Giddings, Paula 1947—
Paula Giddings 1947—
Editor, educator, journalist, social historian
Paula Giddings has made her name and reputation carrying out a simple but formidable project, recovering the lost voices of silent generations of American black women. Giddings has put her strongest efforts into restoring and understanding the perspective of others in her two well-received, major books of social history, When and Where I Enter: The Impact of Black Women on Race and Sex in America and In Search of Sisterhood: Delta Sigma Theta and the Challenge of the Black Sorority Movement.Giddings credits her interest in language to her mother who taught her the importance of having a voice. Giddings has been recognized for her hard work by many group, including the National Coalition of 100 Black Women, the New York Urban League, and Bennett College in Greensboro, North Carolina–awarded her an honorary doctorate in human letters in 1990.
In Essence Giddings recalled one particularly formative experience from her childhood in the 1950s. She was the first black child to go to her privately run elementary school; the other children made fun of her African looks and taunted her with racial epithets, but Giddings did not respond. Her diffidence bothers her to this day. She wrote in Essence,”It was my first experience with the politics of difference, and my reaction, I am ashamed to say, was one of stunned silence.” In a process similar to ones she would document in her later work, she found her voice suddenly muted.
The white administrators were sympathetic enough to Giddings plight but were ineffectual in dealing with the childrens’ cruelty. Not knowing what to do, they approached Giddings’s mother, perhaps silently hoping she would remove her daughter from the school. Instead Mrs. Giddings asked to address the class. For the future writer, it was an important lesson. The author recollected inEssence, “She exuded such authority… that the kids fell in line right away.” Her mother a children’s book about dealing with differences to the class.
After finishing the book, Mrs. Giddings encouraged the children to speak up about their feelings of race. The youngsters, un-used to receiving such respect from an adult on such an important issue, were allowed to
At a Glance…
Born Paula Jane Giddings, November 16, 1947,in Yonkers, NY; daughter of Curtis G. (a guidance counselor and school teacher) and Virginia (Stokes; a guidance counselor) Giddings. Education: Howard University, BA , 1969.
Random House, editorial assistant, 1969–70, copy editor, 1970–72; Howard University Press, associate book editor, 1972–75; Encore America/Worldwide News, Paris bureau chief, Paris, France, 1975–77, associate editor, New York, NY, 1977–79; Essence, contributing and book review editor, 1985–90; Spelman College,distinguished United Negro College Fund (UNCF) scholar, 1986–87, visiting scholar, 1991–92; Rutgers University/Douglass College, Laurie New Jersey chair in women’s studies, 1989–91; Princeton University, visiting professor, 1992–93; Phi Beta Kappa visiting scholar, 1995–96. Fellow, Barnard Center for Research on Women, 1990–93, New York University Institute for the Humanities, 1991—,John Simon Guggenheim Foundation, 1993–94, National Humanities Center, Research Triangle Park, NC, 1993–95.
Member: Delta Sigma Theta, 1967–; National Coalition of 100 Black Women, 1985; American Historical Association, 1990–; International Association of Poets, Playwrights, Editors, Essayists, and Novelists (PEN; board member), 1990—; Author’s Guild of America (treasurer), 1991; Century Club; Association of Black Women Historians; National Women’s Studies Association; Author’s League Foundation (board member); Organization of American Historians; Women’s WORLD (World Organization for Rights, Literature, and Development; cofounder and board member).
Awards: Ford Foundation Grant, 1982; Candace Award, National Coalition of 100 Black Women, 1985; Alumni Award, Howard University, 1985; Westchester Black Women’s Political Caucus Award, 1986; Building Brick Award, New York Urban League, 1986; Anna Julia Cooper Award, Sage: A Scholarly Joumal on Black Women, 1990,Bennett College, Greensboro, NC, honorary doctorate in humane letters 1990.
Addresses: Home –New York, NY.
express openly the fears and prejudices that they were usually forced to suppress. The mother who had come in to help her daughter “find her voice” also performed the same service for her child’s tormentors.
When the dark feelings of the other children were brought out into the open and dealt with, they lost most of their virulence. Giddings compared what her mother did to an exorcism of “the monstrous images” that had come to dominate the children’s understanding of black people. It was an extraordinary experience, bringing the children to feel true remorse for the inhuman way they had been treating another human being; and for the little girl, Paula, the encounter between her mother and her classmates became an emblem for the dignity of the human voice and the power of the story teller’s art.
Giddings mother was no stranger to the educational system. The Giddings family had been active in education and civil rights for generations. Paula’s great-great-grandmother, a slave and daughter of her Virginia slave master, was taught “the rudiments of education, fine embroidery, and music, as well as the harsher lessons of being black and a woman in America,” according to the preface to Giddings’ Where and When I Enter. Both Paul’s parents were college educated, and both taught in the public school system. Her father also founded the local chapter of the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE) in Yonkers, New York. From a young age, Paula knew she wanted to write. She went to Howard University in Washington, DC, and became editor of the literary magazine Afro-American Review, but about this time she also began to move away from her own creative writing towards journalism and social history. Giddings graduated with an undergraduate degree in English in 1969.
The 1970s were a period of search for Giddings. After graduating, she worked as a Random House copy editor during an exciting time there, when its authors included the black political activists, Angela Davis and Stokely Carmichael. Toni Morrison, the eventual author of such acclaimed novels as Beloved, was also an editor there at the same time. After a couple of years Giddings and her mentor at Random House, Charles Harris, went to Howard University Press where she helped develop book ideas and took part in deciding what should be published as well as performing the usual grunge work associated with preparing a manuscript for publication.
The job was satisfying to her in many way, but Giddings remained restless. A desire to work overseas led her to open the Paris bureau of Encore American & World Wide News for famed publisher Ida Lewis in 1975. From Paris, Giddings not only covered Europe, she also traveled through Africa, reporting on news and interviewing such personages as Uganda’s notorious dictator, Idi Amin, and South African activist under apartheid, Winnie Mandela. Encore brought her back to New York in 1977 to work as an associate editor.
In 1979 Giddings reached an important turning point. While working on a program initiated by the U.S. government to produce a series of books on the historical experience of black women in America, Giddings came to realize how dramatically small was the documentation of the black female voice in our history. She became determined to do what she could to rectify the situation, and so began the research into the book that five years later would come out under the title, When and Where I Enter: The Impact of Black Women on Race and Sex in America.To write the book, Giddings searched out the hidden primary sources of the past, from diaries to letters and even to obscure novels. Along the way she received a Ford Foundation Grant to help her complete the project.
In the preface to When and Where I Enter Giddings noted that “despite the range and significance of our [black women’s] history, we have been perceived as token women in black texts and as token blacks in feminist ones.” Emergent themes in Giddings work include the relationship between sexism and racism, the effect of “double discrimination” on the basis of gender and race on black women, and the relevance of historical issues to contemporary life. Writing in the New York Times Book Review, Gloria Naylor described When and Where I Enter as the “narrative history of black women from the seventeenth century to the present” as “a labor of commitment and love—and it shows.” Naylor went on in her glowing review to call the work “jarringly fresh and challenging….” In fitting tribute to the woman who had protected her voice, Paula Giddings dedicated the book to her mother.
The response to the book was strong and very favorable. Her former colleague, Toni Morrison called When and WherelEnter, “History at its best.” Publishers Weekly predicted correctly that it would become a standard in its field and The Women’s Review of Books went so far as to call it the “best interpretation of black women and race and sex that we have.” The Book of the Month Club made it an alternate selection, and When and Where I Enter was translated into several foreign languages. The success of the book not only made her a speaker much in demand on the lecture circuit, it also launched an academic career for her.
Giddings first academic post came in the mid-1980s at Atlanta’s Spelman College, where she was a United Negro College Fund Distinguished Scholar. Giddings also deeply immersed herself in traditional journalistic work. She went to work at Essence, a magazine aimed at black women, as both a contributing editor and editor of the publication’s book section. In 1987, the prestigious journalHarper’s, edited by Lewis Lapham, invited Giddings to take part in a forum on whether or not conditions for African Americans in the United States were improving.
Giddings comments inHarper’s tended to focus on the wedge that was perceived to be growing between middle class blacks and their underclass brothers and sisters. Troubled by this development, she pointed out that the differences between the classes were to some degree illusory since the “fate of all blacks is inseparable by class…. The black middle class will remain fragile as long as there’s a large and growing underclass.”
In 1988, Giddings followed up When and Where I Enter with In Search of Sisterhood: Delta Sigma Theta and the Challenge of the Black Sorority. The sorority differed from the “Greek” organization stereotype of initiation rituals, or hazing and raucous toga parties. Instead, Delta Sigma Theta, founded at Howard University in 1913, took the education of its members concerning political change and civil rights legislation as its mission from the very beginning
In the first year of its existence, the “Delts” joined 5,000 female protesters marching up Washington, DC’s Pennsylvania Avenue to bring to the government their demand that women receive the right to vote. A member herself, other famous members of Delta Sigma Theta include Barbara Jordan, a professor and former con-gresswoman from Texas, singer Lena Home, and the opera diva Leontyne Price. A more obscure but no less impressive alumna of the sorority is Sadie T. M. Alexander, the first woman of color to earn a doctorate in the United States.
Critics were quick to praise In Search of Sisterhood.Writing in The Washington Post, Dorothy Gilliam gave Giddings “a hearty cheer for bringing to the fore yet another piece of overlooked black women’s history.” The Los Angeles Times said, the book “succeeds as a detailed study of an organization that has touched the lives of some of the most prominent black women in The Los Angeles Times said, the book “succeeds as a detailed study of an organization that has touched the lives of some of the most prominent black women in America.”
In the early 1990s, Giddings continued to juggle writing and teaching, beginning with a three-year fellowship at the Barnard Center for Research on Women. In 1991, the Women’s Project Productions of New York City commissioned her to write a one-act play, The Reunion, which was given a staged reading at one of New York City’s most famous theaters, the Judith Anderson. The same year, Giddings was invited back to Spelman as a visiting scholar, Rutgers University’s Douglass College asked her to chair their women’s studies program, and she was honored with a fellowship at the New York University Institute for Humanities.
Giddings spent 1992 as a visiting professor at Princeton University, a distinct honor in light of the fact she’d never earned an advanced degree and most Ivy League institutions usually hire graduate-degree wielding scholars. Other fellowships were bestowed upon her during the next few years, including one-year associations with the John Simon Guggenheim Foundation and the National Humanities Center in Research Triangle Park in North Carolina. The culmination of these experiences was an academic year spent as a visiting scholar with Phi Beta Kappa in 1995 to 1996.
An energetic woman, Giddings still found the time throughout her career participate as a high ranking member of such esteemed organizations as the International Association of Poets, Playwrights, Editors, Essayists, and Novelists (PEN); the Author’s League Foundation; the Author’s Guild of America; and Women’s WORLD (World Organization for Rights, Literature and Development), the latter being an anti-censorship group that she cofounded. After helping the National Book Award committee judge the nonfiction output of 1989, she also sat on the judging committee’s for PEN’s Gerard Fund Award in 1992 and the National Association of Colored People (NAACP) ACT-SO award as well as serving on various advisory committees for a number of academic institutions.
Despite all her other obligations, expressing herself with words remained Giddings number one priority and love. “For a black woman to write about black women is at once personal and an objective undertaking. It is personal,” she explained in the preface to When and Where I En ter, “because the women whose blood runs through my veins breathe admist the statistics. [It] is also an objective enterprise because one must put such experiences into historical context, find in them a rational meaning so that the forces that shape our own lives may be understood.” With that ethic in mind, Giddings was planning a biography of the former slave, outspoken journalist, and anti-lynching crusader Ida B. Wells-Bar-nett, who died in 1931. Always in the midst of a project, she also co-edited, with social critic Cornel West, an anthology of essays about Malcolm X entitled Regarding Malcolm X.As Giddings noted in an interview with Notable Black American Women, “I will write ‘till I say goodbye to this world. “
When and Where I Enter: The Impact of Black Women on Race and Sex in America, William Morrow, 1984, Bantam, 1985.
In Search of Sisterhood: Delta Sigma Theta and the Challenge of the Black Sorority, William Morrow,1988, Quill, 1995.
The Reunion, reading at Judith Anderson Theater, New York City, 1991.
Giddings, Paula, When and Where I Enter: The Impact of Black Women on Race and Sex in America, William Morrow, 1984, pp. 1, 5–8.
Notable Black American Women, edited by Jessie Carney Smith, Gale, 1992, pp. 402–03.
Booklist, August 1988, p. 1872.
Essence, May 1995, pp. 196–98.
Harper’s, February 1987, p. 35ff.
Los Angeles Times Book Review, July 31, 1988, p. 1.
New Directions for Women, March 1989, p. 18.
New York Times Book Review, July 8, 1984, p. 10.
Publishers Weekly, July 8, 1988, p. 44.
Washington Post, August 12, 1988.
Additional information for this profile was obtained via information provided to CBB by Paula Giddings on January 4, 1996.
— Jim McDermott
"Giddings, Paula 1947—." Contemporary Black Biography. . Encyclopedia.com. (December 13, 2018). https://www.encyclopedia.com/education/news-wires-white-papers-and-books/giddings-paula-1947
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