Martha Jones is a legal and cultural historian whose work examines how Black Americans have shaped the story of U.S. democracy. A professor of history and the Society of Black Alumni Presidential Professor at Johns Hopkins University, her research and writing around voting rights and citizenship help to illuminate not only the germinal ideas of American democracy but also the struggles and achievements of the disenfranchised. In February, the Hub spoke with Jones about this year's centennial of the 19th Amendment and her forthcoming book, Vanguard: How Black Women Broke Barriers, Won the Vote, and Insisted on Equality for All, a story that spans seven generations of Black political activism.
Today, as Black Lives Matter protests continue around the country in the immediate wake of the murders of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor, we caught up with Jones in her home in downtown Baltimore to talk about the history of Black activism and politics, and the kinds of honest conversations that individuals and institutions need to have about racism in order to seed what comes next.
I want to open with a seemingly simple question, but I mean it as more than perfunctory. How are you doing today?
Oh gosh. Honestly, I'm tired. These have been two very demanding weeks. But I just taught an online class for the Zinn Education Project where there were nearly 200 people present online live to talk about the history of citizenship and voting rights and racism, and I found that very moving. Sometimes teaching is the opportunity to reconnect with your purpose and to be inspired, and so today I'm also feeling inspired.
This week, many of the top 10 books on the New York Times Nonfiction Bestseller list are about racism and the Black experience. Is it your sense that there's a growing desire from some to educate themselves and learn about what has brought us to this moment?
Yes, it reflects an interest in history, but I think we're seeing books that are aimed at self-examination and introspection as well, like Ibram X. Kendi's How To Be an Antiracist. Many of these best-selling books reflect the lived experience and the testimony of Black Americans in our very recent past. I would take the buying of books, and hopefully the reading of those books, as a commitment on the part of some Americans and even others beyond the United States to understand better the moment that we're in and their place in it. What people will do based on what they learn and read I cannot say.
Some are suggesting that it's not enough to read and observe, that it's time to act. Are you sensing that as well?
I certainly hope you're right. There's a whole history we could tell of the ways in which white Americans have been passive, if not indifferent, witnesses to the long history of racism in the United States. That's a very heavy legacy to lift off one's shoulders, let's put it that way. We know a great deal about white people's indifference and callousness. The women I write about [in Vanguard], so many of them will eventually tell of how they were not only accosted—how they were assaulted and violently removed from a theater or a railroad car or a bus. The companion story is that many, many white Americans witnessed and watched and by their inaction countenanced that violence. I think that helps us appreciate the distance between Black and white women, even today. I think one of the questions now is what in this context could it mean to become an ally.
You spoke in February about your new book Vanguard, and part of the story that your book tells is how Black women linked ballot access not just to the right to vote but to the human rights of all. You highlight the breadth of vision that women like Ida B. Wells, Carrie W. Clifford, and Mary Church Terrell had.
As I started to read through the commentary, the speeches, the writings of Black women, particularly those at the end of the 19th and the start of the 20th century, there were words they used that at first surprised me. Words like dignity and humanity. I began to learn that those words were reflecting a set of principles, values, and objectives, that Black women in particular embraced and worked toward as political thinkers and as activists. There was more at stake than the vote. Voting rights, in their view, were one part of a range of approaches that were intended to, yes, earn equality but also to earn dignity and to be in a position to work for the interests of humanity. It was ambitious, and Black women led pointedly with a critique of how both racism and sexism too often perverted and distorted and otherwise degraded American political culture.
I call them the vanguard because they really were the ones to set forth a set of principles and a set of objectives for the nation long before most Americans would catch up to them in the 21st century. They maintain that position and endure many decades during which their point of view is rejected. Today we might concede that those are our best ideals.
Are you seeing lessons from this vanguard of women that could help inform the grassroots protests happening across the country right now?
I think yes. On the one hand, Vanguard is the story of women who felt and believed that there was an urgency to the project of American democracy and there was an urgency around getting it right. I don't write about political philosophers. I don't write about dilettantes. I write about women whose own selves and whose communities were on the front lines of slavery, of apartheid or what we refer to as Jim Crow, who were on the front lines of racial violence. They would understand very clearly the urgency of our own moment.
Black women have known all too well the capacity of the state both to enact violence upon them and to turn away and fail to punish the perpetrators of that violence. Black women activists consistently demanded that they be free of violence, and from the specter and threat of violence in their daily lives. I tell the stories of women who knew firsthand the scourge of violence that was unprovoked and unchecked. Today, as we mourn and grieve and rage at the deaths of Black Americans like George Floyd and Breonna Taylor, the women I write about would recognize both that sadness and that outrage because the ever-present threat of violence also constrained their lives. Political history teaches us that Black women in public and Black women in politics risked encounters with a robust and vile brand of racism that questioned their very womanhood.
In these protests, there was initially a silence around Breonna Taylor's story. Scholar and activist Andrea Ritchie was quoted in The New York Times as saying that by focusing on Taylor as well as George Floyd, "we're not trying to compete with Floyd's story, we're trying to complete the story." What do you think Ritchie means by "completing the story"?
Breonna Taylor's death reminds us that the scourge of police violence is not always the enactment of a forceful, masculine confrontation. Women, too, are the targets of police violence, and sometimes fatal police violence. That is one aspect of completing the story, as Andrea Ritchie has put it.
I would reach further to say that a reckoning with sexual violence is also necessary if we are to complete the story. State terror comes in many forms including the taking of lives, and it is manifested in the lived experience and in the lives of survivors of sexual violence.
Historically, African American women have played an indispensable part in putting sexual violence on the table as a woman's issue through their own testimony, be it enslaved women like Harriet Jacobs in the 19th century and up through Tarana Burke's #MeToo movement today. Black women testify to the fact of sexual violence and the terror that guarding oneself against sexual violence imposes.
What are you thinking and feeling as you watch the Black Lives Matter protests unfold?
I live in Baltimore City and, thus far, the day that was the most moving for me was the Tuesday of our primary election. There was a lot of unevenness in Baltimore City when it came to people getting mail-in ballots, and so those few polling places that had been planned for were much more heavily visited than anyone anticipated. We saw people, our neighbors and community members, at the polls. That same day, Baltimoreans were in the streets. For that moment, there didn't appear to be a contradiction between a politics of the polls and a politics of protest. That resonates with me as reflecting the rich complexity of the African American political tradition. It is varied and it is diverse.
Casting a ballot and supporting a demonstration are consistent parts of a whole. These scenes are especially poignant during a pandemic in which Black Americans are documented as both contracting and suffering the fatal consequences of COVID-19 in disproportionate numbers. Black Baltimoreans, in particular, took their lives in their hands, whether they were standing in crowded polling lines for long periods, entering crowded polling places, or protesting in the streets. American democracy demands nothing less of Black Americans than that they put their bodies on the line to hold this nation to its ideals, and to hold it accountable. It's quite a remarkable moment.
It's interesting because Baltimore hasn't been getting as much national media attention because our protests have been largely peaceful. The more violent scenes are the ones that make the news.
I have read commentary on the absence of national news organizations in Baltimore in these weeks. There's a perception that there might not be a story here. Of course, there is an extraordinarily important story here, and it's being told to a certain degree by our local news media, but it's not being folded into a national narrative. Someone more expert than me will, I hope, eventually explain why we haven't had the kind of ramped- up clashes between demonstrators and police here.
It's also striking how journalists have been compelled to abandon any modicum of neutrality in this, as we have watched live as mainstream journalists are openly targeted by police in cities like Minneapolis and Washington. There is a line that's been crossed in these scenes of the open targeting of mainstream journalists. That seems nearly unprecedented and eerily mirrors the tactics adopted by authoritarian and fascist regimes.
The last time we spoke was for an article I wrote about the role of Twitter in academia and the power and purpose of hashtags. One thing trending recently on Twitter was the #BlackintheIvory hashtag, which you have contributed to on your feed. People are revealing what it means to be Black within largely white institutions. Do you have thoughts on what it looks like to start to move the needle within academia?
In my spaces in academia, including my department at Hopkins and my professional organizations, I need to hear more than "thoughts and prayers." I'd like us to tell the story, I would like to hear told out loud more precisely how we got here. We must own, understand and own, how our institutions—their leadership and their culture —produced the unjust and deeply disappointing state of affairs that we face today, whether it's the underrepresentation of Black faculty, or unabated incidents of microaggression.
I'm a historian, and I think the past matters. I'm also a storyteller, and I do think it's important that we tell a fuller story about our institutions, one that acknowledges, admits, and explains through research and data how structurally and culturally racism and discrimination have persisted, despite the efforts that have taken us from civil rights to diversity. The cost of this failing is plain, both in the hashtag confessions of Black faculty and students, such as #BlackintheIvory. It is also in the statistics and the demographics of our institutions. It is past time to take stock and explain that. I do not encourage immediately moving to: Here's what we're going to do. Before we determine what we must do, we must examine what we've done, or not done. It is time for some truth-telling about how our institutions and our nation have ensured racism's persistence.