Memory  /  First Person

Behind and Beyond Biography: Writing Black Women’s Lives and Thoughts

Ashley D. Farmer and Tanisha C. Ford explain the importance of biographical writing of African American women and the personal connection involved.

“I think of invention as a gift to the reader,” writer and professor Bridgett Davis said. The moment you put a person’s lived experience on the page, she explained, they become a character. And it’s your responsibility to the reader to bring that character to life, fully-fleshed, with a deep interior life that helps readers understand their ideas and the larger social, political, and cultural issues of the day. The group of Black women writers, mostly academics, assembled on Zoom threw up hand clap and heart emojis. Davis’s wisdom about how to develop characters and enliven one’s writing with sensory details would fundamentally transform the way many of the participants approached their projects.

As biographers of Mollie Moon and Queen Mother Audley Moore, we had long been engaging in conversations about how to write about Black women’s thoughts, fears, loves, and desires in gripping and inventive ways. In October 2021, we organized a two-day Harvard Radcliffe Institute exploratory seminar titled” Writing and Publishing Black Women’s Biography in the Time of Black Lives Matter” to bring more writers into these conversations. We selected participants that represented a wide range of ages, professional experiences, and backgrounds, including junior and senior academics, teachers, activists, and independent scholars. We wanted to think collectively about how to write about Black women as thinkers, cultural workers, and mothers through biographies for a general audience and how, once you’ve written the book, to find a publishing home for it. We also created a resource guide to help us think through these concepts together.

Two of the big picture questions that emerged from our time together were related to form and method. As Bridgett Davis had explained, writing biography was about more than an assemblage of facts; it is a form of storytelling that can yield new theoretical and epistemological frameworks. How far into the imaginative or speculative can a biography lean? Where is the line? How does an author get at the inner most thoughts of their subject? Likewise, how does one go about finding the prescient narrative at the center of their subject’s life story? In other words, how do you find those elements that can draw in readers across time and space? Those of us who study Black women know all too well the violence of the archive and the ways in which evidence of our lives, our humanity, have been scattered across archives, pushed to the margins, or omitted altogether. We have had to find ways to piece together the fragments of lives and ideas lived by people whom colonial archival logics tell us did not leave papers or whose stories were not worth recovering.