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Advocating Activisms: Teaching Interracial Political Activist Models in Contemporary College Classrooms

Black and White women during the U.S. antebellum period participated in abolitionist and social activist work through a variety of organizational outlets. One of those outlets was the 1837 interracial Anti-Slavery Convention of American Women, documents of which—Proceedings of the Anti-Slavery Convention of American Women (1837) and An Appeal to the Women of the Nominally Free States Issued by an Anti-Slavery Convention of American Women (1837)—appear in Readex’s online collection Afro-Americana Imprints, 1535-1922: From the Library Company of Philadelphia.  Understanding how women from racially diverse backgrounds worked together toward social change in the U.S. could serve today as an illuminating example for students concerned with racial discord and interracial relations in our nation, both then and now.  Afro-Americana Imprints gives us the opportunity to look back at these particular documents and analyze them for useful activist strategies for working toward progressive social change—negotiation of interracial relations, strategies of self-representation, representations of others—but also for missteps, including cultural miscommunications. These two documents, among the thousands available in this online collection, can help us strengthen ways we engage in meaningful and effective interracial work. Moreover, they can enrich our opportunities to enact significant changes to our contemporary activism(s).

Proceedings (1837) and An Appeal (1837) form the foundation of the following two-to-three week activism unit geared toward a first-year college course, which could be used in Composition, Literature, History, Social Science, Women’s Studies, and Multidisciplinary classrooms. As records of antebellum women’s activist work, these two documents can teach students about antebellum activism; help them to identify, learn from, and appreciate different models of interracial activism; and encourage them to use their new understandings to formulate their own contemporary models of activism.

In addition to the two Afro-Americana Imprints documents, we also include in this classroom unit both Anna Julia Cooper’s 1892 essay “Woman versus the Indian” and a contemporary TED Talk, How to Combat Modern Slavery (2010). One of the ways to examine a text is by comparing or contrasting it with another text that performs a similar function or speaks to similar issues.  Cooper’s essay provides critical terms that can help students to reexamine the 1837 Proceedings and Appeal, and better comprehend the successes and failures they document in interracial relationships between participating women.  The contemporary TED Talk helps students to critically analyze the political activism of the 1837 documents through instances of current social change activism. Together, these two additional documents empower students to discern how activism unfolds across points in time, specifically in 1892 and 2010. 

Unit Objectives:

  • To read two 1837 documents and one 1892 essay
  • To watch one 2010 Ted Talk
  • To understand and evaluate the documents as models of antebellum activism
  • To develop appreciation for antebellum Black and White women’s political activisms and representational strategies
  • To analyze antebellum women’s interracial and cross-cultural relations
  • To augment and enhance one’s own efforts as a progressive social change activist
  • To encourage each student’s progressive political activist interests

Unit Questions:

  • What are some similarities and/or differences among and between the representations of activism in the unit documents?
  • How does each document define a group’s activist identity?
  • How can we tell these documents and models of activism apart from one another?
  • How does each document separately represent White women and Black women?
  • What generalizations do they make about anti-slavery women (White and Black)?
  • How does each document represent interracial relations and collaborations?
  • How does each document represent the institution of slavery? Represent enslaved people? Represent free(d) Black people?

 

Lesson Plan for Proceedings of the Anti-Slavery Convention of American Women

Objectives:

  • To learn about U.S. women’s anti-slavery activism during the 1837 Convention
  • To examine interracial relations between White women and Black women participating in the 1837 Convention
  • To compare and contrast representations and constructions of an anti-slavery woman activist, a White woman, and a Black woman

Materials:

  • Proceedings of the Anti-Slavery Convention of American Women (1837)
  • Anna Julia Cooper, “Woman versus the Indian,” 1892

Questions:

  • How does this organization define its activist identity?
  • How does Cooper’s 1892 essay relate to, speak back to, or differ from the 1837 Proceedings?
  • What is “whimodaughsis”? How does this trope affect our understanding of the 1837 Proceedings?
  • How would we recognize an anti-slavery activist, a White woman, a Black woman, according to these two documents?
  • How do these documents represent interracial relations between White women and Black women?

In 1892, Cooper coined the term “whimodaughsis”—a mixture of the words White, wives, mothers, daughters, and sisters—to expose the racial exclusivity of the U.S. women’s club movement, most certainly a fault line in the movement’s progress. Politically active white women in the club movement claimed to speak for all women—wimodaughsis—while simultaneously excluding Black women, Cooper argued.  Her term “whimodaughsis” revised the accepted term wimodaughsis, and exposed the white supremacist underpinnings in white women’s political activisms. Cooper’s signifying revision can help today’s students understand the vexed relationship between White women and Black women at the 1837 Convention. Cooper’s essay also gives students an opportunity to compare and contrast her representations of interracial activism, Black women, and White women with that of the 1837 Proceedings of the Anti-Slavery Convention of American Women.

Activity 1: Group Work

Students should read before class both the Proceedings and Cooper’s essay. Divide the class into small groups.

One set of groups should:

  1. Define Wimodaughsis using Cooper’s essay
  2. Find an example in Cooper’s essay to explicate Wimodaughsis to the full class

A second set of groups should:

  1. Define WHimodaughsis using Cooper’s essay
  2. Find an example in Cooper’s essay to explicate WHimodaughsis to the class

A third set of groups should:

  1. Define WHimodaughsis using Cooper’s essay
  2. Find an example from the Proceedings to illuminate WHimodaughsis to the class

A concluding discussion for the full class might focus on ways Cooper’s essay contributes to our understanding of race, class, and gender dynamics during the 1837 Convention. What implications do the Proceedings have for contemporary U.S. life now? What impact might Cooper’s essay have on contemporary social change activism(s), especially among women (and) students?

Activity 2: Individual Writing

This activity prompts students to think about the effect of different (self-) representational strategies in the context of interracial social change activism. Students should locate a passage in “Woman versus the Indian” in which Cooper defines one of the key terms from the following list. Students should write for 10 minutes about ways Cooper’s definition of the selected term compares to, contrasts with, or informs the 1837 Proceedings.

  • Black Woman
  • White Woman
  • American Woman
  • Leading Woman
  • Womanhood
  • Whimodaughsis

For instance, if Black Woman is selected, the student would define that key term using Cooper’s essay and then write about how that definition informs his/her understanding of the 1837 Proceedings. Students might ask themselves: how does the 1837 Proceedings define Black woman? (How) is Cooper’s definition different? How does Cooper’s definition inform a reading of the 1837 Proceedings’ model of (interracial) activism?

Lesson Plan for An Appeal to the Women of the Nominally Free States

Objectives:

  • To educate students about women’s activist work to end slavery in America
  • To foster awareness of types of modern-day slavery
  • To call students to action regarding modern-day slavery

Materials:

  • Video, Kevin Bales: How to Combat Modern Slavery (2010)
  • An Appeal to the Women of the Nominally Free States (1837)
  • Computers and internet access

Questions:

  • Do the authors of this document represent Black and White women?
  • What seem to be the motivations of the women authors (White and Black) for writing the Appeal? Does the end of slavery seem to be personal for them? How so?
  • What barriers to abolition do Black and White women separately identify or insinuate?
  • Do contemporary women activists face similar obstacles today? How have these hindrances changed over time?
  • Is symbolism used in the Appeal, and what does it reveal about the ways the authors view themselves and/ or view enslaved women?

Activity 1: Film Discussion

Students will examine both the Appeal and the TED Talk, How to Combat Modern Slavery. The document and video will help engage students in a discussion about abolitionist and modern activisms, and the assignments will encourage them to develop their contemporary activist identity. Students should read the Appeal before class. While watching the video in class, students should note any similarities or differences between the video’s contemporary model of social activism and the model of activism presented by the Appeal, focusing on the barriers faced by the different activists. Students should discuss their findings.

After the film viewing and large-group discussion, divide students into groups. Each group should research an example of modern-day slavery, or similar political or social cause (e.g., mass incarceration), and begin writing their own appeal to advocate for change. Students’ presentation of their appeals must include visual or audio aids (e.g., song, poem, artwork) to help strengthen their argument. Students’ appeals should also include some kind of action plan (e.g., write letter, start Facebook or Twitter page, start petition) to show how they will advocate beyond the classroom for their chosen cause.

Activity 2: Presentations

Students should present to the class their example of modern-day slavery; their appeals, with visual or audio aids; and their action plan. After presentations, encourage students to reflect on the assignment by, for example, explaining how their activism compares to the nineteenth-century activism as manifested in the 1837 documents in these lesson plans; their awareness of modern-day slavery before the assignment; examples of current cross-racial, transethnic, or transnational collaborations to end modern-day slavery; and their reading of the Appeal's relevance to modern-day activism.

Conclusion

Black and White women during the antebellum period made many efforts to abolish slavery and address racial discord in the U.S., and two particular documents from Afro-Americana ImprintsProceedings (1837) and Appeal (1837)— record those activist efforts. These documents can be a beneficial source of learning for students in contemporary college classrooms who likely have particular feelings about racial difference, racial discord, and racialized violence. Educators have the opportunity to shape how students respond to and make sense of past and present instances of these issues. Students are asked to read and analyze the two 1837 documents in order to identify both helpful and harmful steps in these interracial activist models so that they can make changes in the ways they engage in activism today, especially in cross-racial contexts. Students are then given the opportunity to apply the knowledge gained from reading antebellum activist texts to their contemporary activist contexts, which they can then understand and engage in more effectively.

Works Cited

Anti-Slavery Convention of American Women. An Appeal to the Women of the Nominally Free States Issued by an Anti-Slavery Convention of American Women, Held by Adjournments from the 9th to the 12th of May, 1837. New York: William S. Dorr, printer, 1837. America’s Historical Imprints: Afro-Americana Imprints, 1535-1922. Readex, 2015. Web. 25 Feb 2015.

---. Proceedings of the Anti-Slavery Convention of American Women, Held in the City of New York May 9th, 10th, 11th, and 12th, 1837. New York: William S. Dorr, printer, 1837. America’s Historical Imprints: Afro-Americana Imprints, 1535-1922. Readex, 2015. Web. 25 Feb 2015.

Cooper, Anna Julia. “Woman versus the Indian.” 1892. We Must Be Up and Doing: A Reader in Early African American Feminisms. Ed. Teresa Zackodnik. Toronto: Broadview Press, 2010.

How to Combat Modern Slavery. Perf. Kevin Bales. Ted Talk, 2010. Video.

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