Telling Black Women’s Untold StoriesDecember 14, 2016
“I am Negro and I am a female simultaneously —
I cannot separate what I am.”
Nationally renowned academic Patricia Bell-Scott, Ph.D., has dedicated the majority of her professional life to advancing the women’s studies field, concentrating in particular on women of color. She is a professor emerita at the University of Georgia, a cofounder of the National Women’s Studies Association, and a coeditor of the first published comprehensive collection of black feminist scholarship, All the Women Are White, All the Blacks Are Men, But Some of Us Are Brave: Black Women’s Studies.
But decades before she built her impressive résumé, Bell-Scott was once unsure about her professional path. “I was at a crossroads in my career and was deciding whether to continue pursuing a career in academia,” she said. Then, in 1984, she won an AAUW American Fellowship. AAUW, a charter member of the Collaborative to Advance Equity, has a history of supporting women scholars like Bell-Scott who work to create space for the stories of marginalized groups in academia. “Receiving the AAUW fellowship gave me the support I needed to continue … and I have never looked back.”
When asked what had inspired her to begin a career in the field of black women’s studies, Bell-Scott pointed to the charged social and political climate of the American South during the 1940s–1960s. She refers to herself as part of the “breakthrough generation” — the generation that sought to give voice to stories, mostly of the black experience, that were being silenced or polluted. “The 1960s [was] a period of great turmoil in the American South,” she said. “As one of the first African Americans to integrate the University of Tennessee, I never had an African American professor. … Many of us [college students] would protest and advocate for more African American teachers, for a women’s studies program, and the start of a program [that focused on] African American issues.”
At the time limited research existed on black women’s experiences, and what research did exist was fraught with biases and inaccuracies, often promoting negative stereotypes and subjecting black women who had been sexually assaulted to victim blaming. Bell-Scott’s career path evolved out of the need to fill the research gap and create a space in academia for the experiences and stories of black women.
Her latest publication, the award-winning biography The Firebrand and the First Lady, tells the story of the life of civil rights activist and lawyer Pauli Murray and her friendship with First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt. Reviews characterize their relationship as “a decades-long friendship … sustained primarily through correspondence and characterized by brutal honesty, mutual admiration, and respect, revealing the generational and political differences each had to overcome in order to support each other’s growth as the transformative leaders for which they would be later known.”
Pauli Murray herself once encouraged Bell-Scott to “know some of the veterans of the battle whose shoulders you now stand on.” Bell-Scott has indeed dedicated her life to doing just that: giving a voice to black women’s experiences and creating a space, as she put it, to “expand research by and about us.”
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