The Desire to Know,
Not Just a Little, but a Great Deal
May 1893 — The World’s Congress of Representative Women, Chicago IL
This conference can not be indifferent to the history of the colored women of America, for if we have been able to accomplish anything whatever in what are considered the higher studies, or if we have been able to achieve anything by heroic living and thinking, all the more can you achieve it. It is an unanswerable argument for every woman’s claim. If we fight the battle, all the more can you win it. Therefore you know this is not simply a side issue in which you feel that out of consideration for a certain class of people you ask them to give the history of their life. I have often thought of you when the battle went hard with me, and when it was impossible for me to gain the encouragement I might have gained by looking upon the faces of the best people of America; for whatever may be said of what we have had to suffer in this country, we have never had to suffer from the best people. The opposition, and the trials, and the oppression and depression and suppression have always come from the middle and lower classes, and that has grown out of their very poor education. And now what is the hope for the future? Every hope.
I wish by no means to be among that class of people that counsel words without knowledge. We, as a people, have suffered greatly from what may be termed the “sizing up,” and the regulation “putting down,” and setting forth of what is possible for us to do.
Our idea of getting an education did not come out of wanting to imitate any one whatever. It grew out of the uneasiness and the restlessness of the desires we felt within us; the desire to know, not just a little, but a great deal. We wanted to know how to calculate an eclipse, to know what Hesiod and Livy thought; we wished to know the best thoughts of the best minds that lived with us; not merely to gain an honest livelihood, but from a God-given love of all that is beautiful and best, and because we thought we could do it.
If black girls can calculate equations and logarithims as I saw them doing yesterday, how much more could you with your higher inheritance do? Do you consider that you owe us an obligation for that?
There was a single word used in the address that I heard this evening that I can not hear without having permission to reply. What is that word? We, as you know, are classed among the working people, and so when the days of slavery were over, and we wanted an education, people said, “What are you going to do with an education?” You know yourselves you have been met with a great many arguments of that kind. Why educate the woman — what will she do with it? An impertinent question, and an unwise one. Rather ask, “What will she be with it?” We are getting a better education all through America. I can not think that the selfishness, the discourtesy that would push down a poor, weak, innocent creature because it could not protect itself will long remain in America. It is bound to succumb to the better education that is everywhere being given, till people will call it after awhile by its right name, viz.: very bad manners. Nobody can be considered well-bred who would cause an inoffensive traveler to leave the table to himself.
Source: World’s Congress of Representative Women, ed. May Wright Sewall, (Chicago: Rand, McNally & Company), 1894, pp. 715-717.