Black Women Had a Good Year—or Did We?

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Black Women Had a Good Year—or Did We?

Cynthia Greenlee

We may have gained unprecedented political power, literary accolades, and foundation that truly matches our skin tones, but we are still at the bottom of too many health indicators and too many ladders to social and economic mobility to call 2017 a win.

Before Time unveiled its designation of 2017 as the year of the Silence Breakers, we at Rewire pondered the long list of Black women’s achievements in the preceding months and wondered if this could be appropriately labeled the Year of the Black Woman. The recent election of Alabama’s newest U.S. senator, Doug Jones, helped clinch the argument, as no other group cast more votes for Roy Moore’s Democratic challenger than Black women in Alabama.

But one election in one state does not a year make. And neither do all the successes of Black women in public arenas negate that Black women—whether they be African American, Caribbean-born, immigrants from Africa, or with origins throughout this big, broad diaspora—are still at the bottom of too many health indicators and too many ladders to social and economic mobility. We are sometimes at the top, being more likely to read a book than any other college-educated person in the United States and more likely to start a business. But we also are more likely to die due to a pregnancy-related cause.

So with those caveats in mind, we do this recap (and we know you can probably add more to this list). And we will continue to ask the question of what constitutes progress, health, and transformation for Black women.

#BlackWomenGovern: This year, Black women politicians have been elected in positions and places they’ve never had them before: Atlanta and Charlotte just elected Black women mayors. In Minneapolis, Andrea Jenkins became the only known Black transgender woman elected to public office nationwide when she won a seat on the city council. And Georgia could have a Black woman governor in candidate Stacey Abrams. Also, hats off to Rep. Frederica Wilson (D-FL), who took on the president and his bulldog John Kelly for one of her constituents (and got threats for it); Sen. Kamala Harris (D-CA), who took office as the only Black woman in the Senate currently (and only the second in history)—and got straight to business by her relentless questioning in Congressional hearings. And Rep. Maxine Waters (D-CA), who continues to reclaim our democracy by always saying what she means and pushing inquiries into President Trump’s business dealings and Russia shenanigans (she’s always snatching somebody’s orange toupee edges).

Stop Killing Trans Women: All of 2017’s firsts and unprecedented events for Black women are not achievements. In 2017, more than two dozen trans people were murdered in this country, many of them women of color. They include Mesha Caldwell of Canton, Mississippi, who was killed just four days into the New Year, and 24-year-old Tiara Richmond, who was shot to death on a Chicago street where at least two trans women had been shot in 2012.

Answers for Myeshia Johnson: One of the most devastating stories of the year is that of Myeshia Johnson and her family. Her husband, La David Johnson, was killed while serving the military in the African country of Niger. How Johnson died isn’t clear despite reports of torture, outrageously slow communication from the Department of Defense, and conflicting stories, but Myeshia wasn’t allowed to open his coffin when his remains were brought back to the states. And our president allegedly showed his inability to be human by telling Myeshia that her husband knew what could happen when he enlisted. To which the president responded, by calling this young Gold Star widow a liar. To which we simply say: “Pot. Kettle.”

Maternal Mortality: Is It on Your Radar Yet? More people are talking about the fact that Black women are dying during or after pregnancy and childbirth at higher rates than their counterparts of other ethnicities, thanks to increasing recent reporting on the issue. But this isn’t a new issue, and shoutouts should go to the maternal health warriors—researchers, clinicians, and advocates such as the Black Mamas Matter Alliance—for being that squeaky wheel that comes with the evidence and energy to make sure that more women don’t die these preventable deaths—or if they do, their deaths won’t go unmarked.

#GOATAndGestating: Serena Williams cruised to victory in the Australian Open this January, only to reveal weeks later that she was 2 months pregnant during the tournament. Williams managed to show why she’s the Greatest of All Time in tennis—and truly exceptional—but also represents for the millions of working women who do their jobs while reproducing and parenting. Williams has promised a return to the courts in January.

And in other sports news, Maame Biney, originally from Ghana, became the first Black woman to qualify for a U.S. Olympic speedskating team. Who says Black people don’t do winter sports? And Gabby Douglas and Simone Biles made headlines again, not just for their gymnastic excellence, but for speaking about the sexual abuse that Douglas and others experienced from a team doctor.

#MeToo: Rose McGowan didn’t start it. Let’s say that again for the people in the back. Rose McGowan didn’t start it. The woman who started the #MeToo hashtag is Tarana Burke (and she’ll be leading the New Year’s countdown in Times Square, by the way). Though actress Gabrielle Union and others have spoken about how #MeToo has focused on the experiences of white women celebrities and erased Black women’s trauma, women like Burke have long been talking about the epidemic of sexual violence in the tradition of Black women who have publicly spoken about their experiences of abuse and harassment. And this is not historical: Scriptwriter (and granddaughter of icon Lena Horne) Jenny Lumet publicized her story of her own allegations against former music executive Russell Simmons. Surely, this is to be continued.

And while we’re talking about sexual coercion, there is a growing movement to #MuteRKelly. For whatever reason, the R&B star who has been accused of repeatedly soliciting sex from girls and young women—and even keeping them imprisoned in cult-like conditions in his ATL mansion—has escaped punishment and even rigorous scrutiny. But women activists such as Atlanta’s Kenyette Tisha Barnes have banded together, prompting the cancellation of his concerts in cities such as Memphis.

The Literati: This is a year of superlatives. Can we talk about Jesmyn Ward winning a National Book Award twice? Or playwright Lynn Nottage pulling off the same feat, but with the Pulitzer Prize for Drama? Both women chronicle parts of African-American and American culture in ways that are so urgently needed: Nottage’s second Pulitzer-winning piece, Sweat, takes us to a Rust Belt city where a factory layoff exposes the fault lines in friendships, and Ward’s Sing, Unburied, Sing follows the complicated history of a Mississippi family. Also in the “I Won It Twice Club” is science fiction scribe, N.K. Jemisin, who got a second Hugo and finished her Broken Earth trilogy this year.

Journalist Nikole Hannah-Jones was recognized with a coveted MacArthur “Genius Award” for her New York Times reporting, including her stunning piece on segregation, politics of school choice, and selecting a school for her daughter; it was a masterwork that challenges the (should-be-retired) idea that journalists should abandon their personal lives at the newsroom door. And let’s not forget Roxane Gay and her unforgettable Hunger memoir. Scholar Brittney Cooper released Beyond Respectability: The Intellectual Thought of Race Women, a dazzling tribute to Black women as ground-breaking theorists, imaginers of the future, and tragically underrecognized public intellectuals (no, Cornel West and Ta-Nehisi Coates are not the only ones in these intellectual streets). Then, there’s Rachel Kaadzi Ghansah’s GQ profile of the Charleston shooter, “A Most American Terrorist” The Making of Dylann Roof.” It’s elegant and piercing auteurship that left me happy I can read but ravaged by its clarity, power, and life in white supremacist America.

In the realm of publishing and books, Jamia Wilson is the youngest person ever to run the Feminist Press. There’s a Black woman in charge of the Library of Congress and at the National Book Foundation, though both have been on the job a while. And the much-anticipated and sold-out Well-Read Black Girl festival debuted in New York.

Taking Names on TV: Lena Waithe’s historic Emmy victory for her writing on Master of None felt like a victory for all of us—and for Black lesbian visibility in Hollywood and beyond. I felt a shiver of fear that Issa Rae’s Insecure had jumped the shark when white friends were posting about it on Facebook. Nonetheless, Issa Rae’s adventures of young Black women trying to find love, vocations, and meaning kept about half of America captivated during this season (and sparked conversations about that infamous oral sex scene, how sexual partners need to talk, and how often condoms are making an appearance in small-screen nookie). And while we’re talking about sex on the tube, Spike Lee and Netflix rebooted the filmmaker’s She’s Gotta Have It into an updated series about the spiritual, artistic, and sexual cravings of Miss Nola Darling.

Making Movies With Melanin: Two words: Girls Trip. Well, another two words: Tiffany Haddish.

Cardi B: Let’s be frank: The former Love & Hip Hop personality is one of that franchise’s few breakout stars to have used the show’s platform to spectacular advantage. She could teach a class in using media for a career come-up. Her “Bodak Yellow” skyrocketed to the top spot on the Billboard chart. Not bad for a “regular shmegular girl” from the Bronx.

History Matters: We may learn more about what it meant to be an enslaved person in early America because archaeologists believe they have found the colonial Virginia site where “Angela,” a woman kidnapped in Africa and enslaved in this country around 1625, lived.

Rihanna the Makeup Mogul: When singer Rihanna debuted her Fenty Beauty makeup line at Sephora in September, women of color around the world rejoiced. With more than 40 shades of foundation, Fenty Beauty epitomized the FUBU (for us, by us) philosophy and set off a celebratory wave of makeup experimentation for women who have had to mix and match to no avail (and buy peach-colored “nude” hosiery) for far too long. And if she wasn’t a mogul before, RiRi raked in a stunning $72 million in the first month of sales.

Black Women Build Economies, But Where’s Our Wealth?: Black women in the United States have the highest rate for business creation of any population in the country. So there’s no lack of entrepreneurial spirit and creativity in these parts, but there is a distinct lack of infrastructure to help them sustain their ventures. Black women may start businesses at six times the rate of other Americans, but our median net wealth clocks in at $100, a shocking figure that should be even more troubling when you consider how many Black women lead households. And that pay gap doesn’t seem to be shrinking.

#SayHerName: Because it’s not only Black men who are killed by law enforcement: Kiwi Herring, India Nelson, Charleena Lyles, Sandy Guardiola, Jonie Block, Robin White, Morgan London Rankins, Alteria Woods, and Cariann Hithon.

Omarosa (Again): Among reality TV’s most memorable villains, Omarosa Manigault-Newman was escorted out of the White House and the cushy communications position that she struggled to explain to the National Association of Black Journalists this summer. We’ll see if a tell-all book follows, (though we predict another reality show in her future).

As we move into 2018, we look forward to seeing how Black women continue to create change in their communities, our politics and culture, and for themselves.