Authors, Film & TV Kali Nicole Gross

Published on February 25th, 2020 | by Jerry Doby


From Civil Rights to Diss Tracks: How Black Women Have Shaped U.S. Culture

What we learn about African American history is often told through the lens of a few black male activists such as the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr., Malcolm X and Frederick Douglass.

Kali Nicole Gross

Kali Nicole Gross

Kali Nicole Gross, a Martin Luther King, Jr., professor of history at Rutgers–New Brunswick’s School of Arts and Sciences, wants to expand that perspective to include black women who contributed to U.S. history and culture.

In her new book, A Black Women’s History of the United States, co-authored by Daina Ramey Berry, Gross explores black women’s history spanning more than 400 years and includes voices from the poor and working class as well as civil rights leaders, athletes and musicians.

Gross explains why it’s important to break down stereotypes and tell an honest history of how black women have helped to shape the United States.

Below is an excerpt of the Q&A interview with Gross on Rutgers Today

Explain the importance of including different types of voices, including those convicted of crimes?

We’re used to the story of African American history narrowed down to just a few voices, but we wanted to create a readable text about women’s history that covered a broader range of experiences. Everyday black women, the poor and working class as well as artists and athletes and black queer women — all have had a profound impact in America, so it’s important to share their stories. This includes looking at black female convicts because we think of them as criminals, but we forget that there was more to the story and little chance at a fair trial for many of these women.

We cover the case of Corrine Sykes, who in 1946 became the last woman, black or white, to be executed in Pennsylvania’s electric chair. Sykes, a woman with an I.Q. of 63, was executed after being convicted of killing her white employer during a robbery. Corrine’s case is complicated as she was likely manipulated by her boyfriend, a violent man who was much older. It’s one that spotlights persistent racial biases in the justice system, but also it helps map the historical difficulties black families faced when trying to get resources to help raise children with special needs.

Who are some of the lesser known but important civil rights activists you acknowledge? 

Nannie Helen Burroughs, who despite high academic achievements, was turned down for a position to work in Washington, D.C., public schools. So, she decided to start her own school to educate and train poor, working African American women. Besides her achievements in academia, she also decried colorism among African Americans and she advocated for black women to embrace their natural hair during a time when they were taught to straighten it with harsh chemicals that burned their skin.

We also share stories from women like Ida B. Wells, an African American journalist and activist who led an anti-lynching crusade in the United States in the 1890s. In her newspaper, the Memphis Free Speech, she canvassed the South, documenting the lynching of black people and telling their stories, to expose racist violence and how corrupt the justice system was in the South. Ultimately, she hoped her advocacy would halt the extralegal killing of black women and men.


About the Author

Editor-in-Chief of The Hype Magazine, and internationally published arts & entertainment journalist. Member of the U.S. Department of Arts and Culture as well as the United States Press Corps.

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