Forever known here at Nunez Daughter as “Womanism Month.”
Troubling that false boundary between Hispanic Heritage Month (Sep-Oct), Black History Month (Feb) and Women’s History Month (Mar), I’m going to make a commitment to posting everyday on an ancestress of color who inspires and galvanizes me.
I’ve actually been meaning to do some ancestress work for awhile. Too busy. Too much research. Got teaching to do. Got academic writing to do. Got this. Got that.
I forgot how much this writing and this space galvanizes me. I needed a reminder. And it will be nice to look back in April and see thirty one beautiful, brown warrior women looking back at me.
Today, I honor black diasporan ancestress–the first African-American female (oral) historian to be recognized by the white establishment, i.e. perhaps our first black female academic–Alice of Dunk’s Ferry:
According to Charles L. Blockson, Alice was born around 1686 to slave parents from Barbados in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. At the age of ten, her owner moved her up the Delaware River to Dunk’s Ferry, where she lived for the rest of her life.
Alice’s day job was toll-collecting, but she became known for telling vivid stories that wove memory with historical moments. Although she could not read, she would wax eloquent on Biblical Scripture (according to Frances Foster Smith, she was known to make “impertinent” remarks vis a vis her interpretation). She was vivacious and clever, and could describe early years of Philadelphia’s Christ Church. An Episcopal institution, Christ Church welcomed free and enslaved blacks, operated a school and ordained the first black Episcopal priest, Absalom Jones, in 1795. Alice’s griot work was not limited to memories of the church. She spoke of William Penn, James Logan and the first years of settlement.
Alice lived to 116 years and died, still enslaved, still working, and with a library of early Pennsylvania history in her head. At 96, she was still riding on horseback to attend church service.
The picture above is the only period likeness we have of Alice. In 2009, Al Gury, professor at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts, choose to paint a representation of Alice in her younger years:
Griot, historian, performer and slave. Elder–and what must it have been like to grow older, to watch Philadelphia change around her, watch blacks arrive as slaves and as free black sailors or servants, to see men working the port, or women doing laundry, market work, employed in taverns. To see the black population grow slowly but surely, see the beginnings of one of the most historic, wealthy and influential free black communities of the United States: home of Richard Allen (future founder of the African Methodist Episcopal Church) and Absalom Jones; the Free African Society (founded in 1787); and a population of 6,400 free blacks by 1800. Would she have felt obsolete, trying to tell stories to her children? Would they have listened? Did she have children? Did she remain close to her parents (or they to her) from twenty miles away? She would have died just after conflict between black and white parishioners at Christ Church reached its climax due to segregated seating arrangements and other restrictions–right after Jones and Allen founded their own church, St. Thomas Episcopal in 1794. What did she think of that? Or did the exclusivity of the Free African Society–only eight original members, Jones, Allen, Cato Freeman, Samuel Baston, Joseph Johnston, Caesar Cranchell, James Potter and William White were all free and men–turn her off?
With no answers to spare, but in honor of your exuberant company, Nuñez Daughter thanks you simply for being. Happy Womanism Month.