The past 60 years have seen seismic shifts in American culture and society. Besides the tsunami of technological advances, from typewriters to personal computers and from memos to iPads and smart phones, social changes have impacted the country, bringing in sweeping changes to our attitudes about social norms and the way we interact with each other. The Civil Rights movement made its way from bloody confrontations in the 1960s to the inauguration of the first African-American president in 2009. Barbara Moss, Georgia Highlands College’s new associate professor of history assigned to the Cartersville campus, has lived through many of these changes, studying them because of their direct impact on her family’s life – and therefore, on hers. Along the way, she discovered a fascination with black history and African women’s history in particular. She was so fascinated, in fact, that she traveled to Zimbabwe to study and live. From her home base in Harare, she conducted research for her dissertation in the National Archives and interviewed women in the Ruwadzano organization. The Ruwadzano is a Methodist women’s organization, which in Africa, as in many other places around the world, forms the backbone of the church. She found the Zimbabwean culture fascinating, and it added to her growing interest in this piece of history.
What interested Moss even more was the colonial period between the late 1800s and the early 1900s, certainly a significant time frame in Africa, but even more so in America, at least from an American perspective.
In the United States, that period saw the end of the Civil War and the rise of industrialism. It also saw Jim Crow laws, which mandated segregation in a number of states, most notably in the South. The impact of external culture on black women in both Africa and America has played a role in shaping black culture on both continents. In predominantly patriarchal societies, these women forged a strong and influential part of their respective communities, lasting into the present day. For example, Ruwadzano women are the church within the church in Africa, and a central part of its backbone. They have learned – much like ladies in 19th Century England and America – to manipulate situations to achieve a particular outcome. At one meeting with these women during her visit to Zimbabwe, Moss said they were very polite. She thought they didn’t speak English because one of them only spoke to her in English, then translated for the others. As the group ate cake and drank tea one of the women who had previously spoken only in Shona, turned to Moss and asked her about her family – in perfect English. They had been carefully biding their time to see who she really was and how she reacted to them before they spoke freely.
At the end of the 1900s, colonial Africa had been settled by many missionaries who worked to change key roles within the tribal culture. The Europeans tried to shape an agrarian society with different roles for women into their own model of housewives and ladies. It didn’t work for the adults, who were quite resistant to such changes in their culture. However, women saw the potential and opportunities to learn new skills, and thus organized themselves within the patriarchal African and colonial systems. And the missionaries focused on children, who were naturally more pliable. But the Colonial period ultimately resulted in violence and upheaval, and many African Christians suffered. During the fight for independence against colonialists, war broke out between the Rhodesian government and African liberation fighters. Some of the guerillas were anti-Christian because the Rhodesian government identified themselves as a Christian civilization, so they attacked African Christians. Some Africans were attacked because they wore uniforms of the missions, which represented the enemy to various guerilla groups.
Moss has found this role in history a fascinating one, both as an African-American and as a woman. It has influenced her teaching, for she believes in imparting all aspects of the era she’s teaching — the good, the bad and the ugly of the past and its impact on the present. “There is much to learn from the past,” she said. “Nevertheless, I believe that America, even with our own dark past, is more accepting of diversity and difference than anywhere else on earth. So I feel positive about our future, that we will live up to our ideals.”