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Voices of African American Women

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One reason I became interested in the study of folklife was to learn through the voices of peoples who are often under-represented in history. As this is the end of February, African American History Month, and March is Women’s History Month, it seems a good time to take a look at what African American women have to teach us. The primary-source collections of the American Folklife Center, and the Library as a whole, provide wonderful ways to experience history as presented by African American women.

Online video and audio recordings provide the readiest opportunities to hear the women’s voices, and the examples that go back the furthest are recordings made of former slaves. In a previous Folklife Today post at this link, Stephen Winick presented a moving recording of Alberta Bradford and Becky Elzy, two former slaves from Louisiana, singing “Free at Last.”

Anthropologist and writer Zora Neale Hurston playing a Caribbean drum, 1937. Prints and Photographs Division.

Many interviews with former slaves were recorded by ethnographers and linguists, and are presented online in Voices from the Days of Slavery. They provide a window on a dark period in America. In 1941, John Henry Faulk recorded two women who were slaves for part of their childhoods. Mrs. Laura Smalley of Hempstead, Texas, gives a detailed account of growing up on a Texas plantation, including violence that she witnessed. She tells of children being made to tend babies they could hardly carry, and being beaten if they put the babies down. She also describes children competing for food served in a shared trough.  Mrs. Harriet Smith describes her childhood as a slave on a plantation where slaves were treated better. Nevertheless, she and her family had no opportunities for formal education and this limited their options after emancipation.  (These are multi-part interviews. See the bottom of the item record for links to the parts and transcripts.)

During the Great Depression, the Works Progress Administration funded projects to record folksongs, stories, and oral histories. Zora Neale Hurston, the first African American to earn a PhD in Anthropology, was one of their collectors. Some of her recordings can be found in the Voices from the Days of Slavery presentation, and others in Florida Folklife from the WPA Collections. She herself was recorded as part of the Florida project by Herbert Halpert, performing some of the songs she learned through her fieldwork in Florida and the Bahamas. Listen to her sing “Halimuhfack,” learned in Florida. At the end she describes how she would memorize songs when she did not have recording equipment available. Hurston was also a writer, using her experience as an anthropologist and folklorist to produce stories, novels, and plays. A selection of her plays found in the Manuscript Division is available online.

Marian Anderson singing. Portrait by Carl Van Vechten, 1940. Prints and Photographs Division.

Often African Americans sought a path to equality by striving for personal excellence. Marian Anderson was an exceptional opera contralto who gained wide recognition. But she was refused permission to perform to an integrated audience at Constitution Hall in Washington, D.C.  Anderson did sing, standing on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial on April 9, 1939 to a crowd of over 75,000. The concert was broadcast on radio to millions of listeners. Anderson used her voice in other ways to broaden the ideas of what African American artists could achieve. At the time, African American spirituals were often considered simple and unsophisticated, but some, including Anderson, disagreed. She made several recordings of spirituals arranged for orchestra by African American composers. For example, listen to her recording of “Go Down Moses,” arranged by Harry Thacker Burleigh, and one of her most popular recordings, “Nobody Knows the Trouble I’ve Seen,” arranged by Lawrence Brown (these examples are from the National Jukebox). The latter was the encore piece for her concert at the Lincoln Memorial.

African Americans hoped that the election of Franklin D. Roosevelt would help their cause for equal rights. During World War II African Americans strove to help their cause through exceptional service to their country. But the struggle for civil rights was only in its infancy, and change was frustratingly slow. Essie Woods, who served in the Women’s Army Corps tells her story, including the problems she encountered both as a woman and as an African American during the war.[1] Bertha Huston, performing the powerful Gospel-style song, “We are Americans, Praise the Lord,” at the Fort Valley, Georgia, Folk Festival in 1943, expressed some of the hopes and apprehensions of African Americans at this critical time.[2]

The folk music revival, which began in the 1940s and peaked in the 1960s, brought together a combination of an interest in traditional song and socially progressive ideas. This created venues where African American performers could reach a broad audience.  While not all performers were politically motivated, in the 1960s the Civil Rights Movement and the folk music revival intertwined as songs became an integral part of the struggle.  In a 2003 interview, Odetta discusses how her awareness of the social issues drew her to folk music and this movement with Peggy Bulger. In a previous Folklife Today post at this link, Kate Stewart traced the history of the song “We Shall Overcome,” both a Civil Rights and a folk revival anthem, in which African American women had a prominent role.

Civil Rights activist Ruby Nell Sales, 2011.

The Civil Rights History Project includes interviews with many remarkable women who participated in the struggle. For example, Ruby Sales tells her story, beginning when she was seventeen when another activist saved her life and was killed by a bullet intended for her. She talks about Rosa Parks, and explains that one of the underlying issues of the movement was the mistreatment of African American women (beginning at about time code 01:06:00).

In spite of the importance of African American women’s rights in the Civil Rights Movement, women often were faced with gender bias when it came to gaining leadership roles within organizations that supported the movement. An exception was Clara Luper, who become adviser to the Oklahoma City N.A.A.C.P. Youth Council and a leader in the fight for desegregation in Oklahoma. Her daughter, Marilyn Luper Hildreth, talks about her mother’s Civil Rights work and the ways she was taught about non-violent protest at home. She recalls her own activism, participating in sit-ins and other desegregation efforts, beginning when she was about eight years old. Her mother was not her only mentor. Like Sales, she took inspiration from Rosa Parks. Read more about this topic in the essay for this collection, “Women in the Civil Rights Movement.”

Opalanga Pugh
Opalanga Pugh (1952-2010)

In the mid- 1970s, with the publication and television adaptation of Alex Haley’s Roots, African Americans became increasingly interested in their African heritage. Haley brought attention to the West African tradition of the griot or jeli, a person raised from childhood to learn and perform poetry and songs, especially those preserving the history, genealogy, and traditional wisdom of West African people.  The griot tradition is passed along in  families, most commonly  from father to son. However, a griot can be a woman too. Interest in this tradition helped to further African American storytelling in public performance.

Some artists performed family and local stories to pass traditional wisdom on to others, including Linda Goss, who performed at the Library in 2006.  A few artists decided to go to West Africa and learn more about the ancient tradition of the griot, bringing back stories from Africa and using aspects of African tradition to enhance performances of African American stories, songs, and history.  A master of this blend of traditions was the late Opalanga Pugh, who performed at the Library of Congress in 2008. Talking about her travels in Africa, she tells a story she learned from Mama Sandy, a storyteller from Philadelphia. It is about African storytelling and about the cultural consequences of slavery. At the end she sings a song, “Each one Teach One,” about the importance of passing on stories and knowledge (beginning at about 00:24:00). (The webcasts are available at the links. The Linda Goss video requires free Realplayer software.)

Adjaratou “Tapani” Demba singing at the Library of Congress in 2010 with Balla Kouyaté (behind her in blue).

In the 1980s, as restrictions were lifted from immigration of non-Europeans, more people came to the United States from Africa.  One result is that there are more local performers of African traditional music and song. The group Balla Kouyaté and World Vision performed at the Library in 2010. Balla Kouyaté represents the men’s jeli (griot)  tradition from Mali, and he introduced Adjaratou “Tapani” Demba, a woman jeli also from Mali. Although many Americans will not understand the lyrics Tapani sings, her passionate voice leaves a lasting impression.

Contemporary news stories about African American women’s hairstyles, such as controversy about gymnast Gabby Douglas‘s natural hair in the 2012 Olympics, Army restrictions on African American women’s hair styles in 2014, and both praise and criticism of Zendaya Coleman’s dreadlocks at the 2015 Academy Awards presentation, show that there still are issues about how African American women present themselves, and how they are seen.  Two speakers at the Library of Congress have addressed these issues. In her talk “The Will to Adorn: Reflections on African American Identity and the Aesthetics of Dress,”  Diana Baird N’Diaye talks about the diversity of African Americans and the way different cultural groups demonstrate their identity through dress.  Candacy Taylor, in her talk “American Roots: Hairdressers and Beauty Shop Culture in America,” takes on the issue of hair and race.

So whether you are interested in exploring the past or getting more background on contemporary events, there is a great deal to find among the audio and video recordings of African American women available from the Library of Congress.


1. Listen to more interviews of African Americans in World War II in the Veterans History Project presentation African Americans at War: Fighting Two Battles.

2. The recording of Bertha Houston is found in the online collection Now What a Time: Blues, Gospel, and the Fort Valley Music Festival. This recording was made by Willis James.

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