Integrating The Transformational Writings of bell hooks Into Formal Education

By Hannah McCandless

Hannah is a first year student in the Women’s History Program at Sarah Lawrence College.

Growing up in the South, my exposure to black women writers in an academic setting was far and few between. Though late in my academic career, I distinctly recall three instances that led me to uncovering the absolute importance and prolific writings of black women. It was not until a Women and Literature class in college first led me to the poetry of bell hooks. It was not until some free time during a gap year and a used bookstore’s 50% off sale led me to Maya Angelou’s I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings. And it was not until a Master’s level course on women’s history led me to the historical fiction novel, Beloved written by Toni Morrison. In each of these experiences, I found myself enveloped by the masterful writings of black women who, prior to a few years earlier, I had little to no knowledge of.

Reflecting on this absence gives an easy to find but troubling answer: the writings of white men are predominantly taught from kindergarten through college. This form of institutional racism and sexism is not necessarily a surprise to many, especially those studying race and gender, but it is frustrating nonetheless. Outside of two classes specifically focusing on women and women writers, and a stroke of luck in a bookstore, my exposure to black women writers was abysmal. The lack of available classes covering women and African American Studies were in large part to blame. But even then, this was at the collegiate level. What about the lack of black women writers in elementary through high school?

With that information in mind, this blog post aims to present the works of bell hooks, one of the most influential feminist writers of the past forty years, as one possible author whose work can be used by educators from kindergarten onwards. It is the hope that these examples will help educators integrate bell hooks, and other black women authors, into their curriculums in order to foster a more holistic and representative educational experience.

Something especially exciting about bell hooks’ work is that she also wrote children’s books in addition to writing poetry and feminist theories. Published in 1999 and illustrated by Chris Raschka, Happy to Be Nappy shows all of the exciting ways in which girls with “nappy” hair can wear and be proud of their hair styles. Published in 2002, Homemade Love is a story which helps children understand what it means to be unconditionally loved. Both books promote representation for black girls and are easily accessible for kids of all backgrounds. These books can easily be integrated into the story times of pre-K and kindergarten aged students, further broadening kids’ horizons.

Moving into upper elementary and middle school, much of hooks’ poetry, which can be found in her book And There We Wept, can be taught to students as an entry point in their exposure to poetry. Often a part of the Language Arts portion of learning, students begin learning about poetry as early as the first grade and continue through high school. Some of her more academic works, such as Ain’t I a Woman?: Black Women and Feminism, published in 1981, and Feminist Theory: From Margin to Center, published in 1984, are both books which can be as educational tools to inform students on the social importance and implications of feminism, as well as some of the earlier writings on intersectional feminism. Students in high school and college can be challenged to broaden their views of the world and on culture through her writings. hooks is especially accessible for students in this age range because many of her books, articles, and other published works do not rely on overly formal or academic writing.  

Looking back, I feel a deep sadness about my lack of exposure to black women writers. I wonder what my life might have been like had I read the works of Alice Walker, Audre Lorde, or Angela Davis much earlier. I truly believe that they would have changed my perspective on everything from politics to representation to feminism. With bell hooks specifically, her writing has been the most understandable and tangible for me to read and comprehend. Her theory is not bogged down by unnecessarily big words, and her writing is a critique of everyday life. This exposure can put many more on the path toward an intentional critique of culture and of self, opening the doors of activism for young people everywhere.

Educating students of all ages through the writings of black women is integral to a more whole and intersectional education, an education which teaches the ideas of many rather than a select few. School boards can be persuaded by those in the community to change their reading lists. School boards can also be voted out of office when they are not pushing for the best educational experience for students. As a citizen, you can use your power to advocate and vote for the inclusion and representation of black women writers in your school’s curriculum. For more information about your state’s educational requirements, visit your state’s Department of Education web page or contact your school district directly to find out what students are being taught.

Aida Overton Walker: Queen of the Cakewalk

By Hannah McCandless

Hannah is a first year student in the Women’s History Graduate Program at Sarah Lawrence College.

In New York City on Valentine’s Day in 1880, Aida Overton Walker, originally named Ada Wilmon Overton, was born in Greenwich Village. Born to seamstress Pauline Whitfield and waiter Moses Overton, Ada was their second child with an instinctual love of dance. Recognizing her talent early, Overton’s parents enrolled Ada in a formal dance training program in Manhattan.

Graduating from Mrs. Thorp’s formal dance training school around 1897, Overton briefly toured with the Black Patti’s Troubadours before scoring an opportunity to model with Bert Williams and George Walker. The Troubadours were a group of musical and acrobatic acts comprised of trained classical dancers, singers, jugglers, and comedians. Though Overton was only briefly a part of this troupe, it is important to note that the leader of this troupe, Matilda Sissieretta Joyner Jones, was among the most successful entertainers of her time. Jones, among other firsts, was the first African American person to sing in the famous Music Hall in 1892, which was renamed Carnegie Hall the following year.

Williams and Walker debuted their popular vaudeville performance at the Koster and Bial’s Music Hall, making Overton’s modeling and later cakewalk performance with the men widely viewed. At the young age of fifteen, this visibility propelled Overton to join the Octoroons, one of the most successful black touring groups of the time. During her time with this group, one critic said, “I have just observed the greatest girl dancer.” Her popularity soared as she became a regular on the scene as a dancer and singer.

As her career developed, Overton began performing a sister act with Grace Halliday in 1898. By 1899, Overton began performing in more serious solo acts, singing songs like “Miss Hannah from Savannah” and “Leading Lady.” Her voice was described by one critic as having a “low-pitched… natural sob” which Overton knew “how to use with telling effect in putting over a song.” Another critic spoke of her dancing in all forms, whether a cakewalk, buck-and-wing, or any “grotesque” dancing as a performance full of “gracefulness of movement which was unsurpassed by anyone.”

Marrying George Walker in 1899, the two became the premiere cakewalking couple, performing a form of “black modernist expression” which wowed audiences including royalty, the white elite, and many a concert stage. The couple spent some years touring in Europe before returning to the US in hopes of changing and challenging the harmful stereotypes of black actors and actresses, as well as black people in general.

Changing her name from Ada to Aida in 1903, Overton Walker began performing more complicated and challenging pieces, as well as changing the form of dance known as the cakewalk. The cakewalk was originally part of a slave culture which allowed for black couples to gather and poke fun at the masters by walking as a couple down a line mimicking the slave owner. A cake was given to the couple who did the best walk. As a part of Overton Walker’s attempt to dispel the historically harmful stereotypes of the dance, the couple developed a form of dance they termed “the modern cakewalk” which included a graceful and elegant form of dance. This form of dance was performed in many dance halls and theaters.

The form of dance that the couple developed became an expression of their belief in “racial uplift,” a theory influenced by W. E. B. Dubois’s “talented tenth.” The “talented tenth” is an idea that designates a class of African Americans as leaders in the early 20th century. Overton and Walker began performing in such a way which they believed raised the status of all African American people.

Outside of their time working together to perform a modern take on the cakewalk, the couple performed in many other works, always refusing to perform roles which portrayed racial stereotypes. Among her goals, Overton Walker focused on a commitment to improving the lives of African American women morally, culturally, socially, and in material goods. Overton Walker often verbalized that her form of performance was a reaction to the stereotypes of actresses as “morally unfit,” stating “I venture to think and dare to state that our profession does more toward the alleviation of color prejudice than any other profession among colored people.” This early form of feminism was very empowering for other female African American performers.

In early 1911, Overton Walker’s husband, George Walker, fell ill and died. Though saddened by her loss, Overton Walker pushed on in her career, even dressing as “Bud Jenkins,” the character played by her husband before his death, in some performances. One of the first women to dress in drag, Overton Walker was widely acclaimed for her success in singing her husband’s song “Bon Bon Buddy.” From here, her solo career relaunched.

In July of the same year, Overton Walker formed her own vaudeville unnamed troupe with one male and eight females. Dressing up as and singing as a man became a part of her new performance in this troupe, something which many crowds enjoyed. Of the times she performed with her troupe and with others in the dance community, the only critique she regularly received was that she was not on stage enough, as audiences always seemed to be wanting more.

Though her last public appearance was in July of 1914, Aida danced up until two months before her early death in October of the same year. At the young age of 34, her death was caused by kidney disease. Aida Overton Walker is remembered today, the day after her birthday, as a woman who paved the way for a more whole and less problematic view of African American performers and African American women at large. Her work built a path for many who came after her, pushing the boundaries ever further toward acceptance on and off stage. On this day, we remember and thank a woman who broke barriers and set the stage for many black women performers to come.




Redefining Representation in Comics: Jackie Ormes

By Marian Phillips

Marian is a first year graduate student in the Women’s History Program at Sarah Lawrence College.

Zelda Mavin Jackson, famously known as Jackie Ormes was born in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania in 1911 to William and Mary Jackson. In 1917, an automobile accident resulted in the death of her father, causing she and her family to relocate to Monongahela, a suburb of the Pittsburgh area. During high school, Ormes realized her passion for drawing and writing. It wasn’t long until she submitted her pieces to the weekly African American newspaper, the Pittsburgh Courier. The first article she wrote covered a boxing match, resulting in her professional career as a full-time journalist at the paper.

While Ormes enjoyed writing on local and national news, as well as reporting on sporting events as an avid fan, her true passion was drawing. In 1937, the Courier distributed Ormes’s first comic strip Torchy Brown in Dixie to Harlem. Once the paper published Torchy, Jackie Ormes became the first African American woman cartoonist, and is regarded as such to this very day. While the strip only ran until 1938, she continued to create new and innovative cartoons that depicted African American life, family, and relationships.

Once having left the Pittsburgh based paper, Ormes moved to Chicago in 1942 and the single panel comic Candy appeared in The Chicago Defender. It was the longest running and most popular African American newspaper in the United States at the time. With Ormes as a contributor, the popularity of the paper continued to grow across the nation. Her short-lived panel in the Defender featured Candy, an attractive African American housemaid that was comical and wisecracking. When Ormes moved her work back to the Courier, she created her longest running comic titled Patty-Jo ‘n’ Ginger, featuring a big-little sister dynamic duo. Patty Jo, the younger sister, was a socially and politically aware child that called out injustices in public and in conversations with her older sister Ginger. As a result of the popularity of Patty-Jo, Ormes signed a contract with the Terri Lee doll company to produce the revolutionary Patty-Jo doll.

The doll held a larger meaning by symbolizing an empowered black girl that didn’t put up with social or political injustices. Patty-Jo was a remarkable and revolutionary character, and her sister Ginger symbolized feminine beauty and strength for African American women. She subverted media stereotypes of black womanhood as non-sexual and unattractive. Ginger was not a sex-symbol so to speak, she was a character that combated racist depictions of African American women by contradicting them.

After the eleven year run of Patty-Jo ‘n’ Ginger, Torchy reappeared in the Courier in 1950 as the eight-page color insert Torchy in Heartbeats. The insert featured the titular character searching for true love. On her journey, she rejected misogyny, sexism, and overtly sexual flirtations. Ormes’s intent to create an African American feminist icon were realized in Torchy. She was politically active, and in her last issue, so was her significant other. When the last comic featuring Torchy was released in 1954, she and her boyfriend combatted pollution and the environmental crisis. Ormes instilled the importance of activism in all sectors of life in the comics she created.

Shortly after the end of Torchy, Ormes retired from creating cartoons. While living in Chicago in 1985, Ormes unexpectedly passed away from a cerebral hemorrhage. The National Association of Black Journalists Hall of Fame posthumously inducted Ormes in 2014 for the activist work she portrayed through her comics. In 2018, the Will Eisner Comics Hall of Fame inducted her for redefining the representation of black women in comics. Truly a revolutionary, Ormes consistently fought against racism, sexism, misogyny, and political injustices. This Black History Month, I call on you, the reader, to look deeply at the materials that you are consuming, the creators behind them, and remain cognizant of the importance of representation in all platforms. Jackie Ormes ensured that African American women nationwide would witness empowering images of themselves and her activism continues to reverberate throughout generations.