Skip to main content

Meet a Fellow: Danielle M. Procope Bell

Posted by on Tuesday, December 1, 2020 in Robert Penn Waren Center.

Danielle M. Procope Bell is the 2020-2021 Elizabeth E. Fleming Graduate Student Fellow from the Department of English. Her research focuses on nineteenth century African American literature.

What is your research about and why does it matter?

I research nineteenth century Black women’s intellectual thought. This remains an understudied topic which not only serves to obfuscate the crucial role Black women thinkers have played in creating cultural knowledge, but it also serves to sideline Black women’s needs and interests. My work aims to resuscitate our understanding of the intellectual contributions of nineteenth century Black women thinkers and by doing so reorient our understanding of contemporary feminism and antiracist movements.

In this incredible age of Black Lives Matter, it is especially timely to better understand the role that nineteenth century Black women have played as activists, preachers, teachers, and mothers and how they have set a blueprint that has been deftly utilized by their genealogical and intellectual descendants in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries.

Describe a discovery or a moment in your research that excited you.

For years, I have absorbed the prominent idea that “respectability politics” defines nineteenth century Black women’s writing. Since these works often utilize hegemonic understandings of gender and race it has been widely argued that these writings essentially mimic white women’s work or seek to distance themselves from anti-Black stereotyping at the expense of the most marginalized Black women.

However, as I continued to research, I began to challenge this notion and consider that perhaps Black women used hegemonic language regarding race and gender not to parrot white women’s writing or because they had uncritically accepted these norms but rather to create their own revolutionary politics in a language that would be heard and more likely to be accepted by their contemporaries.

What if we assume that Black women’s writing has revolutionary intent and focus on how they might accomplish this within the strictures of nineteenth century culture and politics? What if we assume that Black women knew and understood that they could never inhabit the privileged space of white womanhood and therefore must create a novel understanding of womanhood that could encompass the particular experiences of Black women?

These are the principal assumptions driving my research that leads me to read this work in a different way than many previous scholars have. This excites me because I believe this can open the door to understanding how nineteenth century Black women’s intellectual thought has been crucial for framing contemporary Black feminist theory and more broadly influencing race and gender politics.

What was your first job, and what lessons did you learn from it?

My first job was working as a secretary for the student life office of my undergraduate university. Aside from the skills a person typically learns while working as a secretary, I learned how to pay attention to my surroundings. As a secretary, I was connected to many different departments and individuals who would call on me for various reasons. Gradually, I learned how to anticipate what others would need and I began to learn the rhythm of the office where I worked. This allowed me to better perform my job role and experience less stress while doing so.

I use this same skill in my doctoral research. I must pay attention to the voices of the women I write about so that I accurately represent them. I must pay attention to how other scholars have chosen to write about these women and identify any gaps or misrepresentations. Lastly, I must pay attention to my own assumptions and how they may become apparent in my work. I believe this makes for stronger research.