During 2010 African American History Month, I honor four Black Women of Letters. While each woman is distinctive, they all share: a connection to the month of February, the title "Educator", a passion for letters - reading and writing, extraordinary professional achievement, a fighting spirit, a celebration of life ...and a link to me.
The face of Anna Julia Haywood Cooper graces the 32nd stamp in the Black Heritage series issued by the U.S. Postal Service in February 2010. She was an educator, scholar, feminist and activist. Born into slavery @1858, Cooper lived until the height of the civil rights movement (1964). Cooper was the fourth African American woman to earn a Ph.D. and the first Black woman to receive a doctoral degree from the Sorbonne in France. Through her writings, public speaking, community organizing, and teaching, Cooper challenged racism and sexism and she insisted on rigorous education for "a neglected people". Her collection of essays and speeches is entitled A Voice from the South by a Black Woman of the South. Cooper was the principal and a teacher at the Preparatory High School for Colored Youth (now named Dunbar High School) in Washington, D.C. [my hometown] and she taught at the post-secondary level as well. Cooper encouraged the African American community to promote its own folklore, literature and artistic culture.
The dash on the tombstone of Pauline Smith Bigby contains the story of a pursuit of education and a passion for the literary and performance arts. Born February 6, 1919, she died February 28, 1988, losing a 25-year battle against cancer. She too was a child of the South (S.C.). Bigby was orphaned at age 8. She and her 7 siblings were raised by a great uncle who was a former slave, a preacher, and a storyteller. Bigby left home to attend Bettis Academy and Benedict College, both church - established institutions for African Americans. Later she received a Masters Degree from George Washington University. Like Cooper, she was widowed after only 2 years of marriage, but Bigby had twin daughters to raise. [I am one of the two.] Bigby was passionate about education. She was a teacher in the D.C. public schools, Sunday School, neighborhood and her own home. She infused others, especially children, with both the discipline and love of reading, recitation, and writing. Her daughters, grandchildren, nephews and nieces all have a story about this woman who expressed her love by sharing a book, sending a personal handwritten note and reciting selections by her favorite poet, Paul Laurence Dunbar.
The words of poet Lucille Clifton were applauded as we mourned her death from cancer on February 13, 2010. She was 73. The first African American Maryland poet laureate (1979 - 1985), Clifton wrote about her family, adversity and success in the black community, and her role as a poet. Clifton was the author of 11 poetry collections, she published 20 children's books, and her poems appeared in 100+ anthologies. She was highly acclaimed: National Book Award winner, multiple Pulitzer Prize nominee, and Ruth Lilly Poetry Prize recipient. The first in her family to graduate from high school, Clifton attended Howard University and she taught at Coppin State College and Goucher College [my alma mater]. One journalist wrote, "[Clifton] became known as a distinctive writer who identified herself forcefuly as a mother and a black woman". A few years ago, I attended a reading/book signing by Clifton. Very personable, she wrote words of encouragement to "the Smith story tellers" [my most treasured autograph]. Our favorite poem is "won't you celebrate with me" from Mercy (copyrighted 2004).
The home of Pauline A. Bigby is filled with books. The first in her family to receive a Ph.D. (University of Michigan), she is a reading and curriculum specialist and former Language Arts Coordinator for the Ann Arbor Public Schools. Now, she provides services through Splendor Educational Consulting. A consummate teacher and mentor of "a neglected people", Bigby promotes African American literature, facilitates academic and cultural excellence in the African American community, and fosters literacy among all peoples. Her calling is "enhancing literacies through family-school-community partnerships". For nearly 20 years, she has organized "African-American Read-In" (AARI) events in Michigan. AARI events are held during February in communities around the world to encourage reading of books by African and African American authors. Bigby founded the Ypsilanti AARI. This event highlights local authors, offers free books to youth, and showcases performing artists. Bigby organized/s similar events in Ann Arbor and Washtenaw County, Michigan. Underwriting much of the cost herself, Bigby is an unsung heroine, a Black woman of letters. I honor her [my twin].