by The Africana Center, The Center for the Study of Race and Democracy, the Department of Studies in Race, Colonialism, and Diaspora, the Black Student Union and the Department of History.