Do #BlackWomenLivesMatter?: A Conversation with Anna Julia Cooper and W.E.B. DuBois

This is a conversation between W.E.B. DuBois and Anna Julia Cooper about incidences of police brutality in and how women are represented in those incidences. 

DuBois: Women are the backbone of the Negro community. It is with their dedication to rearing our children and upkeeping the household that we will become the great people we were destined to become. When our black men are executed, it is up to our women to sustain their families. I agree, Ms. Cooper, that black women are often forgotten and therefore underrepresented, but they are making vast improvements in the workplace! They earn the same, if not more, than their male counterparts. Black, female laborers outnumber their male counterparts in several cities, an indication that women are indeed becoming more equal to men. Surely, women have been disadvantaged. Their purpose has changed. Expectations of them have changed. In my Damnation of Women, I mention that black women “are today furnishing our teachers; they are the main pillars of those social settlements which we call churches…”(768).


Cooper: I believe that you said it best, Mr. DuBois: black women are the most damned of them all. She is in competition with her white contemporaries who are protected under God, unlike the Negro woman is too savage for God’s mercy. She is still second, third, fourth best to her peers. When her men are executed, she is the first to arrive at the scene. She is the first to petition for his rights, which neither party experiences according to you, Mr. DuBois. It is by God’s grace that the Negro has come this far, though white men would like to deny us entrance to Glory. Black women stand at the helm of the church according to you, Mr. DuBois, but how is it possible that when black women are murdered by the same police who murder men, and when they protest for justice that black men still fail to support them? As I said in my Womanhood A Vital Element, “we need men who can let their interest and gallantry extend outside the circle of their aesthetic appreciation; men who can be a father, a brother, a friend to every weak, struggling unshielded girl.”(628)

: Well isn’t this great? A black man and woman are innocently driving alone on the highway and a white police officer finds a way to stop them. Black men have no break in this country! He’s deprived of economic opportunities and denied upward mobility. How do you intend to defend me, Ms. Cooper? Will you use emotion to appeal to this officer? Regardless, men rarely experience the privilege of apathy from our white peers so I don’t expect this circumstance to deviate from that unfortunate truth. American society has been constructed around the fear of black success, particularly the success of black men. Slave owners intentionally separated fathers from their families because it emasculated and kept them from establishing close-knit relationships. As I wrote in The Souls of Black Folk, “we dare not let them [become men], and we build about them walls so high, and hang between them and the light a veil so thick, that they shall not even think of breaking through.”(716)


Cooper: I think you’ve omitted an important element to your argument in your complete denial of the black woman’s existence. As you speak about the plight of the black man and his demise at the hands of white supremacy, you’ve forgotten to speak about the black woman who picks up the pieces of that broken man. Where men were sold separately, women had to stabilize the family. Black women have become symbols for tenacity, especially for the roles they played in supporting the black family. There’s no denying that black men experienced, and continue to experience hardship at the hands of white people, but you cannot erase the female experience from that narrative. In fact, you’ve forgotten that I’m sitting in this car with you, stopped by the same police officer at the same time. Jesus Christ “has given to men a rule and guide for the estimation of woman as an equal”(623), therefore, you we should confront this experience as peers, not as master and subordinate.

DuBois: And who is this police officer going to address when he approaches the car, Ms. Cooper? He is going to approach the driver, a black man who, statistically, has a disproportionately higher probability of being murdered by a police officer than his white peers. The threat of incarceration is also a pertinent threat in the black, male psyche. One might imagine the stress that black men experience in avoiding incarceration on a daily basis. There’s heightened stress during interactions with law enforcement for that reason and people wonder why black men don’t trust their supposed “protectors” and “servers”. Black women have to support black men in their effort to subvert stereotypes and avoid confrontation than law enforcement. As you know, “progress in human affairs is more often a pull than a push”(718), and black women have to contribute to that pushing.


Cooper: Black women experience police brutality as much as black men, Mr. Cooper. Women experience stress in different ways than men. Mothers have to pray over their sons and husbands who walk into heightened danger inside and outside of their communities. Black women also live on a complicated boundary where both their gender and race intersect and make navigating through a patriarchal and racist world exclusively difficult. Let’s look at women who’ve been murdered by police in recent history so that you may understand that black men are not the sole recipients of police violence in the United States. Tanisha Anderson, Yvette Smith, and Rekia Boyd are all on a short list of a very long list of unarmed black women who’ve been murdered by police officers

Statistics on incarcerated black men compared to black men enrolled in college. (Source: American Council on Education)

Statistics on incarcerated black men compared to black men enrolled in college. (Source: American Council on Education)

. God shows no bias upon our arrival to His kingdom. We all arrive as equals, however illogical that might seem, Mr. DuBois. In my Womanhood a Vital Element, I contest that “the vital agency of womanhood in the regeneration and progress of a race…is conceded almost before it is fairly stated.”(625) I believe you have something to learn from that claim.

: It’s important to recognize the feminization of the slave narrative and black experience in America. We know that women were the target audience for authors of slave narratives and they appealed to that audience with emotional stories about womanhood in the context of slavery. Uncle Tom’s Cabin, the most popular slave narrative of all time, is written by a white woman who writes the story from the perspective of a passive, male slave whose best friend is a small, white girl. Black men have been strategically removed from the slave experience because of a systematic attempt to suppress their masculinity. This tension between men and women in instances of police brutality has a context deeply rooted in American slave strategy and organization. This very context keeps black men out of work and black women scrubbing floors. I am, in my own right, a feminist, but I also understand the logical reasons why the male narrative is one more exclusively discussed in instances of police brutality.


Cooper: I understand this perspective, Mr. DuBois, but I also think that your status as an academic with a considerable amount of privilege has jaded your opinions in this debate. As a woman who has done work on the ground level of this fight, I can say that women are as equally forgotten in modern-day conversations about racism than men. Women are excluded from most conversations in a world conflated with male concerns. Men determine legislation on reproductive rights! We live in a world where women either have their voices stifled or recreated by men and I don’t want to live in this world, Mr. DuBois. Black women are at the sides of their sons and husbands at these protests, but where were those men at the protests for Renisha McBride? Mr. DuBois, “the position of woman in society determineRMcBrides the vital elements of its regeneration and progress.”(624)

DuBois: Women are a major system of support in our community. They have not been forgotten and I refuse to allow you to convince them otherwise. You have said yourself, “woman, mother,–your responsibility is one that might make angels tremble and fear to take hold… The training of children is a task on which an infinity of weal or woe depends.”(624) It seems that you agree with my argument that women are a coveted species. As we’ve been parked here at the side of the road I’ve come to understand a few things about womanhood and how it interacts with police brutality. I cannot fully understand that experience as a man but I can postulate and engage in discussions with women about it. I feel that this has been fruitful.


Cooper: It is this that you must take into account, Mr. DuBois: women and men may become equals, perhaps beyond our lifetimes, but men must meet women halfway, they must extend outside the circle of aesthetic appreciation and come to the forefront of the fight for equality at the side of women, not in front. It seems that if men and women are truly becoming equal that men might men might meet their women in the middle. This not the case, Mr. Washington. I leave you with this from my writing: “Here is the vulnerable point, not in the heel, but at the heart of the young Achilles, and here must the defenses be strengthened and the watch redoubled.”(626) This is in reference to womanhood, Mr. DuBois. Womanhood is the young Achilles in our discussions about race and police brutality. It is painful to navigate but renderable with the correct treatment.