Dr. Cynthia Jacobs Carter gave an assignment to students in her Howard University Africana Women’s Studies course: Find 20 biographies on black women — only 10 of whom could be from the United States.
“They had to dig, dig, dig very deeply to find anything,” Carter says. “And they realized pretty quickly, ‘Oh, you told us to do this because you wanted us to know that there’s not much out there and you wanted us to know how hard it is to find things, right?’”
But with about 10 years of research, including work she did for her dissertation and with help from her students, Carter amassed enough stories to fill multiple volumes. National Geographic has published her first — a book that traces the spirit, strength and courage of women of the African Diaspora — it is called Africana Woman, Her Story Through Time.
“I wrote it because I felt that it was a book that had not been written,” Carter explains. “There has been a lot of work done lately about African-Americans and you can find some books about women from other countries maybe, but there had not been a book written about black women in the African Diaspora. So it pulls the story together in one volume — a general overview of us — whether we are in the Caribbean, Europe, on the continent of Africa or in the Americas.”
It might seem like a massive undertaking, but Carter uses highly readable narratives, pulled quotes, poetry and lavish images to highlight some of the world’s most remarkable black women. From Queen Hatshepsut, who declared herself pharaoh of Egypt in 1473 B.C., to numerous abolitionists and civil rights activists to Oprah Winfrey, the spectrum is represented.
In the past, many publications featuring non-Western women of African descent have exoticized their subjects, thus eroticizing and exploiting the idea of the “primitive,” near-naked tribal woman. Historically, National Geographic has been accused of such practices. This book is evidence that those days are over.
“Geographic has definitely changed. They are trying very much to be more inclusive and to show a complete story rather than a slanted one,” says Carter.
The images included in Africana Woman do just that. One especially vivid shot shows two women walking on Gorée Island, off Dakar, Senegal. One of the women is wearing pants, flip-flops, a silver wristwatch and hooded shawl. She looks over her shoulder, a bit suspiciously toward the photographer. The other woman has a plastic grocery bag slung over her shoulder and is dressed in more traditional garb, with her hair wrapped in a matching scarf.
Carter, who lives in Virginia, has traveled to Gorée, which was once a slaveholding warehouse for the West African slave trade. While there, she visited a location that was once known as “The House of Slaves” and “The gate from which no one returned.”
“It’s a very spiritual place,” she says. “You can feel the sadness there, but yet a joy. You can definitely feel the spirits of the ancestors in that place where so many, I dare say millions, had been taken through those very doors and shipped to various places throughout the world.”
Carter claims that there might be a documentary and children’s book based on Africana Woman. She is also considering writing a second volume — “because there was no way to even hardly skim the surface in this one volume. There are so many more stories to tell,” she says.
“This is not a book just for black women or black people,” she continues. “I really want to emphasize that it is a story, a history that I hope we all can embrace and just be a bit more knowledgeable about. I know I never read about anybody except Sojourner Truth and Harriet Tubman when I was in high school. I’m hoping that we can expand our vocabulary a bit, all of us, and just come to know a little more about a certain people who have been a bit marginalized, but are coming now into fuller view.”