Disclosure and Dissemblance: Nannie Helen Burroughs and the Challenge of Black Women’s Biography

Angela Hornsby-Gutting

In 1909 the African American newspaper the Nashville Globe called Nannie Helen Burroughs “one of the foremost women in America” and effused that “it is hardly probable that any one church will be able to hold the admirers of this brilliant woman of whom it is said, that in her speeches, lectures and stage manners, she excels the noted Ida B. Wells”[1] Indeed, Nannie Helen Burroughs was a prominent African American educator, civil rights activist, and speaker. Burroughs established and led numerous organizations meant to uplift African Americans, including the women’s auxiliary of the black National Baptist Convention, the National Training School for Women and Girls, and the National Association of Wage Earners, a short-lived organization that sought fair wages and improved working conditions for black domestic workers. In addition, she was heavily involved in the National Association of Colored Women’s anti-lynching campaign and oversaw its Young Women’s Department.

Yet, Burroughs never attained the same breadth and consistency of vision as her contemporaries: Ida B. Wells, Mary Church Terrell, and Mary McCleod Bethune, among others. Nor has her historical legacy paralleled her fame during her lifetime or proven to be as enduring as that of her contemporaries. The scholar Sharon Harley wrote in a 1996 article, “Burroughs was one of the best known and most respected figures among African Americans in the 20th century . . . yet remains absent from most contemporary historical works.” Indeed, only one contemporary full-length biography of Burroughs exists.[2]

Two years ago, I began research for my own biography of Burroughs. I learned early on that there are particular “ways of knowing” that inform how African American women’s identities are revealed, represented, and disseminated.[3]These ways of knowing are defined by black women themselves and rely on the power of subordinate groups to define their own reality based on personal experience. The historian Darlene Clark Hine has referred to these ways of knowing as “a culture of dissemblance” whereby black women hid the truth of their private selves from their oppressors.[4]

Burroughs’ life exemplifies the variant nature of the racial and gendered landscape that she occupied and molded. She responded to life’s challenges, public and private, through creative, and at times, nontraditional methods. It is these particular strategies of disclosure and dissemblance that have placed her in and outside our historical consciousness.

Early historians of black women often opted for textual silences when broaching their subjects’ inner lives. Contemporary historians, too, must consider a number of important questions when delving into the personal lives of private individuals: What are the implications—practical and ethical—for the modern historian/biographer trying to discover what was meant to be hidden? What choices does the historian have when attempting to mediate such silences? What recourse does the historian have when the archive does not reveal everything?

In my biography of Burroughs, I am faced with the challenge of someone who decided which parts of her private life to disclose and took great pains to hide her inner life. Unlike her former teacher and mentor, Mary Church Terrell, Burroughs never penned a memoir or had her love letters published. Indeed, Burroughs never married or had children. Her friend and biographer Earl Harrison acknowledged the enigma surrounding Burroughs’ life. He wrote, “like a tree she is better known by her fruit. She is so full of ideas and so imbued with the passion for service that she had no time to talk about Nannie.”<[5] The metonymic Burroughs talked straight, and was unsentimental (in one speech, she bluntly called out so-called Uncle Toms, saying they should be “chloroformed”). Above all, she represented an authentic, robust expression of black womanhood by behaving and acting in a way that proved beyond moral reproach and by devoting her mental energies toward improving the race’s status.

The archive poses a challenge for the researcher trying to uncover the truth about someone who kept her private life so hidden. While Burroughs left a voluminous public record in the Library of Congress, her historical legacy and personal history has been dimly viewed and not fully understood. Burroughs consciously sheltered a comprehensive personal history from public view. As part of a vast collection of writings, speeches, organization minutes, and correspondence at the Library of Congress, only a slim folder of letters encompasses her family history. There are no obvious love letters. In this respect, the archive provides an “open secret,” for it imparts the useful lesson of how one woman navigated between her public and private identities. Burroughs consciously sheltered a traditional personal life from public view, a choice we as historians should honor.

That said, the textual silences as embodied within Burroughs’ 342 archival boxes at the Library of Congress provide the historian opportunity to mediate these silences while not betraying them. In many respects, Burroughs was an open book publicly while remaining protective of her inner self. This duality poses challenges to scholars working in a contemporary world where little is left to the imagination. Additionally, Burroughs remained unmarried at a time when black women displayed marriage and motherhood as added badges of respectability. Despite this, the historian can oblige African American women’s historical practice in dissemblance without relinquishing notions of intimacy altogether. As historians, we can navigate and respect the private path that Burroughs chose by re-envisioning intimacy on her terms. For scholars approaching Burroughs, this type of reinvention seems appropriate given how her life routinely encompassed nontraditional expressions.

The grandness of the work Burroughs performed served to sublimate this reality as part of her imagined construction. At the same time, the ways in which she chose to represent intimacy has been underscrutinized and underappreciated. Burroughs was a diligent collector and disseminator of correspondence. We can “read” intimacy and its application to Burroughs through a collection of her personal photographs and postcards in the Library of Congress archives. One photograph, labeled simply as “The Happy Pair,” displays a young Burroughs and an unidentified black woman in a warm embrace, the fingertips of their hands interlocking while the arm of the other woman drapes across Burroughs’ shoulder. Such textual and visual evidence illustrate the ways in which historians can address the personal attachments formed and sustained during an individual’s lifetime, without disrupting that individual’s sense of privacy.

The ongoing challenge of historians and biographers seeking to unmask “interiority”—or interior consciousness—from their African American female subjects may require some magical thinking: perhaps employing novel methodologies and redefining terminologies such as intimacy. This approach also dictates that we mediate the need for complete and conventional disclosures in our subjects, in part, by accepting dissemblance when and where it occurs. Such orientation requires that the historian accept the constraints of the archive, but not one’s imagination, when crafting biography in ways that are meaningful and yet respectful of the individual.


ANGELA HORNSBY-GUTTING is an associate professor at Missouri State University, where she specializes in African American and gender history. She is the author of Black Manhood and Community Building in North Carolina, 1900–1930 (2009). Currently she is working on a biography of race activist and educator Nannie Helen Burroughs.