Anna Julia Cooper’s best-known written work, A Voice from the South by a Black Woman of the South, was published in 1892. This collection of essays and speeches, described by Mary Helen Washington as an “unparalleled articulation of black feminist thought” and by Beverley Guy-Sheftall as the first book length Black feminist text, emphasizes the import of a woman’s voice and her unique contributions while at the same time highlighting the racialization of gender and the sexualization of race. Cooper takes an intersectional approach to examining the interlocking systems of race, gender, and class oppression—explicitly articulating how Black women are simultaneously impacted by racism (the race problem) and sexism (the woman question) and yet she is either an unknown or unacknowledged (by white women, white men, or Black men) factor in examining or eliminating these systems of oppression. For these reasons, Cooper argues, Black women have a unique epistemological standpoint from which to observe society and its oppressive systems as well as a unique ethical contribution to make in confronting and correcting these oppressive systems. Other central themes in Voice include the importance of education and intellectual development; the necessity of respecting difference and the special contribution that each racial group makes for human progress; an economic, materialist, and existential conceptualization of value or worth; and a theory of truth. Thus, this seminal text has philosophical import not only for feminist philosophy, standpoint theory, and epistemology, but also for Critical Philosophy of Race and African American philosophy.
Anna Julia Cooper’s Voice was published less than 30 years after the 1865 13th Amendment to the Constitution which declared: “Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States, or any place subject to their jurisdiction.” Select major works that come before Cooper’s Voice include Memoirs of Elleanor Eldridge (1838); Religious Experience and the Journal of Mrs. Jarena Lee, Giving an Account of Her Call to Preach the Gospel (1849); Narrative of SojournerTruth (1850) and the “Ain’t I a Woman” remarks attributed to Sojourner Truth (from the 1851 Women’s convention in Akron, OH); Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass (1845) and Douglass’s My Bondage and My Freedom (1855); and Martin Delany’s The Origins of Races and Color (1879).
Significantly, Cooper’s Voice is published before Booker T. Washington’s famous “Atlanta Address” (1895), his autobiographical works The Story of My Life and Work (1896) and Up From Slavery (1901), as well as Washington’s historic two-volume The Story of the Negro (1909). It is also published ahead of W.E.B. Du Bois’s well-known “The Conservation of Races” (1897) speech, the publication of The Souls of Black Folk (composed of essays and speeches written by Du Bois between 1897 and 1903), and Darkwater: Voices from Within the Veil (1920) which not only borrows the language of Cooper’s book title, but also relies on Cooper’s astute insights on race and gender. As Mary Helen Washington and Joy James have noted, Du Bois quoted a passage from Cooper’s “Womanhood: A Vital Element in the Regeneration and Progress of a Race,” in his essay “The Damnation of Women” from Darkwater, however; he truncates Cooper’s full argument in his selective quotations and he fails to acknowledge her as the source of the quote.
Cooper’s scholarly contributions beyond A Voice from the South include her translation of the classic French text Le Pèlerinage de Charlemagne in 1917 and, of course, her dissertation—L’attitude de la France à l’égard l’esclavage pendant la revolution (later translated by Frances Richardson Keller Slavery and the French Revolutionists) which she defended in Paris, France at the Sorbonne in 1925. Cooper became the fourth African American woman in the US to earn a Ph.D. and accomplishes this feat the same year as Alain Locke publishes two seminal writings. Locke, having earned a Ph.D. in philosophy from Harvard University in 1918, on the topic “The Problem of Classification in Theory of Value” goes on to publish “Harlem: Mecca of the New Negro” and then the book length version The New Negro: An Interpretation in 1925. There are several newspaper articles announcing Cooper’s achievement, but the event itself, and perhaps more importantly the scholarly contributions made by Cooper in her thesis, seems to slip into oblivion. Cooper’s project examines the ways in which attitudes about race and the institution of slavery in France and San Dominique impacted conceptualizations of rights and freedom in the contexts of the French and Haitian Revolutions (and the Age of Reason and Revolution more generally). This work by Cooper is quite significant insofar as the Haitian Revolution is too often overlooked in relation to the American and French Revolutions, and furthermore, there was a United States military occupation of Haiti at the time she wrote it (1914–1935). Cooper’s dissertation offers an insightful and yet underappreciated analysis of the Haitian Revolution that could be paired well with, for example, C.L.R. James’s The Black Jacobins.