Evette Dionne, editor-in-chief of Bitch Media and author of Lifting as We Climb: Black Women’s Battle for the Ballot Box, discussed her Coretta Scott King Author Honor book with Martha S. Jones, author of Vanguard: How Black Women Broke Barriers, Won the Vote, and Insisted on Equality for All.
Watch the video of this event and read the transcript below:
In Lifting as We Climb, Dionne tells the important, overlooked story of Black women as a force in the suffrage movement—even when fellow suffragists did not accept them as equal partners in the struggle. Through this powerful book, she draws an important historical line from abolition to suffrage to civil rights to contemporary young activists, filling in the blanks of the American suffrage story.
In Vanguard, Jones offers a new history of African American women’s political lives in America. She recounts how they defied both racism and sexism to fight for the ballot, and how they wielded political power to secure the equality and dignity of all persons. She excavates the lives and work of Black women who were the vanguard of women’s rights, calling on America to realize its best ideals.
To listen to the related episode, Who Votes?, on With Good Reason Radio, click here.
“Dionne provides a detailed and comprehensive look at the overlooked roles African American women played in the efforts to end slavery and then to secure the right to vote for women, arguing that Black women worked consistently for their communities in all areas. A lively and critical addition as the United States commemorates the centennial of women’s suffrage.”Kirkus Reviews, starred review
This Coretta Scott King Author Honor book—Lifting as We Climb—tells the important, overlooked story of Black women as a force in the suffrage movement—when fellow suffragists did not accept them as equal partners in the struggle.
Susan B. Anthony. Elizabeth Cady Stanton. Alice Paul. The Women’s Rights Convention at Seneca Falls. The 1913 Women’s March in D.C. When the epic story of the suffrage movement in the United States is told, the most familiar leaders, speakers at meetings, and participants in marches written about or pictured are generally white. That’s not the real story. Women of color, especially African American women, were fighting for their right to vote and to be treated as full, equal citizens of the United States. Their battlefront wasn’t just about gender. African American women had to deal with white abolitionist-suffragists who drew the line at sharing power with their Black sisters. They had to overcome deep, exclusionary racial prejudices that were rife in the American suffrage movement. And they had to maintain their dignity—and safety—in a society that tried to keep them in its bottom ranks.
Lifting as We Climb is the empowering story of African American women who refused to accept all this. Women in Black church groups, Black female sororities, Black women’s improvement societies and social clubs. Women who formed their own Black suffrage associations when white-dominated national suffrage groups rejected them. Women like Mary Church Terrell, a founder of the National Association of Colored Women and of the NAACP; or educator-activist Anna Julia Cooper who championed women getting the vote and a college education; or the crusading journalist Ida B. Wells, a leader in both the suffrage and anti-lynching movements.
“Jones has written an elegant and expansive history of Black women who sought to build political power where they could. Jones is an assiduous scholar and an absorbing writer, turning to the archives to unearth the stories of Black women who worked alongside white suffragists only to be marginalized.”The New York Times
Vanguard is the epic history of African American women’s pursuit of political power—and how it transformed America. In the standard story, the suffrage crusade began in Seneca Falls in 1848 and ended with the ratification of the Nineteenth Amendment in 1920. But this overwhelmingly white women’s movement did not win the vote for most Black women. Securing their rights required a movement of their own.
In Vanguard, acclaimed historian Martha S. Jones offers a new history of African American women’s political lives in America. She recounts how they defied both racism and sexism to fight for the ballot, and how they wielded political power to secure the equality and dignity of all persons. From the earliest days of the republic to the passage of the 1965 Voting Rights Act and beyond, Jones excavates the lives and work of Black women—Maria Stewart, Frances Ellen Watkins Harper, Fannie Lou Hamer, and more—who were the vanguard of women’s rights, calling on America to realize its best ideals.
This program was funded by the “Why it Matters: Civic and Electoral Participation” initiative, administered by the Federation of State Humanities Councils and funded by The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation.
SARAH LAWSON: Hello, and welcome to Shelf Life from the Virginia Festival of the Book. I’m Sarah Lawson, assistant director of the Virginia Center for the Book, a program of Virginia Humanities. Thanks for joining us.
A couple notes before I hand the program over to our speakers. Please share your questions using the Q&A tab on Zoom. Also, this event has optional closed captioning, which you can turn on and customize at any time with the closed captions tab at the bottom of your window. If you haven’t already read today’s books, we hope you will. For details about how to buy them from a local bookseller or check out a copy from your library, visit VaBook.org, where you can also explore our full schedule and watch past events. While you’re there, please consider making a donation to support the Festival’s ongoing work at VaBook.org/give.
This program is presented as part of the Why It Matters: Civic and Electoral Participation initiative, administered by the Federation of State Humanities Councils and funded by the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation. We appreciate their support and invite you to also listen to the related With Good Reason radio episode, “Who Votes,” available at VaBook.org.
Also, thank you to our community partners, Charlottesville Now and the UVA Democracy Initiative, for their help in sharing this event.
Now, I’m pleased to introduce our speakers.
Evette Dionne, author of Lifting as We Climb: Black Women’s Battle for the Ballot Box, is a Black feminist writer and the editor-in-chief of Bitch Media. Her writings about race, gender, and culture have appeared in Teen Vogue, Refinery29, Bustle, Self, The Guardian, and The New York Times, among other publications. Before becoming a writer and editor, Evette taught eighth graders about social justice and tenth graders about world literature.
And our moderator: Martha S. Jones, author of Vanguard: How Black Women Broke Barriers, Won the Vote, and Insisted on Equality for All. She’s a Society of Black Alumni presidential professor and professor of history at Johns Hopkins University. Martha is also president of the Berkshire Conference of Woman Historians, the oldest and largest association of women historians in the United States and is also the author of Birthright Citizens and All Bound Up Together.
Martha and Evette, thank you. We are so honored to have you here with us today. Take it away.
MARTHA S. JONES: Thank you so much, Sarah, and thanks to everybody at the Virginia Festival of the Book for bringing us together and creating a space for this conversation. I am honored, thrilled, just moved to have a chance to be reunited with my sister author, Evette Dionne, to talk about her remarkable and beautiful book, Lifting as We Climb. I want to dive in because, as Sarah was recounting your bio, the thing I didn’t remember is your time as an educator.
For me, one of the hardest questions that I have been asked about the history of Black women and the movement for voting rights is this one. It comes from young people. And what they ask me is why didn’t I learn this in school. Or even more pointedly, they say to me, “Why have you kept this history from us for so long?” And I want to know how you respond to that question because I think it is a question that really goes to the heart of why you’ve written this book.
EVETTE DIONNE: Absolutely, and it’s a pleasure to be reunited with you as well, Dr. Jones. We’ve seen each other quite a bit during this book tour—this virtual book tour we’ve both been on. That’s an excellent question, and it’s also a heartbreaking question for me as a former educator. Because what I often find is that children are naturally inherently curious, and the way in which our school system is set up—that discipline is first and foremost the thing that is prioritized—really squelches that curiosity and that willingness to want to ask questions, whether it’s about lived experience or what it is that they are learning in school. And the heartbreaking part about that is I don’t think that it’s accidental. I do not think that it is accidental or incidental that Black children only really learn Black history for twenty-eight days in February, and they learn about the same Black figures over and over and over again.
If these children—or the same for Latinx children or any child of color—if these children knew from day one the lineage that they come from—what has been done to allow them to exist—it would just open up a realm of possibilities for them. Like they could literally change the world. And our school is not designed—the way that it is designed right now, it is very test-driven. It is very focused on these very specific standards. It is not designed to nurture and to cradle that level of brilliance. So instead, we tell kids to be quiet and sit down.
So, you find them—in my case, for myself, by the time I got to college, there was a whole wealth of knowledge about Black American history that I just did not know. So, you have to go through this process of unlearning, essentially. And what I hope for children from now moving forward—I think the “1619 Project” is doing great work in that regard in terms of having a sliver of that project that focuses on children and a children’s book and children’s curriculum—is that children learn accurate history from the start, and it’s not a threat to the school system and to our broader state, local, and federal government.
MARTHA S. JONES: I want to follow up, but I want to remind folks. If they have questions at any point in our conversation, the Q&A box is open, and I’m happy to share your questions with Evette Dionne. So, to follow up on that, there is a way in which I think your book feels like an intervention into that dilemma, which is how do you—absent the enormous challenge of reforming from the ground up public education in this country—how do we do that? And you’ve written this book that chronicles nearly two hundred years of Black women’s political struggles, their ideas, their activism. What’s your strategy here? Because you’re writing for young people. What’s your strategy? How do you hope you’re going to get them to pick it up outside of the classroom and engage? Because it’s not required reading, at least not yet. You must have a strategy for how you think you’re going to keep young people in this book, engaged with this book.
EVETTE DIONNE: Absolutely. One of the things that I was very conscious about going into writing the book is that it was going to be for young people. And so, I wanted it to be as thorough, as clear, and as accessible for them as possible, and also as truthful as possible. I didn’t want to sugarcoat anything. There are certain parts of it, of course, that you have to explain more than you would have to explain in say an adult book. But for the most part, I wanted students to understand this history. Like full-on understand not only this history but the way in which history happens. Like who gets to write history, who is excluded from history. So, my plan about that is I would absolutely love for my book to be taught in schools. I think that’s essential.
But the other piece of that, and one of the most important pieces—and I talk to folks about this all the time—is we really have to encourage children to develop their own reading diets outside of school. We know that curriculums even now, even with movements like Disrupt Texts and all these different organizations that are trying to diversify the canon of what children read, children are still reading Huckleberry Finn. Like that is the reality. And so, it is up to the adults in their lives outside of schools—so their parents, their guardian figures, any sort of authority figure in their life—to encourage them to develop better reading diets. Because a large part of that too is like teachers are overwhelmed. So even trying to figure out what kids could read outside of school is a lot. We have to work as a village in a community to encourage children to develop these diets that allow them to expand their minds. So, whatever it is they would like to read—making it available to them, accessible to them. This is the reason why librarians and libraries have an eternal purpose in our world. Because they are really essential in that.
And then we have to think long and hard about what curriculum looks like for children. That happens on a policy level, of course. We see this happening in the state of Texas, for instance, where they are trying to ban specific—talking about slavery. In Louisiana, where they’re like we have to teach the positive side of slavery. Things like that. On a policy level, educators have to continue to lobby for the sort of curriculum that they believe best serves children.
MARTHA S. JONES: Yeah. One of the things I loved about diving into this book was you offer us the broad arc of a historical narrative on the one hand, but you have these wonderful biographies. And one of the struggles I had with my book is my editor didn’t want me to include portraits of the women about whom I was writing. He thought portraits were too cliché in a way. And I was like, no, folks want to see the faces. And you do that so well here, right? You give us sketches of many of the women here. I want to know a bit about how you chose the women that you feature and why it was important to include biography along with the kind of historical narrative that you present.
EVETTE DIONNE: Absolutely. Also, wow. About the editing process.
MARTHA S. JONES: I won. I won. It’s okay.
EVETTE DIONNE: Yeah, you won the battle, but it was a battle. It was essential to me and crucial to me to include portraits of these women because photography is political. Who even, prior to the Civil War, could sit down to be photographed is a political choice. In some respects, especially if you had escaped, if you were once on a plantation and you were once enslaved—if you have escaped, sitting down to take a portrait is actually potentially sacrificing your life. It’s putting you in danger. There’s a risk to that. And so being able to see these women and how much they risked, and they sacrificed, not only for themselves and for their immediate families, but for their communities—things that we are still able to benefit from now. You have to be able to see them to imagine that.
I think so often when we think of the women—especially the Black women—of our past, we see them as these heroic figures. Like they did these heroic things. But in actuality, they were very normal women who just chose to go on this path to liberate themselves and to liberate other people. And I wanted people to see that this is possible for anyone. Anyone who feels that fire in their belly, who wants to change the world, can. Even in small ways, whether it’s becoming a teacher—many of these women were educators. Some of them were nurses. They were just active in their community in a way that had impact. It felt really important for children specifically to be able to see these are not superheroes. We’ve not talking about Marvel here. These are actual real women. They had families, and they made a choice about how active they wanted to be in their communities.
Then the other part of that—the biography part for me is very early on I wanted this to feel like a really modern, cool textbook for children. So, I’m introducing all of these people, some of whom they may have heard about before, and some of whom they have not. And I wanted to make sure that they knew these women intimately. So not just what they did but who they were and how the character of who they were shaped what they were able to do. Like go into the world and do.
MARTHA S. JONES: One of the portraits that I didn’t expect to find in this book, but there it is, is a portrait of the great anti-lynching crusader, journalist, and suffragist Ida B. Wells with her children. Just by virtue of that image, you open up a perspective on Wells and the stakes in her work that I think might not always be apparent. So, I loved that part of it. And obviously I agree with you because it was a struggle for me. It was really important.
Let’s dive in a little bit to the book. Because I think one of the things that might surprise some readers is that while this is a book that starts in early America, it does not start in the iconic meeting in Seneca Falls, New York, in 1848. Now you and I both know, as best we can tell, there are no Black women at Seneca Falls in 1848. And so, it is an awkward place to begin the story of Black women and voting rights. But tell us where and how you decide to begin this book once you realize Seneca Falls can’t be the place to start?
EVETTE DIONNE: Yeah, that was actually really tough at first. The first iteration of this book began at Seneca Falls. And then I reread it and was like that’s impossible because Black women weren’t there. Black women were involved in this movement long before Seneca Falls. If I were going to tell this story accurately, I knew that my timeline just had to be longer. It fundamentally had to be. That Black women were struggling for freedom before Seneca Falls and after 1920, and I needed to make that clear and plain to people. And the earliest way in which to do that is thinking about what Black women were doing before the Civil War.
We’re talking about a time in which just existing placed you in danger. Just existing. Which is difficult to picture for us now but in that time was just normal life for these women. And yet, in spite of what it was that they were facing and what could potentially happen to them and happen to their families, they knew that freedom is not an individual endeavor. It’s not something you can achieve as a single person. It’s a collective endeavor. So, it wasn’t I’m going to go to court and free myself from being enslaved. We have to free everyone who is enslaved. We have to do this collectively. And so, they have been pushing and pushing and pushing literally for decades to get it to the point that we’re at now. And of course, we’re still fighting.
But I just knew. I knew inherently, once I went through the first draft, that I had to go back further. And going back further was a little hard because a lot of that documentation is just—the archival research is just really difficult. It’s difficult to parse through. It’s difficult to find. That’s when you really have to call in keen librarians who know their stuff to dig through that. But I think it added an important element to—it’s less about who gets credit. Like that is its own political thing. But who was involved from the very beginning in making this happen?
MARTHA S. JONES: Your shout-out to the librarians, I just want to underscore. And you make this very plain in the footnotes or the endnotes that I know most folks won’t read. But they’re there for a reason, and they’re there because this is the kind of book that stands on the shoulders of so much work over generations. And you so brilliantly pull it together.
I want to pick up on the thread of Black women collectives. I’ll put it this way. I think one of the mistakes that we’ve sometimes made—certainly historians have made this mistake—in trying to write Black women into the history of women’s suffrage and voting rights—the mistake we make is that we keep looking for them in white women suffrage associations. And there just aren’t that many of them there. So where do we have to go, and where do you take us? I think this becomes really vivid in the years after the Civil War as Black women began organizing. How do you help us shift our attention away from the National Women’s Suffrage Association, the American Women Suffrage Association? Where are Black women, and what are they doing?
EVETTE DIONNE: Yeah. As we both know, Black women after the Civil War were like we need our own organizations. For a number of different reasons but primarily because white women suffrage associations were in deep conflict with Black men particularly about these Civil War amendments that granted them access to the ballot box. They were in deep struggle and deep conflict. And within that, the question continually arises: what about Black women? What happens to Black women when these two facets are in conflict with one another? And the reality is, time and time again, Black women then have to spin out and create our own organizations that are focused on our own particularly unique issues that are impacting our communities.
So, from that, you see the forming of a wide swath of these Black women organizations that are focused not only on suffrage—suffrage was important to that. They saw, in many respects, the vote as a way in which to achieve these other aims. But they’re also focused on how do we educate Black children in our community? How can we ensure that the Black people in our community get access to proper medical care? How do we ensure that people know how to budget their money? And the folks are like, nobody is thinking about those things, but they were.
How do we end lynching and other forms of racist violence and racial terror, to be exact, against Black people? How do we make that all a part of the way in which we think about suffrage?
Black women in that way have always been multidimensional. We call it intersectionality now in the way we think about how systems speak with one another. But before that term was coined, we were thinking in that way as organizers and activists and thinkers within our communities. So, you just see these Black women not only forming their own organizations but then trying to push the white woman’s suffrage organizations to think more multidimensionally in the way that they were at that time. And the thing that was really important to me about that part is so often we think about all these movements as separate movements. I wanted to show the continuity of like abolition into suffrage, into the Civil Rights Movement, into the Black freedom movement, into our modern-day voting rights movement that is happening, especially in deep southern states right now. All these things are interconnected, and there are figures that show up from movement to movement, from decade to decade, because these struggles are so closely interlinked.
MARTHA S. JONES: Yeah. My students think that they discovered intersectionality about fifteen minutes ago. So, everyone has to discover in every generation important ideas. But I think one of the things your book does so well is help us appreciate that while even in academic parlance, intersectionality enters our vocabularies through the work of giants like Dr. Kimberley Crenshaw, I think the women you’re describing there at the end of the nineteenth century were already thinking and working and analyzing through intersectional terms. So, it’s been important and enlightening to introduce my students to kind of the long array of that question.
EVETTE DIONNE: Absolutely.
MARTHA S. JONES: I don’t know about you. I’m very influenced by Brittney Cooper’s work on the National Association of Colored Women’s Clubs. And Cooper tells us that the association is a kind of crucible for Black women’s ideas. But it’s also true that, when speaking about them, I certainly get questions that really want me to wrestle with a hard question. Are these elite women? Is there a class problem among the women who dominate—the Black women who dominate our histories of women’s votes and women’s suffrage. How do you think about class and how it figures in this story? Because I think it’s still a question at least that I—every time I try and answer the question, I’m still thinking on my feet about how to actually express that.
EVETTE DIONNE: Absolutely. I am also still thinking on my feet about how to think about both the colorism problem and the class problem within these organizations. So often when I’m thinking about history—and this history particularly—is that we have to put ourselves in that time. I think so often we are trying to put our twenty-first-century lens on what was happening in the nineteenth century in a way that does it a disservice. What I mean by that is we are talking about Black women in the aftermath of the Civil War, many of whom were formerly enslaved and many of whom bought into the idea that the way in which to put treated as an equal, to gain respect and dignity from the people at that time who literally ran the world, who could walk past you and you have to get off the sidewalk. The way in which to achieve some level of respect and dignity is to replicate what it is that you have seen.
And so, if you want to buy into what we call the Cult of True Womanhood, which is you become very educated and very dignified. You’re incredibly feminine. There’s a way in which you carry yourself in this quest for dignity. What then ends up happening is that you’re denigrating impoverished Black women and creating this almost tiered system or hierarchy of we know best because we have gained this level of prestige in our community. And therefore, if you are not on our level, we are going to teach you how to send your kids to send kindergarten and teach you how to budget your money and teach you how to run your household. And that is by far absolutely positively a class problem. It is a colorism problem as well as a class problem to who even gets access to become a nurse at that time—or a teacher. It absolutely is.
Also, I give these women a lot of grace because of their circumstance. These clubs were formed out of a survival need. You give these people a lot of grace because they are also thinking on their feet about how to do this work. We’re not talking about people who have been through grad school. This is a different time. So, I think about these women in terms of being absolutely open and honest about their flaws and being honest about the organization’s flaws and also very clear about the circumstances which those flaws are borne from.
Have you thought through this at all, Dr. Jones, and have insight there? Because you are a full-on historian.
MARTHA S. JONES: I have been. And I’ll say that, on the one hand, I’ve been trying to draw an important distinction, I think, between what Evelyn Brooks Higginbotham taught us about the politics of respectability, which is a strategy—the difference between that and women who thoroughgoingly and wholesale believed themselves to be respectable.
I think what I discovered is that there are many women who practiced the politics of respectability who, when called upon, are not respectable at all. This became very clear to me as I was looking again and again at the stories of Black women who were traveling on streetcars, on railroads, on steamers. Men approached them, insisted they move, that they give up their seats, that they sit in a smoking car or a colored section. And these women throw down, right?
EVETTE DIONNE: Absolutely.
MARTHA S. JONES: Sojourner Truth. Frances Ellen Watkins Harper. Mary Church Terrell. All these women who I think we sort of box into the politics of respectability—we confuse that with what they were prepared to do when confronted and assaulted. Mary Church Terrell tells an amazing story. As a teenager, she’s on a train. She gets accosted by a brakeman, I think, who tries to move her to the other section—the colored section. And she hits him with her parasol until the parasol breaks. And that to me is much more complicated than the politics of respectability. These are women who were really willing to throw down in that way.
EVETTE DIONNE: Absolutely.
MARTHA S. JONES: In my own way, I think I’ve come to have a regard for them, in doing this work, that I didn’t have before. And that complicates, for me, an analysis that leaves them as elites, leaves this as color struck. I think they had many layers to them necessarily, and it wasn’t always about comportment and respectability and restraint. It was a very rough world that they occupied as they tried to make politics.
EVETTE DIONNE: Absolutely.
MARTHA S. JONES: And I think that we haven’t said enough even yet about the kind of violence that wreaks havoc on the lives of many of these activist women. We haven’t even really gotten to that full story yet. I think that work still needs to be done, in my view.
EVETTE DIONNE: Absolutely.
MARTHA S. JONES: So, I think that’s changing my mind.
EVETTE DIONNE: Agreed. Completely agreed.
MARTHA S. JONES: So, let me ask you about the Nineteenth Amendment. We marked the one hundred years from the Nineteenth Amendment in 2020. Your book clearly was an essential contribution to ensuring that commemoration would not forget, would not overlook Black women. And we are deeply indebted to you for that. But I do think myths persist about the Nineteenth Amendment. The one that I want to ask you about is the one that I still hear frequently invoked, which is that no Black women get the vote in 1920. That Black women are left out of the Nineteenth Amendment. Can you help us think about that with some nuance? Because I still think that we’re not quite on the same page about that.
EVETTE DIONNE: We are not. We are not on the same page at all. In the immediate aftermath of the passage of the Nineteenth Amendment, Black women were voting and voting in record numbers. That is the reality. For several years after the passage of the Nineteenth Amendment. But what often happens in the United States in particular is whenever there is perceived progress in that way, there is immediate racial backlash. It may take five years. It may take ten years. It may be immediate. But there is always first progress and then racial backlash that is couched as something else. We see this in the aftermath of Reconstruction and then again in the passage of the Nineteenth Amendment. And so, what we see happening is that Black women not only were voting in droves but beginning to organize around the potential of running for office and electing—I mean, Ida B. Wells helped elect Chicago’s first Black alderman because of this organization that she created (the Alpha Suffrage Club) there. So, you see Black women organizing around putting people in positions of leadership to really care about and think through their conditions.
And then we see the ushering in of racial backlash. So, you see the ushering full on of Jim Crow after that, with the poll taxes and the poll tests and the possibility of you being run off your land if you attempted to register to vote, as happened to Fannie Lou Hamer. You see the intimidation factor of that. Because what happens is folks realize that if you give Black people the power to vote, it changes everything. Full on. Unencumbered access to the ballot box changes everything. And so that’s why it took another forty-five years essentially for Black people to gain full unencumbered access to the right to vote. Because of the recognition that if Black people vote in the numbers even that we’ve recently seen, an opposing party has no chance. And we think collectively around voting as well, and I do a level of harm reduction in the way in which we tend to vote and the way in which we think politically as Black people, especially Black American people.
So, yes, Black women were active politically. And even in the time of the full on ushering in of Jim Crow after that, Black women were still heavily engaged in this fight to gain the right to vote. I tell the story all the time that Rosa Parks was really an organizer when Martin Luther King was in high school. This work continues and it continues, and it continues, and Black women are so often at the forefront of it.
MARTHA S. JONES: I think the example of Ida Wells that you raise and the Alpha Suffrage Club putting Oscar De Priest—the first alderman in Chicago and then by 1928 to Congress. The first Black man to sit in Congress since 1901. It’s a phenomenal tribute to the ways in which when Black women can vote—when they can cast those ballots, when those ballots are counted—they’re already voting as a bloc to move the needle on Election Day. And obviously that’s a story that rings very familiar for those of us sitting here in 2021.
The other thing about this book is that it doesn’t end in 1920, and that might surprise readers who think this is a story about the battle for the ballot box, as in the Nineteenth Amendment. But say a little bit more really about where you end this book. Because this, for me, was a challenge. And I imagine it was for you, sitting where you were. It was 2018, it was 2019, and we know you’ve got to put the last words on the final chapter, and you don’t really know what’s going to happen. How do you decide where to end this book and why?
EVETTE DIONNE: Yes. I never could have predicted, writing the epilogue in my book, Kamala Harris. It wasn’t even in my periphery. I did not see it coming, which is why Kamala Harris is not in that final chapter. My book ends with Stacey Abrams, and it ends with the organization that Stacey Abrams is running down there in Georgia, and it ends with the Shelby County decision from the Supreme Court that gutted the heart and soul of the Voting Rights Act and ushered in a new wave of voter suppression. And it ends there because this battle is eternal. I cried writing that entire final chapter of the book. I tell people this all the time. I cried and I cried, and I cried. Because thinking back to two hundred years of history to end up here again is heart-wrenching and it is heartbreaking. But the hope is that then we see what ten years’ worth of work on Stacey Abrams’ part and all those organizers down there in Georgia—to do what they did in the 2020 election and defy all odds to win two Senate seats is just remarkable. It’s remarkable work. It’s a long game that they have been playing that they’re still in the battle for but have won a round of.
Ending it there felt essential. To not only look at the fact that progress is very tenuous—it just is. It’s very fragile. It can be undone with a single Supreme Court decision. That’s how fragile it is. But also, to give people hope that there are new people rising to take this baton from the women who died, to be quite frank. I’m very clear from part to part in this book how many women just did not make it to 1920, did not make it to 1965, did not make it to see Barack Obama. To show that there are women who are willing to pick up that baton and to keep running that race. That felt really important: to not only look at the hard part of that but the hope part.
I’ve learned from this abolitionist organizer named Mariame Kaba that hope is a discipline. And I felt like the last chapter of this book served that purpose.
MARTHA S. JONES: Yeah. Well, before we wind up, let’s just talk for a moment about Kamala Harris. I certainly was tuned in just last night as President Biden was delivering his joint address, and there she was presiding alongside Nancy Pelosi. Yet another moment for the history books yet to be written. But I don’t know if you were like me back last August of 2020. It was the moment of the Democratic National Convention, and Kamala Harris was there in plum and pearls, and she was going to accept the Democratic nomination. I was like, to my family, okay. Everybody—devices are quiet.
EVETTE DIONNE: Yeah, got to watch this.
MARTHA S. JONES: I need to hear every word that this woman says. Because I’m hardly clairvoyant. It was clear she was going to have to tell us who she was, and the history out of which her ascent now to become the Democratic running mate of Joe Biden—she was going to have to explain for the country where that came from. Now you and I might’ve already known the answer. But when she gave the answer, it was extraordinary.
And I just want to not quote her but paraphrase her. She explains she stands on the shoulders of the women who have come before her. That includes her own mother. But then she offers a litany, a pantheon of six. Mary Church Terrell, Mary McLeod Bethune, Diane Nash, Fannie Lou Hamer, Constance Baker Motley, and Shirley Chisholm. So, what’s going through your mind in this moment, when you realize that Kamala Harris—if she hasn’t read your book, she knows it. And she’s now offering the country and the world, frankly—because the whole world is tuned in—this lesson that you have told in Lifting as We Climb?
EVETTE DIONNE: That we have told in our sister books. That we have told. It was so touching to me. And I don’t get moved by a lot of political theater. That’s what I call it. There’s not a lot that moves me. But to watch her give the world a history lesson about these Black women, many of whom they may have never heard about before, on a world stage is so touching when you think about—you know, so often we think about people in politics as overnight successes. Or we think about them just having quote-unquote it. The charisma. The ability to walk into a room and dazzle people.
But Kamala Harris understands uniquely how much groundwork had to be laid for her to become a quote-unquote overnight success, to become a political star. The fact that she is so in tune with that—and every politician has their flaws. And I’m not a person who puts politicians on a pedestal whatsoever. I understand that they are there to do work. For her to understand inherently and deeply how important it was in that moment to acknowledge all of the women who laid that groundwork for her just shows how important that history is and how forgotten that history is in the year in which we were celebrating and commemorating the Nineteenth Amendment. It touched me so deeply.
And then I started thinking about how many of those women just did not get to see that moment. How proud they would’ve been. How proud Ida B. Wells-Barnett would’ve been. How proud Mary Church Terrell would’ve been. To see that moment of her acknowledging all of the work that they did.
And I also hope that it encouraged people to go google. Go google, go read, go find out about these women. Because the way in which they have influenced so much of our political thought is incomparable. It’s priceless. And I’m glad that she recognized it in that moment.
MARTHA S. JONES: Yeah. I feel like it was the biggest pop quiz on history that I had ever been witness to. And I have borrowed from her. Just reading that list of names for folks and leaving them with those names. Saying now this is your homework. I think that’s part of where we are in 2021. Taking this history that you have so beautifully told in Lifting as We Climb and now putting it in the hands of folks who need to do homework in order to appreciate the political moment in which we find ourselves in 2021. I don’t think you can understand the significance of what we witnessed last night on the floor of Congress with Kamala Harris presiding if you haven’t walked through this history. It is not the history of Jefferson and Washington or Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony or frankly even Martin King or Thurgood Marshall. Really what you do so beautifully and importantly in this book is help us appreciate how this is a distinctly Black women’s chapter in American political history. And some of us have been steeped in that chapter for longer than others, but this is the moment in 2021 for readers—young readers and older readers alike. This is an opportunity to really get up to speed and be ready for what is in front of us in the twenty-first century.
EVETTE DIONNE: Absolutely.
MARTHA S. JONES: It is my job to wrap us up, but not without first saying thank you so much, Evette Dionne, for this book, for all the work you do. Because I am a great follower of yours on social media and more. And so, we look very much forward to what is next. And I think with that, I’m going to again thank everybody at the Virginia Festival of the Book and invite Sarah Lawson to come back on with a few closing words. Thank you so much, Sarah.
EVETTE DIONNE: Thank you, Dr. Jones. And thank you, Sarah.
SARAH LAWSON: Yeah, thank you both. Thank you for sharing your time and all of your expertise and just great conversation today with us and with everyone who has tuned in. Thank you to those who have tuned in for spending your afternoon with us, and we hope you’ll all consider buying Evette and Martha’s books. There are links in the chat to each of them, and you can also find out more on VaBook.org. Further, you can also explore other upcoming virtual events that we have from the Virginia Festival of the Book at VaBook.org, and we hope to see you again soon. Thank you again, everyone, and have a good rest of your day.