Black History Month spotlight
Kibibi Mack-Shelton, PhD '91, lecturer of Africana Studies at the University of Maryland in Baltimore County, is the author of the recently-published Ahead of Her Time in Yesteryear: Geraldyne Pierce Zimmerman Comes of Age in a Southern African-American Family. Zimmerman, a teacher in Orangeburg, S.C., earned a reputation as a maverick in a community where race and class were very much governed by the Jim Crow laws. When "separate but equal" usually meant suffering and injustice for the Black community, families such as the Zimmermans achieved a level of financial and social success rivaling that of many White families.
What inspired you to write about Geraldyne Pierce Zimmerman?
The inspiration actually came from my first book, Parlor Ladies and Ebony Drudges (University of Tennessee Press, 1999), for which I interviewed many Black women to get a sense of how life was between the close of slavery up to the 1940s. The various interviews with "Mrs. Z", as she is affectionately called, in which she talked about her family and other events she recalled from the era, led to the theme of this second book. Once we finished our formal interview sessions, I continued to listen to her recollections of her childhood experiences. During these chit-chats, I grew more fascinated about how southern African-American families reared their children in the early 20th century and, particularly, how they reared their female children compared to their male offspring. The more she talked about her youth, both humorously and seriously, the more interested I was becoming in the person herself and realized that she was sharing a culture that has been totally lost or revised in Black families and, more importantly, a history that has continually been overlooked in modern scholarship.
I was trained at Binghamton in women's history and from many years of teaching courses in African-American history, I knew that these particular themes about child rearing in the early southern Black families have been excluded. As a southern Black woman myself, I was particularly interested in comparing and contrasting this culture from the late antebellum era in South Carolina up to the mid-20th century when I was born and, as a southern Black women's historian, I wanted to focus exclusively on this exceptional, historically rich, influential woman, Mrs. Zimmerman. I began this book when she was in her mid-90s and the book was released weeks before her upcoming 100th birthday on March 5, allowing her to read her family's story.
How was it that African-Americans in Zimmerman’s time in Orangeburg could live such affluent lifestyles?
Basically, it was "higher education" that made the difference between a significant minority of African-Americans living financially comfortable lives compared to the majority of both Blacks and Whites in Orangeburg and all of South Carolina. Initially, when I wrote Parlor Ladies, which compares and contrasts the lives of Black women within the Orangeburg, S.C. community, I knew that there were going to be differences based on their socio-economic realities yielding very different work, religious, cultural, marital and leisure experiences among them. However, as I began my research which included oral interviews, I was very surprised to learn of the wide household cultural discrepancies found among Blacks, such as the upper class having as many as four or five Black domestic servants within their homes to perform assorted tasks. I was also surprised to learn of the subtle ways that these Black women employed to resist racism or White insults, including one elite Black woman who made a White insurance man remove his hat upon entering her home and another who scolded a White male for calling her "Auntie" - the term Whites used to refer to older Black women. The most shocking resistance was hearing how these cooks retaliated by spitting in the food they cooked for White families.
What influenced your career choice?
When I attended Northwestern University in the late 1970s, my intention was to earn a doctorate degree on women in West Africa; however, I had a toddler and an infant and was not keen on the idea of traveling with them to Africa to do research, nor was I willing to separate from them by leaving them in the care of my husband for a year. Hence, I abandoned this course of study and decided to focus instead on African-American women in the South. When my husband took a teaching position at Binghamton in the Africana Studies department in 1983, I was equally excited because I knew that Binghamton had one of the few history departments with a focus on women's history. I entered the program and began the most wonderful learning process; however, it was also in the history department where I not only was strongly influenced by the teaching style of Akbar Muhammad, whose storytelling teaching method affirmed my love of history and the decision to become a professor, but it was in my women's history seminars that shaped my research choice to become a historian of Southern Black women.
Tell us about some of your current teaching interests.
I am a historian, an African-Americanist, who truly enjoys teaching about the African-American experience. I particularly enjoy teaching the first part of the African-American history survey - "African-American History to 1865" - so that I can have my students examine the traditional African background first before the advent of American chattel slavery. Allowing me to explain to them that Black people's history did not begin in slavery, I appreciate seeing the reactions of my students as they learn the details about this information for the first time; enjoy the unfolding of their understanding of the interrelatedness of African culture and African-American culture; and appreciate their interests in reviewing primary data that provides the actual voices of both slaves and freed Blacks during this period.
What are you working on now?
To date, I have written a few history books for youth; reviewed scholarly books; have a 2012 forthcoming co-edited book - Volume 2 of a five-volume set of books on the writings of my graduate school mentor/advisor and former history professor at Binghamton, the late Elizabeth Fox-Genovese; two scholarly books on the subject of southern Black women's history; and I'm working on a third book tentatively called Black Grits Advice Book on Raising Black Ladies First: What Every Black Mother Must Do Herself, Teach Her Young Daughters and Tell Her Older Ones.
This current project was inspired from the researching of Ahead of Her Time in Yesteryear. In doing so, I read quite an amount of literature that focused on proper etiquette, proper behavior of girls and so forth and was pleasingly surprised to find some of this literature to be written by Blacks and speaking specifically to Black families or Black girls, including Azalia Hackley's, Colored Girl Beautiful, and Charlotte H. Brown's, The Correct Thing to Do, to Say, among others. These books were written in the early 1900s and were empowering tools. Hence, as I look critically at modern day child rearing practices in Black families, I thought it would be interesting to write a book that revisits some of these "old-fashioned" ways of how Black girls were raised historically and, simultaneously, provide modern-day advice that improves the raising of Black girls to becoming both civil and empowered females.
Future research includes writing a comparative history on some aspect of shared culture between southern Black women, West African women and Caribbean women; a history of a Black Catholic school in South Carolina founded by the Oblate Sisters of Maryland - the first Order of Black Nuns in the U.S.; and a book that examines the Black washerwomen (laundresses) who played a major role in early American households.
What does Black History Month mean to you?
For me, Black History Month has a different meaning to me based on my age from childhood to present. For example, as an elementary- to middle age-school child, it meant learning about these special Black people during "Black History Week" who did all these great things that I now had to memorize in order to pass a test or in order to recite my part in a play effectively. As a child who attended an all-Black Catholic kindergarten, an all-Black public school for a few years and then an all-Black private school through middle school in the 1960s segregated South, Black History Week's significance was "no big deal" to me since I would be learning about the same famous people like Charles Drew or Harriet Tubman.
As a teenager in high school in the 1970s, Black History for me meant having this "air of pride" and an "attitude of self-righteousness" in front of my White teachers and my majority White class mates in hopes that they were feeling some sense of guilt from their ancestral history of enslaving my ancestors during the entire week. It was the time for me to be that "accepted", though temporary, "black militant" by sporting my Afro, wearing my homemade African dashiki and pinning on my red, black and green button or earrings with the printed words, "black power". Other than that, Black History meant getting out of classes to attend various assemblies in celebration of that "week". My memories of Black History are rather nebulous during my college days in the mid-1970s, as I attended an all-Black college in Maryland and probably opted out of attending most of the festivities on campus unless one of the militant speakers like Stokely Carmichael or poet Sonia Sanchez came to speak.
Today, however, Black History Month for me is every month, every day, every minute. As Black folks live and exist anywhere, they are still in the process of making history. I truly look forward to one day where our U.S. history books will be equally inclusive of all peoples and cultures to the point where now our society will no longer need a separate "Women's History Month" in March or a "Black History Month" in February and so forth.
What do you consider your greatest achievement in life, so far?
I have both a most prized achievement and a greatest achievement in life. First my most prized achievement would be the responsibility of single-handedly taking care of my elderly mom in my own home, a promise that I made to her when I was a young married mother in my early 20s. When my mom was diagnosed with moderate Alzheimer's in 2005 where she was still able to live alone in South Carolina and take care of herself, I traveled once a month to monitor her progression as well as spent all of my summer and holiday vacations with her. In 2008, when my mother's condition worsened, I opted to leave my full-time teaching post for a part-time one so that I could relocate her to Maryland to reside with us; in doing this, I left a prestigious endowed chair university appointment in order to take care of her personally and spend quality time with her while she still had good memory. Putting her in a nursing home was never an option for me and, though she no longer knows I am her daughter, I still enjoy being her primary caretaker and have never regretted my decision. As I now seek to return to full-time teaching, I truly feel that this experience will always be my most prized achievement.
My greatest achievement in life is being a mother. I have four daughters who are each intellectually gifted and talented with successful careers. My greatest achievement, however, was not raising these bright, successful daughters but raising four independent, feisty, civic-minded females who practice both humility and civility by myself once I was divorced from their father when they were very young. Today, when I meet people who praise me for having "such nice girls" or "for doing such a nice job of raising them" I realized these will always be words that speak volumes. Being a mother who has successfully performed a most difficult task of raising four children largely by myself who are respectful and good citizens will continue to always be my greatest accomplishment.