Emily Greenwood (Princeton University): "Optative Citizenship: Mary Church Terrell (1863-1954) and the Grammar of Black Women’s Suffrage"

Mar 31, 2022, 4:30 pm6:00 pm
Corwin Hall, Room 127
Open to Princeton University ID Holders
Event Description

Political Philosophy Colloquium


The optative of wishing can be, but is not always, a subservient mood. In Mary Church Terrell’s autobiography, A Colored Woman in a White World (1940) suffrage becomes a site of umbrage – full of shadows and thwarted possibilities. Along with leading African American women activists of her generation, Terrell campaigned for women’s suffrage, but after the passage of the nineteenth amendment faced an ongoing struggle for rights of access and participation, leading among other causes to Terrell’s successful campaign to de-segregate restaurants in Washington D.C. in the early 1950s. This talk will investigate the grammar and narrativization of citizenship in the rhetoric of Black women’s suffrage, with particular attention to wistful desire for absent, full civil and citizen rights in Terrell’s writings. In emphasizing wistful desire, I take cues from a growing interest in the subjunctive mood in black studies and the emphasis on “the conditional temporality of ‘what could have been’” (Saidiya Hartman) in the turn to critical fabulation. In the political rhetoric of Black women’s suffrage, the optative and subjunctive moods delineate a wistful space of loss and suppressed opportunity and become, in turn, moods for action and agitation. I explore Terrell’s use of these moods as a larger strategy of political ironizing that dramatizes the contingent, past-conditional side-shadows of American history and the conditionality of the dreamwork of the constitution. 



Department of Politics