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ReVisioning American History #5

A Black Women's History of the United States

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A vibrant and empowering history that emphasizes the perspectives and stories of African American women to show how they are--and have always been--instrumental in shaping our country

In centering Black women's stories, two award-winning historians seek both to empower African American women and to show their allies that Black women's unique ability to make their own communities while combatting centuries of oppression is an essential component in our continued resistance to systemic racism and sexism. Daina Ramey Berry and Kali Nicole Gross offer an examination and celebration of Black womanhood, beginning with the first African women who arrived in what became the United States to African American women of today.

A Black Women's History of the United States reaches far beyond a single narrative to showcase Black women's lives in all their fraught complexities. Berry and Gross prioritize many voices: enslaved women, freedwomen, religious leaders, artists, queer women, activists, and women who lived outside the law. The result is a starting point for exploring Black women's history and a testament to the beauty, richness, rhythm, tragedy, heartbreak, rage, and enduring love that abounds in the spirit of Black women in communities throughout the nation.

273 pages, Hardcover

First published February 4, 2020

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About the author

Daina Ramey Berry

10 books197 followers
Daina Ramey Berry is an associate professor of history and African and African diaspora studies, and the George W. Littlefield Fellow in American History, at the University of Texas at Austin. An award-winning historian, she is also a Distinguished Lecturer for the Organization of American Historians.

Author photo: Brenda Ladd Photography

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5 stars
1,231 (45%)
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279 (10%)
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Displaying 1 - 30 of 425 reviews
Profile Image for emma.
1,822 reviews45.8k followers
February 17, 2021
The concept of “history” is so frustrating.

I want to live in a world where this book, or a book like it, is a textbook for U.S. history classes. I want to not have to scream at the sky on a daily basis just because of how mind-bogglingly limited our sense of history is. I want to have grown up learning the stories of the women outlined here, instead of idealized versions of Christopher Columbus and pilgrims and the civil rights movement I would later have to unlearn.

But alas.

The information gathered here is incredible and fascinating, but this is a tough book. One, it’s very very very academic and dry, and I’m a baby who hasn’t been in a history class in upwards of four years so that was tough to adjust to.

Two, it is riddled with lots of little errors (of the grammatical variety) and a few bigger ones (of the historical type).

The most egregious that I noticed is that the summary of the Dred Scott case, a pivotal moment both in history and in this book, is factually inaccurate. The ultimate March 1857 decision was not made by the Missouri Supreme Court (as it says twice in these pages), but by the US Supreme Court, which is why it’s considered one of the biggest failings of the judicial branch in the entire existence of this country.

I won’t pretend that I’m anywhere close to an expert in United States history, especially when it comes to Black women specifically, so the fact that I picked up on an error made me wary of the truthfulness of the other information.

Which was a bummer.

Bottom line: I want there to be eight thousand million jillion books like this one.
Profile Image for Mara.
1,511 reviews3,671 followers
July 16, 2020
I love this kind of history whose project is to challenge conventional, high level narratives of histories by showing where counter examples problematize the "official party line" of how the past unfolded. This book does that beautifully by showing that Black women have always been in the story of the United States, even when official records purposefully or incidentally elide or exclude them. This is such a reminder that Black women who have sought out "good trouble" throughout US history really are the embodiment of what Americans SAY the American spirit is all about. Their treatment, however, is also a reminder of the US's failure to fully live up to its stated ideals with any regularity
Profile Image for Brenda.
45 reviews14 followers
February 11, 2020
what a completely devastating but thoroughly inspiring book! this should be required reading for anyone living in the united states. african-american women have indisputably shaped this country yet their hard work and sacrifices have been grossly underappreciated for the last four hundred years. each chapter of this book opens with a vignette of a bold woman–from isabel de olvera seeking safe passage in the year 1600 to millie and christine mckoy, conjoined twins, who were exploited and mistreated for much of their life to shirley chisolm, the first african-american woman to serve in congress–who chose to risk life and limb and liberty to move their country forward. there were so many women featured in this book that i had never heard of despite their incredible acts of bravery, like the 30-odd teenage girls who were kept in a stockade for SIX WEEKS for protesting segregation in 1963. one of the many great things about this work is that so many voices are part of this history: explorers, enslaved people, mothers, daughters, queer people, nonbinary people, artists, activists, religious people, and so many more. this book has inspired me to continue supporting and being in ally to african-american women because that is the very least i can do to show my gratitude for the incredibly work they have done for centuries now.
Profile Image for Kathleen.
Author 1 book145 followers
April 8, 2022
So many inspirational women. So many previously unheard stories. The history of the United States is much more than what we are taught in school, and I’m completely against any attempts to limit the exploration of our collective past.

I learned tons from this survey of Black women across US history, particularly about the period prior to the Civil War. Free Black women entered many professions at that time, but I found the artists particularly fascinating, such as the poet Phillis Wheatley, and dressmaker Elizabeth Keckley.

And it was so interesting to read about the variety of roles Black women played during the Civil War period: free in northern cities, field slaves in the South, spies, laborers on naval gunboats, factory workers, nurses on the battlefield, cooks in army camps, medical practitioners, blanket weavers for confederate troops.

I learned about the founding of the Ku Klux Klan in Tennessee in 1866, and the Black Codes: a series of laws passed in most Confederate States restricting freedom in order to maintain white supremacy (but eliminated by 1866 Civil Rights Act).

I discovered how the journalist Ida B. Wells got started (investigating lynchings), and how Black women broke through racist legal and social barriers to their entrepreneurial ambitions by circumventing them--opening their own businesses out of their homes.

Many of the stories from my lifetime I’d heard about, but some were new to me, like this story of a woman who just insisted on some basic human dignity:
“In 1963 Mary Lucille Hamilton was arrested at a protest in Alabama. She was thrown in jail for five days and fined fifty dollars because she refused to answer the judge until he addressed her as ‘Miss Hamilton’ rather than ‘Mary.’ The NAACP took up her case, and the US Supreme Court ruled in her favor the following year, reversing the contempt judgement.”

I have to say, reading this history all the way through, with one atrocity after another, was a harrowing experience. The fact that living it gave so many women the courage to take up the fight--on top of maintaining their families, homes and often multiple jobs--is an awesome inspiration.
Profile Image for Lily Herman.
543 reviews565 followers
June 13, 2020
There have been a lot of important conversations recently about anti-racism books for Americans at large (particularly ones that White people need to read), and I'm so glad that A Black Women's History of the United States has appeared in those discussions time and time again.

Daina Ramey Berry and Kali Nicole Gross have put together a viscerally painful, in-depth, infuriating, and spectacular look at the many struggles and triumphs of Black women throughout American history. I appreciated how clear they were in their objective from the get-go: There's no way to tell every story in a single book (especially given how many Black women were erased from our nation's records), but there are many individual and universal themes we can pick up on by examining different women's lives from the late 1500s to the present day.

Berry and Gross are also incredibly clear that A Black Women's History to the United States is meant to be an introductory primer, not a conclusive anthology. I will absolutely heed their call to continue learning and replacing this country's ultra-problematic and reductive history education with a more intersectional and inclusive one.
Profile Image for Ashley.
2,602 reviews1,669 followers
November 10, 2020
This was a really good book for what it was—a survey of Black women's roles throughout 400 plus years of North American history—but the relatively small 219 page count just wasn't enough space to really get into the sorts of details I really love when reading about history. I don't think we can discount the impact of the purpose of the book, though, since its entire aim is to place Black women back into the historical record, and it very much succeeds in that goal.

The book is also a hybrid creation of historical scholarship and popular writing, as the authors plainly state in their introduction that they wanted the book to be accessible, even approachable, by the general public. Honestly, I'm not quite sure they succeeded in that second aim. I don't think anyone who doesn't already like reading about history will much enjoy this as it's pretty dryly written, and especially in the first half when historical details are less plentiful, the authors use a lot of generalizations. (By this I mean, they make well-educated guesses based on the historical evidence they have, it's just there isn't very much of it to work with.)

Basically, this book was very informative and will be very helpful going forward as a way to place Black women in more historically active narratives, but I wanted more detail and less of a general survey feel, which was not this book's aim. Each chapter is structured around a particular era of history, and named after an individual woman, but again this is sort of misleading. The chapter on Shirley Chisholm, for example, features about a page and a half, maybe two of Shirley Chisholm, and about twenty pages of a bunch of other Black women we only meet very briefly. I think it would have been helpful for me to know going in that I wouldn't be getting a deep dive on any particular woman or era out of this book.

The perspective the authors bring from telling the familiar (aka white) stories of historical eras from this new perspective was really interesting, and in most cases, quite damning. For example, in just one act of fuckery, infamous explorer Francis Drake once marooned a pregnant Black woman on an island with two Black men because she was pregnant after his crew (and possibly himself) had gang-raped her. But the authors don't just aim to illuminate all the bad things that happened to Black women throughout history, they also aim to chronicle Black women as movers and makers of history, and key drivers of progress. If anything, I felt the book was often missing the middle of the road perspective between those two extremes. The book is also full of small details I'd never learned before, like that Black women were sometimes slaveholders themselves, but mostly they did so in order to keep their families together when some members were free and some were still enslaved.

Definitely worth checking out, especially if you like history, or have an interest in Black women's history.
Profile Image for Gabrielle.
243 reviews8 followers
January 20, 2021
Sublime. I wish that I could adequately describe the joy that reading this book made me feel. It held space for me, my mother, my sister, my niece, my cousin, my grandmother and all of the ancestors - it is evidence that we were here and hope that we will continue leading the way. I am in awe of the personal sacrifice and scholarly commitment that was required by Dr. Daina Ramey Berry and Dr. Kali Nicole Gross to complete this work. They gave value and meaning to the lives of Black women silenced in the archives and forgotten by history. I sincerely appreciate that this book was not just an account of the Black woman version of that famous Black or white man you know well and instead this book intentionally centered Black women. I wish I had this work when I was teenager though I am so glad to carry these stories with me from now on. Highly recommended.
Profile Image for Raquel.
315 reviews159 followers
March 2, 2020
«Tens of thousands, perhaps millions, of African people were unceremoniously tossed into watery graves. There, in the rough waters of the Atlantic, the bones of African people—known only by their assigned number, if even that—still remain on the ocean floor.»

Free review copy from Edelweiss+ in exchange for an honest review. This does not affect my opinion of the book or the content of my review

Daina Ramey Berry and Kali Nicole Gross state at the Author's Note of A Black Women's History of the United States that «as much as possible, we chose to include the words of Black women themselves. We did so not only to have Black women's voices play a central role in the book but also because we fundamentally believe that what these voices tell us is crucial for understanding history and for using that history to help us navigate the challenges of today». They also point out that this is a book written by Black Women to Black Women and their allies, so, what a Spanish white woman could learn about this thoroughly inspiring book?: She could continue learning about silenced women's experiences that shaped the United States' history and to unlearn plenty of fixed historiographical information that shapes her cultural view of the world.

I discovered the ReVisioning American History series about a year ago when I read An Indigenous Peoples' History of the United States , in its Spanish translation by Capitan Swing independent publishing house, and at that time I already knew I wanted to continue reading the series as soon as I could. The entire series challenge traditional (white/eurocentric) narratives, but in this case, the authors also decided to challenge the fixed chronological periods of US history, and they open each chapter of the book giving voice to different African-American women from early seventeenth-century to our times.
«Starting with the seventeenth century, we learn of more women of African descent who were forcibly moved to the New World. They were unwilling victims of genocide in the largest forced migration in history: the transatlantic slave trade.»

Although with an easy to follow language, some of the passages were disturbing and not the easiest to read –as the history of slavery and racism is–, but also captivating, provoking and inspiring, as they expose the difficulties black women endured (and still do), but also their incredibly strength to overcome them. Besides, the authors did a great job of being inclusive with LGBTQ+ experiences, and I especially liked this title is meant to be an overview of many voices (explorers, enslaved people, artists, mothers, activists…) and it is not only focused on famous African-American women throughout history.

In short, A Black Women's History of the United States makes you crave for more in-depth biographies of these women. If you're interested in deconstructing the single story, you should read this book. Completely recommended.
«Pauli Murray […] perhaps comes closest to getting at the stifling ways that racism encapsulated African American women’s lives noting that "was the atmosphere one breathed from day to day, the pervasive irritant, the chronic allergy, the vague apprehension which made one uncomfortable and jumpy. We knew the race problem was like a deadly snake coiled and ready to strike, and that one avoided its dangers only by never-ending watchfulness."»

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Fills into the Reading Women Challenge (6) A Nonfiction Title by a Woman Historian.
Profile Image for Ed.
Author 39 books2,691 followers
May 3, 2022
This book is a well-written, fast-paced overview of the historical role Black women played in the United States. Since I was a history major in college, I remain interested in learning about new historical things. I learned some new insights about race relations, a topic I find important.
Profile Image for Heather.
353 reviews7 followers
May 25, 2021
A broad overview of North American history centering Black women, who acted with agency through the centuries, and were not just acted upon as enslaved people. The authors show how women shaped our country in otherwise unacknowledged ways, despite ongoing systemic racism and sexism. Highly recommend for an introduction to periods throughout our continent’s history and the significant women to each. A springboard for deeper studies.
Profile Image for reading is my hustle.
1,470 reviews285 followers
May 1, 2020
i have become more of a history enthusiast in past years. the more you read about history the more you understand that there is no single narrative about any time period. how could there be? still, it is what we are taught during our early education. this book recognizes the determination of black women who were important to the development of the US: activists, artists, spiritual leaders, midwives, & other trailblazers. i was completely absorbed while reading about the complexity of their lives. read this if you are at all interested in understanding the beginnings of the systemic racism that continues to be endemic in the US.
Profile Image for Porter Broyles.
418 reviews37 followers
February 2, 2021
The book starts a little weak, but gains strength as it goes along.

This may be in part because I generally don't care for this style of writing--anecdotal evidence being used as proof.

As the story progresses, I was better able to fix the story in my own understanding of the setting/situation, so the lack of evidence became less of an issue.

Still a pretty good book.
Profile Image for Jeida K.  Storey.
Author 2 books10 followers
June 11, 2020
Wow. I have never been more moved, empowered, and humbled as a Black woman than I am in this very moment. Every one of these pages breathed life, inspiration, pride...but also told of the devastation and pain Black women have faced in this country. Drs. Berry and Gross took special care to center Black women (FINALLY!) in American history, some of whom I have known about and revered for years, but many I was acquainted with for the first time. Our history is rich and powerful and gritty and raw. Our ancestors were mighty and courageous and nurturing and intelligent and strategic. To share bloodlines and legacy with them truly brings tears to my eyes. What an incredible read that I will revisit over and over again.
Profile Image for Alexis  (TheSlothReader).
627 reviews275 followers
March 1, 2020
A really in depth look at some famous and unheard of black women throughout American history. It covers all kind of black women: trans black women, queer black women, and disabled black women. They authors do a really good job of looking at historical documents and then using those to show the perspectives, realities, and injustices faced by black women throughout Anerican history.
Profile Image for thedailydiva .
224 reviews
August 19, 2020
This needs to be recommended reading in high schools across this country! But we know it will not! Not yet at least! We are still fighting...

Black Women have been an integral thread in the fabric of America for a long long time. Longer than before we were forcibly brought to these shores. We have shaped this country with our voices, our minds, our hands, our entire bodies.

Reading this well put together historical text, broke me and encouraged me. What Black Women have suffered and endured and moreover ACCOMPLISHED in and for this Country is staggering. It hurts me to relive my foremothers histories; they are often always steeped in pain and injustice. But I’m emboldened by what we accomplish, in spite of.

The Authors gave a historical account of Black Women’s history and achievements from 1619 to present day! And I’ve committed to memory some new names and stories. Black Women I never knew but love now. Some only a blip in history, and only important because of some transgression they were accused of. Some only a description, no name, no story. I couldn’t help, with my vivid imagination dreaming of who they were, and what their lives were like.

What I especially enjoyed were the voices of each of these women. Some, as I said, just accounts written by slave holders or lawyers(about property), and some, their own words. I felt connected to each vignette and life. It was endearing and so incredibly sad.

This book will forever remain on my shelf, for reference and I will go back and read the other volumes in their Revisioning American History Series.
Profile Image for Jan.
1,045 reviews29 followers
March 4, 2023
Berry and Gross survey U.S. history, showing how Black women have shaped and been influenced by key events and trends. A useful addition to our understanding of the nation.
Profile Image for Francesca Calarco.
360 reviews31 followers
April 26, 2020
True to its title, A Black Women's History of the United States is a great resource on the subject-matter. Truthfully, I picked up this copy for a work-related book club, and am now actually using it a source for other work projects centering on American history and gender equity. Truly, it's a solid piece of research.

Perhaps my favorite element of this book, is how it tackles early history of black women in the United States. Popular historical literature tends to be sparse when it comes to ethnic minorities in general prior to the 1800s, and I have seen this all too often used as an excuse by a number of historical sites to exclude or brush over critical histories. What Daina Ramey Berry and Kali Nicole Gross do exceptionally well, can be seen with their analysis of early black women’s stories in America.

In the face of sparse archival information, when forming narrative history the two fill-in the blanks, so-to-speak, with really good questions. This is by no means to be confused with bold speculations. Rather, after providing factually-based context, the two then expand the conversation of different individual’s experiences with questions geared towards building understanding and challenging pre-existing narratives derived from, in some cases, the same evidence.

This is a really solid read; my only critique would be that I wish they wrote more. Each chapter evaluates a time period, and centers its narrative around (at least) one woman’s experience during that time period. There is a great deal that can be learned from these stories, both for historical knowledge, as well as general life lessons. This book definitely has my recommendation.
Profile Image for Kelly_Hunsaker_reads ....
1,868 reviews43 followers
April 4, 2020
Daina Ramey Berry wrote a book that is both inspiring and brutal. Thoroughly researched, this one is an intensive and detailed overview of the lives of black women in the USA. Easy to read, this one will teach you things you didn't know even if you have previously studied the subject. Each chapter centers itself on a real woman and what she did with her life. Sojourner Truth, Katherine Johnson and Rosa Parks among many others. Some of these women's names are well-known. Others not at all.

At one point early in the book I expected to give this one five stars. However, I found the last few chapters to be rushed. It felt like the author knew the book a sneeded to end but wanted to make sure and give credit to many more women. So it felt like a list of "names you should know." Still, the book is accessible, smart, and instructive. It is an important piece of history, and the author opened the conversation.
Profile Image for Grace.
2,580 reviews111 followers
November 13, 2021
Loved the concept and this made for a great primer in looking at some of US history through a black, female lens. Quite surface level, but that's to be expected with such a broad topic. I appreciated that there were some names and events I hadn't previously been aware of, and though the writing was a bit dense at times, overall it was a quite smooth read.
Profile Image for decklededgess.
626 reviews21 followers
April 22, 2021
trigger warnings: rape, assault, suicide, depression, murder, forced sterilization, sexism, homophobia, racism, violence

Most of the triggers are mentioned in passing and not described in detail. The impact of these acts is definitely expounded on to explain how such events impacted history and the lives of the women and non binary people mentioned throughout the book.

A heartbreaking yet inspiring account of Black women and gender non conforming people who changed the course of history in America. This was super informative and adds to the wealth of Black history I've been reading up on. This certainly fills out a lot of the holes in the historical accounts considering women and Black people are consistently left out due to their "lack of relevance" or whatever weak excuse there is.
I did find that the book tended to focus more on the general history surrounding the women instead of detailed accounts of their lives and accomplishments but I think this book is meant more as a survey and a jumping point to start researching the names over a comprehensive guide of history itself. I really appreciated this.
Profile Image for Leili V..
151 reviews2 followers
August 19, 2022
This book is well written by authors that care. I was expecting more recent history to be covered, and maybe more fields than the ones they covered, but this book is broad in scope and does cover a huge chunk of the American timeline. It would be a good starting point for anyone that wants to learn about American history from a decolonized perspective. I learned about some very amazing black women that I had never heard about before (of course). I’m so thankful for this particular book series and I’m looking forward to read about Queer American history.
Profile Image for Caroline.
461 reviews20 followers
February 19, 2020
An overview of the lives of black women in the US that is both easy to read (i.e. not in academic language) and disturbing. Even for a reader who has already made an effort to learn about the history of American racism, there were some new things here. I particularly liked the anchoring of each chapter on the actions of a real person (which made the one chapter with an obviously imaginary person stand out; since there were real people mentioned later in the chapter I don't know why they did this as I feel it weakened the story). There were so many amazing women, I done think they needed to make up that one.
I kept noticing the names of women I had heard of first through the songs of Bernice Reagon and Sweet Honey in the Rock - so a big hat tip to them for the education they have done for more than 40 years.
Towards the end, the last part of the last chapter began to feel like a rushed laundry list of famous women being name checked. And the authors do not shy away from calling out sexism within the modern civil rights movement, which even now seems brave of them.
I wish that people who need to know this information would read this book, but I imagine they will not. You can't fail to be both inspired and discouraged by the obstacles these women had to overcome. We as a country have not done well, but if you don't want to know the truth you won't seek out books like this even though you need to know.
Profile Image for Ruby Grad.
496 reviews4 followers
August 12, 2020
4.5 stars. I learned a lot and really appreciated the centering of the stories of Black women, especially when we'd heard about the events, but only knew about the men involved. And the discussions of both how white feminism has never addressed the needs and lives of Black women and how Black nationalism put Black women aside.
Profile Image for Laura.
1,275 reviews45 followers
February 17, 2022
There's not much I can say about this book other than that it is part of a great series that everyone really should read. The writing is very accessible so it did not feel too dry. These are the viewpoints and stories that are all too often left out of the classroom.
Profile Image for Em.
103 reviews1 follower
December 3, 2020
Learned a bunch! Would definitely recommend this to any history buffs.
Profile Image for Yaaresse.
2,013 reviews16 followers
September 23, 2020
Make no mistake, the content in this book is five stars.

The reason I'm going with a solid 3.5, rounded up, is that I think the limitations of the Revisioning History series format meant making some hard choices in content to bring it to a "marketable" page count, and the book suffered for those limitations. There were simply parts that felt like it had been drastically edited and the remaining text not smoothly woven back together, perhaps due to space constraints. There is no fault here except with a reading market that is reluctant to read history to begin with and balks at any non-fiction book that's over 300 pages and not a celebrity memoir.

The authors did a great job covering a lot of ground and time. Because so many early American women's lives, especially those of Black women, were not deemed worthy of documentation when they lived, the author's had to tread that fine line between the known and the speculated when telling their stories. They did a remarkable job of clearly showing what, by necessity, has to be gleaned from non-primary source materials and what few hard facts were known, and they managed to do it without making the reader go back and forth between footnotes and the main text. Obviously, their job got a little easier -- as least the documentation part of it -- as they moved forward in time.

It is a fascinating read about lives too-often not included in our history books. I'm looking forward to reading the remaining three books in the Revisioning series.
Profile Image for Misty DeRosier.
115 reviews
October 18, 2020
My U.S. history classes in high school and college left so much of the story out. If yours did too, this book is for you! Beginning in the 1600’s each chapter tells what was going on for Black women in the U.S. at that time. I particularly liked how each chapter is framed by the story of an individual woman using primary sources. Speaking of primary sources, this book is filled with them. Did you know that many colonial Black women preferred to (and did all they could to be able to) give birth in British occupied territories over U. S. territories? Did you know that Dred Scott was not the only plaintiff in the Dred Scott case? I didn’t. I learned those things and so much more in this book. If you are at all interested in U. S. history I recommend this book. If you are not interested in history but live in the U.S., I recommend this book.
Profile Image for Ryan.
423 reviews14 followers
October 9, 2020
In a perfect world, this would be text for a history class. I must admit though, I’d have liked more modern history... it’s fascinating to consider the connections between the past of America’s woc, and the present
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