Mens Immota Manet

By Gabriel Blanchard

Virgil wrote the line mens immota manet lacrimæ volvuntur inanes* about Æneas; but if he had been thinking of Cooper, he might have written much the same.

Anna Julia Cooper had one of the most challenging, and one of the longest, lives of anyone on the Bank. Born into slavery, she died in early 1964 at the age of a hundred and five; she had lived as one of the most renowned scholars of her period, holding a degree from a little place across the pond called the Sorbonne, which has had a few other modestly well-respected alumni—St. Thomas Aquinas, Voltaire, the Lubavitcher Rebbe, those sort of people. US Passports printed in 2016 include a quotation from her: “The cause of freedom is not the cause of a race or a sect, a party or a class—it is the cause of humankind, the very birthright of humanity.”

She was born Anna Haywood in North Carolina, shortly before the outbreak of the Civil War. (Her father was either her mother Hannah’s master, George W. Haywood, or his brother Fabius, in whose home Anna’s older brother worked, but Hannah would not disclose which.) In 1865, the Thirteenth Amendment took effect in the state; at the age of nine, Miss Haywood was enrolled as a student in a local normal school† supported by the Episcopal Diocese of North Carolina. Already she was noted for her brains and her spirit; she resolutely refused to accept the typical practice of consigning young women to a “Ladies’ Course” of studies, insisting that she be permitted to work upon material that had not been abridged and simplified in supposed deference to the feminine intellect, and showed great mastery in languages, mathematics, and music. In 1877, she married the Rev. George Cooper. Little is known about their brief life together; Mrs. Cooper was widowed after only two years. She never remarried, and proceeded further with her education. Her academic achievements enabled her to enter Oberlin College at the sophomore level (again following the “male” course of studies), from which she earned a master’s degree in mathematics—one of the first two Black women in the US to be granted an M.A. In 1890, Cooper published an essay arguing that classical training should be generally open to women (in particular to Black women), somewhat in the tradition of Mary Wollstonecraft, and anticipating arguments also set forth by W. E. B. Du Bois in “The Talented Tenth” and The Souls of Black Folk.

Not long thereafter, she moved to Washington DC. Cooper was a staunch advocate of classical education throughout her life, and worked for many years at M Street High School as a Latin teacher and eventually the principal, though for a time she parted ways with the school due to its endorsement of the “vocational training” approach of the Atlanta Compromise. She also began working on her doctorate at Columbia University, participated in a number of advocacy groups supporting the interests of racial minorities and women in the United States, and made the acquaintance of Frederick Douglass and of Ida B. Wells (then living in internal exile, due to violent threats against her for her work in the Memphis Free Speech and Headlight and the destruction of its offices). After an unexpected interval of a few years devoted to raising her brother’s five orphaned children, Cooper resumed work—now for the Sorbonne—on her doctoral degree. Her thesis was ultimately on “The Attitude of France on the Question of Slavery Between 1789 and 1848,”‡ but this was her second choice. Had her classes at Columbia been accepted for credit in Paris, she might have been able to go with her first choice: an edition of the comical twelfth-century chanson de geste,§ Le Pèlerinage de Charlemagne.

To me, faith means treating the truth as true.

Cooper’s best-known work, however, and which has earned her the nickname “the mother of Black feminism,” is A Voice From the South. Published in 1892, it consists of two segments: the first is titled “Soprano Obligato” (obbligato—occasionally spelled with one b in the US, as here—is a musical term indicating that the piece must be sung or played exactly as written and not omitted or altered), and the second, “Tutti ad Libitum” (also a musical term, meaning approximately “all together, freely” and giving the musicians liberty to alter, omit, or decorate). “Soprano” contains four essays, mainly on the subject of women’s role in society and their access to education; “Tutti” contains another four, dealing largely with racial issues as they stood around the turn of the twentieth century.

The work’s subtitle, By a Black Woman of the South, hints at the overarching point of the book: American society stands to benefit from the contributions of women and of people of color—which involve, by nature, a unique perspective that only they can bring forward. The third essay of the eight, “Woman Versus the Indian,” directly confronts the ostensible tension between promoting equality for people of all races and cultures, and promoting equality between the sexes; the issue was prominent at time, and had proven a particular bone of contention within the burgeoning feminist movement. Among activists (regardless of what cause or causes they endorse), the tension is usually expressed as something like If you talk this much about the Thing, it’ll take away from what we need for the Other Thing. Cooper would have none of this:

“Except ye become as little children” is not a pious precept, but an inexorable law of the universe. God’s kingdoms are all sealed to the seedy, moss-grown mind of self-satisfied maturity. Only the little child in spirit, the simple, receptive, educable mind can enter. … Woman should not, even by inference, or for the sake of argument, seem to disparage what is weak. For woman’s cause is the cause of the weak; and when all the weak shall have received their due consideration, then woman will have her “rights,” and the Indian will have his rights, and the Negro will have his rights, and all the strong will have learned at last to deal justly, to love mercy, and to walk humbly; and our fair land will have been taught the secret of universal courtesy which is after all nothing but … regarding one’s neighbor as one’s self, and to do for him as we would, were conditions swapped, that he do for us. … All prejudices, whether of race, sect or sex, class pride and caste distinctions are the belittling inheritance and badge of snobs and prigs. The philosophic mind sees that its own “rights” are the rights of humanity.

When Cooper was about seven years old, the Civil War ended; when she died, the civil rights movement had begun—Martin Luther King‘s March on Washington had taken place just the year before. Not everyone who has the bad luck of being an “issue” to others gets the privilege of seeing that issue improve in their own lifetime; but Anna Julia Cooper was, as the idiom goes, not just anyone.

*In English: Unmoved the mind remains; the vain tears fall. it describes Æneas refusing Dido’s pleas to stay with her, which would have meant abandoning the gods’ command to found Rome.
†A normal school in this period was roughly equivalent to a teachers’ training school, designed to model best practices (today we might say normative instead of normal). Several colleges in the US originated as normal schools, e.g. Virginia State University.
‡1789 was the year in which the French Revolution began. 1848 was quite an eventful year: revolts occurred in dozens of countries (including several of France’s close neighbors, like Prussia, Switzerland, and Venice). In France, King Louis Philippe abdicated and fled the country, ending the “July Monarchy“; the short-lived Second French Republic followed, which revived the abolition of slavery.
§Chansons de geste (lit. “songs of deeds”; chanson de geste, without an s at the end of the first word, is the singular) were a type of Medieval French epic—the Song of Roland is an example.


Gabriel Blanchard has a degree in Classics from the University of Maryland, College Park, which is quite like the Sorbonne in that both have an e in their names. He serves as CLT’s editor at large, and is a proud uncle of seven and godfather of two; he lives in Baltimore, MD.

Thank you for reading the Journal. If you liked this installment in our series on the men and women of the Author Bank, you might also like this series from Dr. Anika Tene’ Prather on the role of classical education in Black history (and her own process of falling in love with it). Our series on the Great Conversation will be wrapping up soon: we have installments on concepts like authority, change, custom & convention, fate, inductive reasoning, law, the mind, nature, sign & symbol, virtue & vice, and many more. You might also enjoy our podcast, Anchored, hosted by CLT’s founder Jeremy Tate.

Published on 14th August, 2023. Page image of a photograph of Mrs. Cooper taken in 1892.

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