Chapter 16
A Community of Tennessee Writers, Readers & Passersby

Keeping Alive the Notion of Song

Dolen Perkins-Valdez pays tribute to the black wives of history

March 30, 2011 When Dolen Perkins-Valdez was young woman, she had no use for the real housewives of Memphis, Tennessee. In a new essay for Black voices, she writes, “When I was younger, in moments of my most impertinent, most naive arrogance, I wondered why my extraordinarily intelligent mother decided to become a housewife. Why didn’t she do more with her great gifts? It was Alice Walker’s groundbreaking 1974 essay ‘In Search of Our Mother’s Gardens’ that matured me on this subject. In homage to Phillis Wheatley, Walker writes: ‘It is not so much what you sang, as that you kept alive, in so many of our ancestors, the notion of song.'”

As Black History Month gives way to Women’s History Month, Perkins-Valdez goes on to name the African-American women whose primary role in history was that of helpmeet to an influential man, although they were themselves accomplished people: “I do not mean to suggest that these women are not stars in their own right. Each woman I mention is uniquely accomplished, and most have gone on to emerge from their husband’s shadows. Rachel Robinson had a distinguished career as a nursing professional. Shirley Graham DuBois, wife of W.E.B. DuBois, was a novelist and playwright. Lil Hardin Armstrong, second wife of jazzman Louis Armstrong, was a pianist, composer and bandleader and collaborated professionally with her husband during the 1920s. Amy Jacques Garvey, second wife of Marcus Garvey, was an accomplished journalist and author. Even my own mother became a respected small business owner.”

And yet, despite these accomplishments, Perkins-Valdez notes, “When we think of Black History Month or Women’s History Month, these women’s names are often hidden beneath the towering images of their husbands. Why not take a moment and admire them individually?” She does exactly that, here.

To read Chapter 16‘s interview with Dolen Perkins-Valdez, click here. To read Chapter 16‘s review of her novel, Wench, click here. For more updates on Tennessee authors, please visit Chapter 16‘s News & Notes page, here.