Drive Time Radio and Mammy

August 10, 2009

Drive time radio can be annoying, informative, shocking, and sometimes just plain stupid. My usual 10-minute commute to the Metro has been extended this summer to 30 minutes as I have the honor of morning camp drop-off for my son and daughter. I admit to being a serial station changer. Having controls on the steering wheel is just too tempting. Many of us do the same thing with the TV remote — always assuming that there’s something better on another channel or that we’re missing something vital elsewhere. I start off the morning with a dose of gospel music and then move on to a motley cast of radio jocks (and their female sidekicks, of course).

Each morning, the Tom Joyner Morning Show does a segment called “Little Known Black History Facts” (sponsored by McDonald’s, but I won’t even get into that irony). In between the raucous guests, contests, and R&B music, this segment never fails to capture my attention, as it often highlights many “firsts” in African American history. I’d never heard of this morning’s “first,” so I listened closely.

Sarah Jane Woodson Early

Sarah Jane Woodson Early

This month marks the anniversary of the death in 1907 of Sarah Jane Woodson Early, who, according to Wikipedia, “was an American educator, temperance activist and author. She was the first African-American woman college instructor.”

Sarah Jane Woodson Early was born in Chillicothe, Ohio, in 1825. Family history has claimed that Thomas Woodson, her father, was the oldest son of Sally Hemings and President Thomas Jefferson, but the claims were never proven true. Her family exemplified the remarkably resilient African American families of that time period — three of her brothers were ministers, one served on the founding board of Wilberforce University, and two were killed by slave catchers while working on the Underground Railroad.

Mammy

She was one of the first African American graduates of Oberlin College and joined the faculty of Wilberforce University in 1858 as the first African American college instructor. We can only speculate as to how many women, especially women of color, could even dream of completing secondary school at that time — with higher education beyond the spectrum of possibilities.

Despite Early’s trailblazing efforts, 150 years later African American women in the professoriate haven’t made as many strides as we would have expected. They continue to be underrepresented in the ranks of faculty. In 2007, African American female faculty in the United States only accounted for 2.8 percent (20,148) of the 703,463 full-time instructional faculty in degree-granting institutions, according to the Institute of Education Sciences. Studies also show that they are also earn less and are promoted at a slower rate than their white male and female counterparts and must overcome the two stereotypes of African American female black professionals — classified as the “Mammy” or “Sapphire.”

Being in the professional workforce for over 25 years, I am all too familiar with those stereotypical characterizations. The “Mammy” stereotype comes straight from slavery: nurturing, obsequious and happy — comfortable for white Americans. “Sapphire,” on the other hand, is sassy, hands on hips, assertive — making the mainstream uneasy with her confidence and intelligence. These stereotypes of African American women prevail across professions.

Sarah Jane Woodson Early succeeded against all odds, paving the way for African American women in higher education, but the ghosts of Mammy and Sapphire are still holding us back.

By:   |   August 10, 2009

7 Comments

  1. Thanks for introducing me to a new hero! I’d never heard of Sarah Jane Woodson Early, but she sounds spectacular!

  2. Sue H. Leidtke says:

    Very interesting to read about the fascinating Sarah Jane Woodson Early who contributed to the participation of women in Ohio’s “herstory.” On Saturday, Aug.15, AAUW/Ohio’s Leadership Conference is being held at Ohio Wesleyan University in Delaware. This information will be shared with the attendees. Thanks to Gloria Blackwell for hearing the radio program and caring enough to share what she learned.

  3. christyjones says:

    As an Ohio Wesleyan graduate, I’m delighted to hear that this information will be included at the conference on Saturday! I hope others take your lead and spread the word about Sarah Jane Woodson Early and other African American women leaders – history that is rarely ever told. A thought provoking piece, Gloria, thanks.

  4. Gloria says:

    Thank you all so much for your positive responses. She really was a remarkable woman and we need to spread the word about our unsung heroines!

  5. Ashley Carr says:

    Fascinating history for black Americans, white Americans… people in general to learn. Also very interesting observations about the “Mammy” vs. “Sapphire” characterizations. Fortunately, it seems that Sarah Jane Woodson Early may have managed to rise above either of these stereotypes. Thanks very much for sharing, Gloria.

  6. martha mcnelly says:

    Reading the intro to this story where you said you are constantly seeking interesting fulfilling radio-
    I thought -she must not have yet found National Public Radio stations -available everywhere-in USA
    They give the news responsibly; with wit and wisdom, along with a mix of really fine music they play at breaks; instead of the usual commerial that makes it hard to stay with most programs;makes you spin the dial. At NPR, they tell inspiring stories much like the one that is related in your piece-They call them driveway moments -where you have arrived where ever you were going but just can’t leave the car until you heard the rest of the tale –
    It’s on the low end of any FM dial; it is so satisfying -your dial will want to stay right there-on all your radios
    in answer to this:

    Time Radio and Mammy
    August 10, 2009, by gloriablackwell

    Drive time radio can be annoying, informative, shocking, and sometimes just plain stupid. My usual 10-minute commute to the Metro has been extended this summer to 30 minutes as I have the honor of morning camp drop-off for my son and daughter. I admit to being a serial station changer. Having controls on the steering wheel is just too tempting. Many of us do the same thing with the TV remote — always assuming that there’s something better on another channel or that we’re missing something vital elsewhere. I start off the morning with a dose of gospel music and then move on to a motley cast of radio jocks (and their female sidekicks, of course).

    • Gloria says:

      Thanks Martha. I love NPR–but I would be late to work everyday if I listened to it in the car since it provides the most satisfying content (I’d be in the Metro parking lot all morning!) I prefer to wait until I get to work and listen throughout the day. Nothing beats it.

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