Must Read Book

Higginbotham, Evelyn Brooks, Righteous Discontent: The Women's Movement and the Black Baptist Church, 1880-1920 (1993).

This gem-like historical study is of an importance far greater than its title may suggest to those outside Higginbotham's field. Her book demonstrates the central role of the Black Baptist church in the struggle for racial and sexual equality through a critical historical analysis that is neither sentimental nor disengaged, neither romanticized nor cold. In doing so, it makes a vital contribution to understanding working-class black politics and the best analysis I have found of the limitations as well as the strengths of black feminist ideology of turn-of-the-century America. Higginbotham uses a (theoretically informed but clearly explained) Habermasian notion of public sphere to articulate the discursive space the church provided in this period, both as a physical space--often the only one--in which African Americans could congregate and as a discursive space in which they could debate political values and strategies. By taking seriously these political discussions, Higginbotham leaves far behind those studies which continue to represent the black "community" as if it were unanimous. She considers the church a dialogic model in which dynamic tensions were sometimes implicit, sometimes explicit--tensions of class and of gender. Beginning with an exploration of the influence of the DuBoisian "Talented Tenth" idea, as appropriated by an elite of college-educated black women, she leads the reader through a history that ends with an understanding that the Baptist women's greatest contribution was that they left behind that idea and acclaimed the honor of working-class labor--and working-class political contribution. The book's tour-de-force concluding chapter, "The Politics of Respectability," creates a subtle, complex analysis of the unique means of respectability for politically active black women. The book should be required reading for scholars and teachers of 20th-century US social history, as well as women's, Afro-American, religious and reform-movement history.

Recommended by Linda Gordon, New York University

Linda Gordon is professor of history at NYU, where she teaches courses on gender in history and social movements among other topics. Her most recent book is The Great Arizona Orphan Abduction, winner of the Bancroft and Beveridge prizes.