Press Releases: Historiography Edition

Harris- Higginbotham, “African American Women’s History and the Metalanguage of Race”

Historiography Connections

African American History, American History, Women’s History, Social, Political, and Cultural History

Geographic Coverage

The main focal point of the article is the United States. She does also mention Africa and South America.

Article Citations

Main Journal Article

Higginbotham, Evelyn Brooks. “African-American Women’s History and the Metalanguage of Race.” Signs: Journal of Women in Culture and Society 17, no. 2 (1992): 251–74.

Extra Journal Articles

Higginbotham, Evelyn Brooks. “‘The Metalanguage of Race,’ Then and Now.” Signs: Journal of Women in Culture and Society 42, no. 3 (2017): 628–42.

Rockquemore, Kerry A. “ Rethinking Race as a ‘ Metalanguage The Intersections of Race and Gender in Locating Black Women’s Voices.” Race, Gender &Class 6, no. 2 (1999): 48–72.

Press Release

Professor Evelyn Brooks Higginbotham is the Victor S. Thomas Professor of History and African and African American studies at Harvard University.[1]  She is a long-time faculty member who started her tenure in 1993. She remains at Harvard to this day.[2] “African American Women’s History and the Metalanguage of Race” is her making her mark on the world of history. This article published in 1992, uses methods from African American history, women’s history, and post-structuralism to investigate what race is and has been, as well as the changes the definition has had over time.



“African American Women and the Metalanguage of Race” points out two ideas: race is a social construct used to maintain power dynamics[3] and is used to show the power relations between different social groups. Before going any further, here is a clear explanation of metalanguage.  According to Merriam-Webster, metalanguage is the language we, as humans, use to talk about language.[4] Higginbotham views race with three other social constructs, class, gender, and sexuality, and looks at race as a double-voiced discourse. While Higginbotham doesn’t look at a set period of time, she looks at almost 125 years starting with the Antebellum South in 1855 and the case of Celia v. the State of Missouri[5] and ending at the HIV/AIDS crisis[6]. Higginbotham also used this article to point out that historical examples such as the AIDS crisis and the case of the Tuskegee Airmen mostly looked at with black men at the forefront., Her article places black women at the front of the line. Metalanguage as an article is used to talk about the codes, we use to say race without saying race.



Higginbotham uses a mix of post-structural, women, African American, social, and political history to address this subject. She uses post-structural history to analyze what race is and how it isn’t a fixed universal. She also uses social history to show the differences between how black and white women have been affected by the ever-changing definition of race.[7] Higginbotham also demonstrates a post-structuralist viewpoint by showing that race never had a strict definition and that it changed as those in power needed it to.[8] I would also say that she uses political history as well because of the nature of black people being seen as political tools and the nature of the feminist movement.



While the critiques found from other historians are few, a Notre Dame sociologist named Kerry A. Rockquemore, had plenty to say. Rockquemore claims that “Metalanguage” is questionable because it, “ranks racial stratification above all other forms of oppression” [9]Rockquemore offers four other ways to look at race in her own article, Rethinking Race as a ‘Metalanguage’: The Intersections of Race and Gender in Locating Black Women’s Voices. Rockquemore views the way black women’s voices are heard in what she calls “the traditional subject-object binary relationship.”[10]  In her three models; master/slave, emerging voice, and self-definition, she shows black women against people who are acting as a part of their oppression, white men, black men, and white women. For the final idea, she talks about the valuation of difference.

The problem I have with Higginbotham’s article is that she tries to get rid of the idea that there is no black experience. While it isn’t great to generalize, it is important to understand that black people in the US go through a lot of the same things. A lot of black women and men alike have the same experiences, being followed through stores because they think we’re stealing, people treating our hair like 1, it is unprofessional and 2, a petting zoo. Also, she refers to black people as blacks, which I understand she was born in the middle of 1945, but she published the article in 1992, which referring to black people as blacks is WHOLLY inappropriate. Also, a small critique of Rockquemore; she is focused more on the language instead of the relationships and actual effects of goal post shifting that American does with race.  Rockequemore and Higginbotham are on the same page but in different books completely.



The larger impact of this work is simple: it put black women at the forefront of narratives. Higginbotham uses this article to bring forth black women not on in the historical context but also in a political one. If she inspired no one else, she did so for herself. In 2017, Higginbotham published another article in the journal Signs titled “The Metalanguage of Race” Then and Now” examining how her initial work has held up over 25 that had passed. In Higginbotham’s own words “the article’s citation testify to the explosion of theoretical studies devoted to race and gender in many disciplines in the 1980s and 1990s.”[11]  For Higginbotham’s article to be cited 1,566 times in other journals by psychologists, sociologists, and other historians, and for it to cause so much conversation, shows how needed it was. The article helped people in different fields of study to try and find black women’s place in the narratives of American history.



[1] Evelyn Brooks Higginbotham. Harvard University Department of History. Accessed November 15, 2022.

[2] Evelyn Brooks Higginbotham. Harvard University Department of History. Accessed November 15, 2022.

[3] Higginbotham, “Metalanguage”, 253

[4] Dictionary, s.v. “metalanguage,” accessed November 17, 2022,

[5] Higginbotham, “Metalanguage”, 253.

[6] Higginbotham, “Metalanguage”, 272-273

[7] Higginbotham, “Metalanguage”, 259-261

[8] Higginbotham, “Metalanguage”, 272-273

[9] Rockquemore, “Rethinking Metalanguage”, 48

[10] Rockquemore, “Rethinking Metalanguage”, 49

[11]  Higginbotham, Evelyn Brooks. “‘The Metalanguage of Race,’ Then and Now.” Signs: Journal of Women in Culture and Society 42, no. 3 (2017): 628–42.


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