New Book From Former IAC Dean Explores Importance of Black Women's Voices in U.S. History

Posted September 21, 2023

Jacqueline Jones Royster, the former dean of the Ivan Allen College of Liberal Arts, may be retired from her academic duties, but she is far from done with her influential scholarship in feminist rhetorical studies. 

Royster’s latest book, Making the World a Better Place: African American Women Advocates, Activists, and Leaders, 1773-1900, lands amid highly politicized debates over race and gender, arguing that generations of Black women whose words and actions have contributed substantively to the nation’s development have been persistently rendered “invisible, inaudible, and unintelligible.” 

“Overall, the book is about the history of socio-political practices among African American women, a subject that has often been overlooked but is integral to understanding what it means to be an American, especially in a country with a history of oppression and discrimination.” 

Royster’s scholarship will be the subject of a discussion with Georgia Tech President Ángel Cabrera on Monday, Sept. 25 at the Georgia Tech Library. 

‘Strategic and Intentional’ 

Making the World a Better Place employs both an exemplar-driven approach and a broader overview of African American women’s lives to delve into the rhetorical practices and contributions of African American women as advocates, activists, and leaders. 

Royster first aims to show that African American women from the nation’s founding have contributed actively to society and to the world, not just in traditional domestic roles but in an array of other ways within their communities, the nation, and beyond. Royster, professor emerita in the School of Literature, Media, and Communication, provides a comprehensive look at how these women have offered support and leadership with agency and intentionality. 

She later showcases 15 women who made significant contributions in various fields before, during, and after the Civil War. Some are familiar figures, such as Ida B. Wells or Anna Julia Haywood Cooper, while others are less commonly identified as leaders or activists or are not as well-known at all, including, for example, Lucy E. Parsons, or Dr. Rebecca Davis Lee Crumpler. 

By including the women’s own voices in this section, Royster anchors the themes she explores throughout the book. Using their own words, she emphasizes that her subjects’ actions were not random, but instead strategic and executed with rationality and a sense of purpose. 

“The women I discuss in the book were highly intentional in their actions, not just talking or going to school but actively working to improve their lives and those of others,” Royster said. “Take, for example, Fanny Jackson Coppin, an educator. She was bought out of slavery by her family and was deeply committed to education. Her intentionality was evident in how she tailored her educational programs to meet the diverse needs of her students and their communities. Based on their talents and desires, some students were guided toward professions where they could make a significant impact, while others were trained for skilled labor, or for work in the business arenas of her day, such as department stores and factories.” 

Language as Evidence 

The women Royster profiles were all leaders in their work arenas who also contributed often to the periodical press where their words have been reasonably well preserved. She seeks to bring deeper understanding to their work using rhetorical analysis.  

“I look for patterns in who is saying what, to whom, for what reason, under what circumstances, and with what consequence. The goal is to understand the contexts and impacts of their language use,” she said. 

“In the field of rhetoric, we often say it's about ‘ways with words,’ whether written or spoken. In this book, I use the women's own performances as language users as primary evidence to support my claims about their perspectives, decision-making, and overall impact. Their language use serves as the behavior to be analyzed and constitutes an anchor from which to draw credible conclusions about what they were doing and trying to do,” Royster said. “At core, I'm still an English teacher. I believe in the power of language well-used. These women were highly skilled and effective despite not always receiving recognition or credit that they deserved for their prowess.” 

The Importance of Language and Communication

As a linguist and expert in rhetorical studies, Royster believes a lack of attention to language is one reason our nation is so deeply divided.  

“We're not paying close enough attention to language, what words mean, and what they signal about the social, political, economic, and cultural context in which we're operating,” she said.  

And, she says, before, during, and after the Civil War, Black women offered their communities and the nation ways of seeing, being, and doing designed to help build a better future for all. She believes that, even though we did not really listen well enough to them before, we should do so now. Their visions, voices, and histories of action may just offer good counsel as we face our own challenges today.  

“How can we move forward in a challenge-filled world without taking a careful, caring, and honest look at who we've been, who we are now, and the sort of nation we need to be going forward both to preserve the planet and ourselves in peace and prosperity in the company of others locally and globally?” Royster said. 

Making the World a Better Place was published in June by the University of Pittsburgh Press. 

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Jacqueline Jones Royster, professor emerita in the School of Literature, Media, and Communication, and the former dean of the Ivan Allen College of Liberal Arts.

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Michael Pearson
Ivan Allen College of Liberal Arts