Five questions for Evette Dionne

Last month, in recognition of the Nineteenth Amendment’s centennial, we featured Lifting as We Climb (Viking, 12 years and up) by Evette Dionne among other books about women’s suffrage. The subtitle of Dionne’s book, however, focuses readers’ attention on a very specific, vital, and too-frequently overlooked — and/or whitewashed — perspective on the movement: Black Women’s Battle for the Ballot Box.

1. Given your premise — that these important stories are so little told — how did you go about your research?

Evette Dionne: Figuring out how to approach research was incredibly difficult at first. I am not a trained historian; I am just a curious journalist. I know that it’s difficult enough to research Black women in modern times, so I couldn’t even begin to imagine how difficult it would be to research the lives of Black women before and after the Civil War. I started with a timeline. I realized early on that my book would have to begin before the Seneca Falls Convention in 1848 and continue after women secured the vote in 1920 in order to accurately tell this entire history. Once that timeline was nailed down, I began researching key moments along it — the forming of the Pennsylvania Anti-Slavery Society, the exclusion of women from the World Anti-Slavery Convention, the 1913 Woman Suffrage Procession, etc. — and researching women-focused organizations in each decade. That allowed me to figure out who the key players within those organizations were, which is how I came across the Philadelphia Female Anti-Slavery Society, for instance, and the National Association of Colored Women’s Clubs. And then I began doing biographical research. I was eventually able to put all of these puzzle pieces together to create a full narrative. I read a lot of nonfiction books and biographies, leaned on a lot of archivists and librarians, and asked a lot of questions about what was missing and what holes I could attempt to fill.

2. You make clear the insidiousness of the systems — economic, social, political — that keep voter suppression in place. How much of this history did you know going in?

ED: Voter suppression is still happening, and it has especially ramped up since the Supreme Court gutted the Voting Rights Act in 2013. For Black Americans, our history isn’t past; it’s present. We’re living it every day — still. Think about the fact that Donald Trump is attempting to present mail-in voting as a form of voter fraud, which would invalidate the election results, at the same time as polling places are closing in predominantly marginalized communities and early voting hours have been slashed. This is all happening amid a pandemic that is disproportionately killing Black people in the United States. That’s voter suppression in action, happening in plain sight, and it’s mind-boggling to watch political pundits debate the merits of Trump’s rhetoric about voting. These points are dog whistles that harken back to centuries of history that denied Black people, Latinx people, Asian people, and Indigenous people the ballot. This might be our final free and fair election, and in some people’s view, the 2012 election was really the last free and fair election. That’s history repeating itself because the root — preserving white supremacist power at all costs — has never been addressed.

3. What were you most surprised to learn?

ED: I knew a little bit about this history because in 2017 I’d written a short article for Teen Vogue about the whiteness of the suffrage movement, but this book forced me to face the overtness of racism within the historical movement itself. White women suffragists, including Susan B. Anthony, were so outwardly racist, even as they championed supposedly liberal causes, that it’s shocking to see that they’re still celebrated — even in a time when so many more of us are racially conscious. She and Elizabeth Cady Stanton were recently honored with statues in New York City’s Central Park — with Sojourner Truth included after backlash — and it’s both alarming and sobering that we’re still willing to memorialize and honor women who achieved suffrage by intentionally excluding Black women and encouraging violence against Black men. I’m never surprised by racism. I am surprised by how willing we are to overlook it — as if it’s simply a mere character flaw instead of a defining worldview.

4. Are there people, stories, or time periods — including the present day — that you find especially compelling?

ED: I am fascinated by the free Black women — both born free and those who escaped slavery — who lived in Philadelphia in the early 1800s. These women, like Sarah Mapps Douglass and Hetty Reckless, knew how tenuous freedom was, but they were still devoted community-members who created beautiful art, participated in abolitionist organizing, created and ran schools and reading groups, and even hosted sections of the Underground Railroad. I am also always in gratitude to the Black women of the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s, many of whom we don’t know. I am in awe of Rosa Parks the organizer and the activist — not just the woman who refused to relinquish her seat on the bus; Fannie Lou Hamer, Ella Baker, Daisy Bates, and the other women whose names don’t grace the pages of my book because I simply didn’t have the space. I hope to one day explore their history, impact, and erasure.

5. What’s a common misconception (or two) that you hope the book will help correct?

ED: I hope Lifting as We Climb helps people realize how integral Black women were to the suffrage movement. Black women weren’t peripheral or simply following white women’s agendas; they created their own organizations, prioritized community uplift, created schools and hospitals, and treated voting as a tool to achieve community aims. These Black women were powerful. They had a vision and they executed it, though it took four decades past the suffrage amendment to achieve their goals. I also hope Lifting as We Climb clears up the misconception that racism was just a flaw in the movement; it was a founding feature and it persisted — and still persists.

From the September 2020 issue of Notes from the Horn Book.

Horn Book
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