Profiles of strong black women should inspire further reading


January 09, 1993|By Molly Dunham Glassman | Molly Dunham Glassman,Staff Writer

The words are those of Frances Ellen Watkins Harper, a black woman born in Baltimore.

"Through weary, wasting years men have destroyed, --ed in pieces, and overthrown, but today we stand on the threshold of woman's era, and woman's work is grandly constructive."

A writer and political activist, Ms. Harper could have been addressing the drug wars and random violence that are tearing apart the city today. But she was speaking in the late 1800s.

Ms. Harper is one of 84 women profiled in a fine new book, "Great Women in the Struggle" ($17.95 hardback, $10.95 paperback, ages 9 and up). It is volume two in the Book of Black Heroes series, published by Just Us Books of Orange, N.J.

The 8 1/2 -by-11-inch book devotes one page to each of the women, giving a brief synopsis of her background and accomplishments. Included are Winnie Mandela and Rosa Parks, Althea Gibson and Harriet Tubman. But better yet are the profiles of women such as Ms. Harper who are rarely included in history books.

There's Susie King Taylor, a black army nurse during the Civil War, and Madame C. J. Walker, America's first black female millionaire, who made her fortune manufacturing hair-care products.

Unlike traditional Black History Month fare, this book also includes women of the modern era, from Clara McBride Hale, founder of the Hale House hospice for AIDS babies in New York, to Angela Davis, Oprah Winfrey and Faye Wattleton.

The brief biographies are meant to entice readers to find out more about these women, and there's a bibliography to guide them to more information.

The book can be ordered from bookstores by its ISBN number: 0-940975-27-0, or by calling Just Us Books, (201) 672-7701. To receive the publisher's catalog, send a stamped, self-addressed envelope to Just Us Books Inc., 301 Main St., No. 22-24, Orange, N.J. 07050.

* Mary E. Lyons won acclaim last year for her book, "Sorrow's Kitchen: The Life and Folklore of Zora Neale Hurston." Now she has another winner in "Letters from a Slave Girl: The Story of Harriet Jacobs" (Charles Scribner's Sons, $13.95, ages 12 and up).

Ms. Lyons, a school librarian in Charlottesville, Va., is a skilled biographer. In "Sorrow's Kitchen," she blended excerpts from Ms. Hurston's writing with the details of her life, creating a portrait of a woman whose talent had been too long forgotten.

In "Letters from a Slave Girl," Ms. Lyons takes on the voice of

Harriet Jacobs. Born a slave in Edenton, N.C., in 1813, Harriet escaped to freedom in 1842 and devoted herself to the abolition movement. In 1861 she published her autobiography.

Ms. Lyons has taken that autobiography, along with letters written by Harriet and her brother, John, to reconstruct the dialect and grammar that Harriet would have used as a young girl. Although the main events in "Letters from a Slave Girl" are true, Ms. Lyons tells Harriet's story through letters that Harriet could have written in a journal.

Ms. Lyons adds details of everyday life culled from narratives written by other slaves -- almost all of them men -- and from researching Edenton newspapers, plantation records and books about Edenton during the years Harriet lived there.

The result is a book almost as powerful as "The Diary of a Young Girl" by Anne Frank. Like Anne, Harriet observes through the eyes of a girl who is coming of age. While she daydreams about R, the handsome young man she meets at a dance, she is sexually harassed by her master, a well-to-do doctor.

Hoping the doctor might leave her alone if she is no longer a virgin, she decides to accept the advances of Samuel, a neighboring white man. She is 16.

Harriet writes in her journal: "He been gentle, Mama, and make me feel special. If I cant have my sweet R, least I can be with a man who dont own me. I dont dare tell Gran. She like to believe I am different. Pure and untouch, she thinks. And she might say some hurtful things if she find out I need tenderness, like every other girl in this hard wurld."

Ms. Lyons has written an important historical work. And she has written an unforgettable story of one soul, "pure and untouch."

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