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Background Image Donna Rae Pearson

Big Idea: We Need to Elevate Black Women's Stories

Donna Rae Pearson is the Local History Librarian at the Topeka & Shawnee County Public Library

Can you remember the first time you learned about a famous African American woman? Many Kansans cannot come up with an answer readily or easily. 

Making Room: Elevating Black Women's Stories to Defy Stereotypes

“Can you remember the first time you heard about a famous African American woman?” I have asked this question in conversation with women of all backgrounds or sometimes I would ask for a famous African American woman from Kansas. Most could not come up with an answer readily or easily.  

As our conversation continued, almost every single Black woman would be able to recall a woman from their neighborhood, their school, their church, or their family who had a positive impact on them. I give voice to my great-grandmother, Gertrude Davis. We were born on the same day 70 years apart. I never met Gert, but always listened and absorbed the stories from others about her daily life.  

She owned a business, fed the hungry, and when it became necessary, moved her family from Oklahoma to Kansas. Gert could be assertive, or gentle, even cussing at times to get her point across. Portrayed as human, she has been a source of inspiration and I proudly follow in her path.  

Greater society doesn’t know the stories of Black women like Gert. What it holds on high is a carefully curated collection of five or six notable women to offer as noteworthy. Their stories are really just headlines: “Harriet Tubman saved her people.” “Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat.” Or “Aretha Franklin, the Queen of Soul.” As presented, these stories do little to expand the narrative of Black women. 

“The Single Story” and Stereotypes 

Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie in her TEDx talk “The Danger of a Single Story” explained that when people are presented as one thing “over and over again…that is what they become.” This “single story” is dangerous because it “creates stereotypes.”  

Even though we as Black women tell each other’s stories they need to reach a wider audience. Why? Because many women do not see themselves in stereotypes, instead we regularly combat them.  

We understand that when entering different spheres of everyday life, we encounter different folks, people influenced in their perceptions of people of color by varying media outlets. In that moment, we are being assessed according to a difference that has nothing to do with us. 

One of the greatest harms of stereotypes is that someone is bound to believe them.  

To Rediscover and Refine

How does one dispel stereotypes? Can there be a story strong enough to create a new image of Black women in Kansas or even America?  

Storytelling has power. In the era of Michelle Obama, we see Black women portrayed in more nuanced ways. We ask for, question, and continually insist that new images of Black women be presented. 

Like Ann Shattio, a former slave and early Shawnee County, Kansas, resident, Black women can be business owners. 

Like Lucinda Todd, secretary for the Topeka NAACP in the 1950s, Black women can be instrumental in groundbreaking cases that change the world. 

Like Oletha Faust-Goudeau, current state senator from the 29th District representing Wichita, Black women can represent Kansas in government positions. 

When we clear away the stereotypes, we make room for new stories. 

These views do not necessarily reflect those of Humanities Kansas, its board of directors, or staff. 

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About Donna Rae Pearson

Donna Rae Pearson holds a Master’s degree in History from Wichita State University.  Her work life consists of teaching people how to research stuff as the Local History Librarian at the Topeka & Shawnee County Public Library.  A love of old buildings and wanting to keep them around landed her a gig on the city of Topeka’s Local Landmarks Commission. As a creative she recently started fulfilling the duties of a board member for ArtsConnect in Topeka. On any given day, you can find her doing volunteer work with community groups in and around Topeka. Her current community service project began with encouragement from friends and family when Donna set out to build one Blessing Box. With this small act a movement was born that has touched Topeka. She is a sister of Delta Sigma Theta Inc.



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