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A Black Woman's Journey from Cotton Picking to College Professor

Lessons about Race, Class, and Gender in America


Menah Pratt-Clarke

A Black Woman's Journey from Cotton Picking to College Professor:  Lessons about Race, Class, and Gender in America traces the journey and transformation of Mildred Sirls, a young Black girl in rural east Texas in the 1930s who picked cotton to help her family survive, to Dr. Mildred Pratt, Professor Emerita of Social Work, who, by lifting as she climbed, influenced hundreds of students and empowered a community.

As a daughter, sister, wife, mother, and scholar-activist, Mildred lived her core beliefs: she felt that it was important to validate individual human dignity; she recognized the power of determination and discipline as keys to success; and she had a commitment to empowering and serving others for the greater good of society. Such values not only characterized the life that she led, they are exemplified by the legacy she left. A Black Woman's Journey from Cotton Picking to College Professor reflects those core values. It celebrates ordinary lives and individuals; it demonstrates the value of hard work; and it illustrates the motto of the National Association of Colored Women, “lifting as we climb.” 

A Black Woman's Journey from Cotton Picking to College Professor can be used for courses in history, ethnic studies, African-American studies, English, literature, sociology, social work, and women’s studies. It will be of interest to sociologists, anthropologists, historians, political economists, philosophers, social justice advocates, humanists, humanitarians, faith-based activists, and philanthropists.

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Chapter Two: The Critical Black Feminist Autobiography


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The Critical Black Feminist Autobiography


Our young African-American children must grow up knowing who they are, where they came from, who they came from—who suffered, died, was humiliated so that they can be where they are. They must know on whose back they were carried. …We, our children, and their children must be the storyteller—we must assure that the story is told like it was and is. Mildred Pratt1

This chapter situates Mildred’s auto-biography2 in the context of literature about Black women’s autobiographical writing and it demonstrates the connections between Black women’s autobiographical writing and Critical Black Feminism. It ends with Mildred’s introduction to her autobiography.

Black Women’s Autobiography

White men’s lives have often dominated the biographies and autobiographies that provide a window into the past. White men who worked in public or official capacity were often able to document their experiences. As such, their story was seen as the official, and only, legitimate, perspective and account of history:

The rise of professional history in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries brought with it a reverence for written sources as the most authoritative, transparent ← 19 | 20 → windows into the past. The serious historical biographer came to believe that he or she could only write about people who left extensive documentation behind; more often than not, the subjects were white men who worked in a public or official...

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