“In fact, all of the women in this book have dreamed of a world not only better for themselves but for generations to come, a world where character and ability matter, not color or gender. As they dreamed that world, they acted on those dreams and they changed America.”
Brian Lanker, excerpted from the Preface to I Dream A World
28 years ago, in 1989, a beautiful hardcover “coffee table book” showed up at the independent bookstore – Paperbacks Unlimited in Ferndale, Michigan – where I worked on weekends. The name of that book was I Dream A World: Portraits of Black Women Who Changed America, photographs and interviews by Brian Lanker. The book captivated me so much that there were times when I arrived early or stayed late at the bookstore just so I could pore over its pages.
Septima Poinsette Clark – (Born May 3, 1898, in Charleston, South Carolina; Died December 15, 1987, on Johns Island, South Carolina) whose image graces the cover of I Dream A World – died before the book was published. The introduction to her pages reads: “Septima Clark, one of the most effective and yet unsung heroes of the civil rights movement, believed that literacy was the key to empowerment. After teaching for many years in the public schools of South Carolina, she went to work tirelessly with the Highlander Folk School in Tennessee and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference in Georgia. With her talent for developing leadership, she established innovative citizenship schools throughout the South. She recruited hundreds of teachers who taught thousands of others to read, to register to vote, and to stand up for their rights.”
Large, black-and-white photographs of 76 black women alongside their own words about their backgrounds, the defining experiences of their lives, and their perceptions of how their lives’ works impacted American society – all collected in one book….well, that just wasn’t something I had ever seen before. Remarkably, instead of purchasing a copy for myself, I set aside enough money to buy two copies to give as gifts for Christmas that year. But a funny thing happened: I received two copies of I Dream A World for Christmas – and one was from my mother. You should have seen us tearing-off gift-wrappings and realizing we had given each other the same gift!
For this #Throwback Thursday I hope you will find inspiration in a few images and quotes from I Dream A World.
“I have often been asked, Why this project? Why would a white male set out to document the lives of seventy-five black women? It is a result of my own growing awareness of the vast contribution black women have made to this country and society, a contribution that still seems to have gone largely unnoticed. As a photojournalist, I felt the need to prevent these historical lives from being forgotten.”
Brian Lanker, excerpted from the Preface
“Love was not hard to find in their words, either. It seemed to be a key to their success. A truly beautifying discovery for me was to find so much love in anger. It was a fist-up, death-defying love that challenged the unfair conditions of life and muscled in on injustice as it nursed both sides of the nation.”
– Barbara Summers, excerpted from Editor’s Note
“This foreword does not mean to be an explanation of the Black woman’s stamina. Rather, it is a salute to her as an outstanding representative of the human race. Here, in this book, educators, athletes, dancers, judges, politicians, artists, actresses, writers, singers, poets, and social activists dare to look at life with humor, determination, and respect. Their visages do not entertain hypocrisy. To those who would desire chicanery, the honesty of these women is terrifying.”
– Maya Angelou, excerpted from “They Came to Stay”
“This celebration of sisters is not an attempt to elevate or lower any segment of society, it is merely an opportunity to savor the triumphs of the human spirit, a spirit that does not speak only of black history. My greatest lesson was that this is my history, this is American history.”
– Brian Lanker, excerpted from the Preface
The introduction to Maxine Waters’ pages in I Dream A World read: “Since her election to the California State Assembly in 1976, Maxine Waters of Los Angeles has worked on a wide range of legislation, from sex abuse prevention to corporate divestment from South Africa. Named majority whip by State Assembly Speaker Willie Brown, Waters is considered the most powerful woman in California’s political circles and the most influential black woman in the Democratic Party.”
“I came to understand that it was important to me to pursue those things that I cared about and I really didn’t care if people didn’t like me for it. It’s fine if you can get along with people. And, yes, we live in a society where some diplomacy makes good sense. But in the final analysis, you must not give up your beliefs in order to simply have people like you.”
– Maxine Waters, Born August 15, 1938, in St Louis, Missouri excerpted from her interview
Brian Lanker died in 2011, from pancreatic cancer. He was 63 years old.
About the women on the back cover photo:
Priscilla Williams (Born October 1, 1897, in Oakwood, Texas; died April 16, 1987, in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma). “Priscilla Williams was the mother of fourteen children, although she gave birth to none. Her life of hard work and dedication to the family is typical of the lives of many unsung heroines. Celebrating her life, its great and small achievements, is a way of celebrating them all.”
Click on their names to learn more about Janet Collins, Bishop Leontine Kelly, and Gwendolyn Brooks.