Before They Had Bootstraps: A Case Study of Intergenerational Black Women’s Activism in Rural Arkansas, 1880 – 1944

Valandra, University of Arkansas, USA

Editor’s Note: We are highlighting scholarship that will be featured at the RWSA 15th Triennial conference in Jonesboro, Arkansas, USA, May 15-19, 2024.

The late activist and actor Harry Belafonte clarified that he was an activist before he became an actor stating, “I don’t know how you can ask citizens of color who were born into poverty when did you become an activist. You really become an activist the day you were born because your whole lust, thrust, and effort is to get out of poverty, and that requires a lot of work.” For rural Black women living through poverty, everyday efforts to provide for the needs of their families are the embodiment of activism. This is particularly true because black success inevitably ignites white legislative, civil, and physical hostility. Through slavery, reconstruction, Black Codes, and Jim Crow, rural Black farming families consistently strived to achieve economic, social, educational, and political success in the midst of white violence. African American literature scholar, Koritha Mitchell, refers to this white violence as “know-your-place aggression” and the denial of Black citizenship.  She describes the deep sense of success and belonging that Black Americans experience and cultivate amid “know-your-place-aggression” as homemade citizenship. This oral paper examines the everyday activism and achievements of four generations of Black Arkansas women to cultivate and embrace homemade citizenship in their words and deeds while facing white aggression within the historical context of slavery, reconstruction, Black Codes, and Jim Crow. Their attainment stories demonstrate the power of intergenerational faith, family preservation, mobility, education, and property as pathways from poverty to the creation of generational wealth. 

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