Holding Out Hopes, Hesitations, for Black Herstory Month

Pamela Merritt

Celebrating the good during Black Herstory Month is as easy as it is tempting, but exploring and addressing the injustices that remain unaddressed is required for the month to be meaningful.

When a colleague sent me a Choice
Feminist Campus post, Black
HERstory Month
, offering
ways to observe and honor Black History Month from a feminist perspective,
I was intrigued.  I have long been conflicted about Black History
Month because of its superficial presentation — and I am not sure celebrating
Black HERstory Month is the answer I seek. 

If you Google "do we still
need Black History Month?" a ton of articles and posts pop up — either
defending or critiquing what has become a must-do month long celebration
for many schools, organizations and companies.  Last year, the
actor Morgan Freeman added fuel to the already smoldering fire when
he called the idea of Black History Month "ridiculous" during an
appearance on 60 Minutes.  Many share Freeman’s views that Black
history should be a part of history everyday, while others argue that
while a month recognizing black history may have potential, Black History
Month as it exists in the U.S. has become too commercial to have any
real social value. 

Renee of Womanist Musings has a guest post up on Feministe titled Black History Month in which she explains why she has deliberately
not done a "celebration post" for Black History Month. 

"For a brief 28 days of the
365 that make up a year, people will briefly acknowledge the contributions
of blacks and then return to privileging whiteness in every single social
institution."   

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I tend to agree with Renee and
have been exasperated by the number of people who want to specifically
celebrate this year’s Black History Month because we just elected
this nation’s first president of African descent.  It feels forced,
obligatory and downright inappropriate when so many communities of color
are struggling to survive the same sea of societal toxic waste resulting
from the lack of privilege that they faced last year. 

I can’t help but think that
Black Herstory Month is destined to that same fate as Black History
Month, even though I really like the idea of studying and honoring the
contributions women of color have made throughout history.   

When I was a young child, Black
History Month was celebrated through traditional examinations of slavery,
the Civil Rights Movement and the struggle for equal education. 
The unique contributions women of color have made and are making were
often overlooked, and I was left feeling invisible during a month that
was supposed to increase my visibility.  That lack of visibility
continues — and was particularly felt during last year’s election
coverage when women voters and black voters were spoken of as if black
women voters simply don’t exist.  

So, I wasn’t shocked by the
continued failure to mention Shirley Chisholm’s name during the historic
2008 presidential campaign even though her presidential candidacy in
1972 foreshadowed many of the issues and controversies last year’s
race resurrected.  Chisholm became the first black woman elected
to Congress in 1968, and ran for president in 1972.  An examination
of Chisholm requires an examination of why her candidacy was not viewed
as viable and why history has failed to acknowledge her run and it is
clear that such an examination wouldn’t fit into the "we’re gonna
make history" election year narrative of 2008.  If Black History
Month functioned properly, Shirley Chisholm’s historic 1972 run would
have been top of mind for political pundits searching for examples of
the challenges candidates of color face when they run for statewide
or national office.  If we are ever in a position to assess the
impact of Black Herstory Month, name recognition among the general public
and within communities of color for Shirley Chisholm, Angela Davis and
Cynthia McKinney as African Americans who have run for President of
the United States must be a measure. 

And I’m not unmoved by the
proposal to increase our historical awareness of women of color. 
In fact there may still be something to this Black Herstory Month idea
if we use it right. The Choices Feminist Campus post provides some good
suggestions for ways to explore and celebrate herstories in a meaningful
and educational way. 

We can host regular screenings
of films or documentaries about, directed and written by and starring
people of African descent.   A favorite film of mine is Chisholm
’72: Unbought and Unbossed
,
which explores Chisholm’s 1972 run for president.  The documentary
is a fascinating look at herstory too often overlooked when we explore
women in politics.  Screening and discussing this documentary provides
an opportunity to learn more about Chisholm’s historic run for office
and explore the issues raised during it that are still relevant today. 

Or perhaps we would prefer to
host a ceremony or gathering to pay homage for past sheroes and heroes
of African descent who have contributed greatly to our world. 
I was able to participate in such an event a few years ago.  Participants
were asked to research women in our families who were part of the Civil
Rights movement.  We then honored those women through personal
accounts, performances and song.  Preparing for the event gave
me the opportunity to collect personal histories from my relatives. 
I was able to build a herstory of my Grandmother and get to know her
through the context of the struggle for social justice.  I discovered
that my Grandmother was active in the anti-Lynching movement, participated
in boycotts and marches and fought for better access for women to health
care more than 50 year ago.  Honoring my Grandmother provided an
opportunity to explore not just what she was able to accomplish but
also what she was prevented from accomplishing.   

The ideas presented for Black
Herstory Month are all doable as regular projects throughout the year
and they all provide opportunities to celebrate as well as identify
inequalities in need of correction. The problem is that many schools
and institutions see Black History Month as just another diversity "to-do"
that, once completed, lets them off the hook for the rest of the year. 
So they place a few ads on Black radio stations and sponsor a couple
of events then call it a day.  The challenge is figuring out how
we can sell through the benefits of a comprehensive program to those
same schools and institutions when so many of them enjoy the ease and
sense of accomplishment that comes with single serve diversity initiatives
per month.  

In many ways it falls on the
students and employees of such institutions to push and challenge for
more meaningful interactions and events that truly reflect Black History;
for the inclusion of Black history as a part of American history and
women’s history and LGBT history and you get the picture.  And
there can not be enough emphasis put on the word "meaningful," because
celebrating the good is as easy as it is tempting but exploring and
addressing the injustices that remain unaddressed is what is required
to achieve meaningful. 

As Rene of Womanist Musings points
out at the conclusion of her Feministe
guest post
, engaging
in dialogue and listening to each other is part of the solution. 
Without that dialogue Black Herstory Month is doomed to fall short of
being an instrument of social justice and far more likely to evolve
into just another vacant minority marketing campaign scheduled in the
month of February.

Commentary Politics

Milwaukee Officials: Black Youth, Single Mothers Are Not Responsible for Systemic Failings—You Are

Charmaine Lang

Milwaukee has multiple problems: poverty, a school system that throws out Black children at high rates, and lack of investment in all citizens' quality of life. But there's another challenge: politicians and law enforcement who act as if Black youth, single mothers, and families are the "real" reasons for the recent uprising and say so publicly.

This piece is published in collaboration with Echoing Ida, a Forward Together project.

On the day 23-year-old Sylville Smith was killed by a Milwaukee police officer, the city’s mayor, Tom Barrett, pleaded publicly with parents to tell their children to come home and leave protests erupting in the city.

In a August 13 press conference, Barrett said: “If you love your son, if you love your daughter, text them, call them, pull them by the ears, and get them home. Get them home right now before more damage is done. Because we don’t want to see more loss of life, we don’t want to see any more injuries.”

Barrett’s statement suggests that parents are not on the side of their sons and daughters. That parents, too, are not tired of the inequality they experience and witness in Milwaukee, and that youth are not capable of having their own political ideologies or moving their values into action.

It also suggests how much work Milwaukee’s elected officials and law enforcement need to do before they open their mouths.

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Barrett’s comments came after Smith fled a traffic stop and was shot by authorities on Milwaukee’s northwest side. The young Black man’s death sparked an urban uprising in the Sherman Park neighborhood, an area known for its racial and religious diversity. Businesses were burnt down, and the National Guard was activated in a city plagued by racism and poverty.

But Milwaukee parents and families need more than a directive thinly disguised as a plea. And Mayor Barrett, who was re-elected to a fourth term in April, should know well that Milwaukee, the nation’s most racially stratified city, needs racial equity in order for there to be peace and prosperity.

I live in Milwaukee, so I know that its residents, especially its Black parents, do love their children. We want more for them than city-enforced curfews and a simplistic solution of returning to their homes as a way to restore calm. We will have calm when we have greater investment in the public school system and youth services; easy access to healthy food; and green spaces, parks, and neighborhoods that are free from police harassment.

In fact, according to staggering statistics about Milwaukee and Wisconsin as a whole, Black people have been consistently denied their basic human rights and health. Wisconsin has the highest rate of incarceration of Black men nationwide; the Annie E. Casey Foundation has found it is the worst state for racial disparities affecting Black childrenand infant mortality rates are highest among Black women in the state.

What we absolutely don’t need are public officials whitewashing the facts: that Milwaukee’s young people have much to protest, including Wisconsin’s suspending Black high-school students more than any other state in the country.

Nor do we need incendiary comments like those coming from Milwaukee County Sheriff David Clarke, who drew national attention for his “blue lives matter” speech at the Republican National Convention and who is a regular guest on CNN and Fox News. In an August 15 op-ed published by the Hill, Clarke has called the civil unrest “the rule of the jungle,” “tribalism,” and a byproduct of “bullies on the left.”

He went even further, citing “father-absent homes” as a source of what he calls “urban pathologies”—leaning on old tropes used to stigmatize Black women, families, and the poor.

Single mothers are not to be blamed for young people’s responses to a city that ignores or criminalizes them. They should not be shamed for having children, their family structure, or for public policy that has made the city unsafe for parenting.

Creating justice—including reproductive justice—in Milwaukee will take much more than parents texting their teens to come home. The National Guard must leave immediately. Our leaders must identify anti-Black racism as a root cause of the uprisings. And, lastly, creating justice must start with an end to harmful rhetoric from officials who lead the way in ignoring and dehumanizing Milwaukee residents.

Sheriff Clarke has continued his outrageous comments. In another interview, he added he wouldn’t “be satisfied until these creeps crawl back into their holes so that the good law-abiding people that live in the Milwaukee ghetto can return to at least a calm quality of life.”

Many of Milwaukee’s Black families have never experienced calm. They have not experienced a city that centers their needs and voices. Black youth fed up with their treatment are not creeps.

And what hole do you think they should crawl back into? The hole where they face unemployment, underemployment, police brutality, and racism—and face it without complaint? If that’s the case, you may never be satisfied again, Sheriff.

Our leaders shouldn’t be content with Milwaukee’s status quo. And asking the citizens you serve to be quiet in the ghetto is an insidious expectation.

News Economic Justice

Fight for $15 Campaign to Intensify This Fall

Michelle D. Anderson

Fight for $15, which contends that 64 million Americans work for less than a living wage, committed to engage in rallies at state capitols nationwide on September 12.

U.S. presidential candidates and their supporters will encounter sustained protests from supporters of the Fight for $15 movement and labor unions during this fall’s presidential and vice presidential debates.

Thousands of Americans who work for low wages on Saturday joined forces during the first-ever Fight for $15 convention in Richmond, Virginia, and signed the Richmond Resolution, a vow to intensify the fight for a living wage.

The Richmond Resolution vows that its signees will hold elected officials accountable on Election Day and every day thereafter.

“The work we do generates billions of dollars in profits and makes our country stronger. But we are paid so little that far too many of us are living on the edge and cannot afford our basic needs, trapping us in poverty,” the resolution reads.

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The name of the two-page document not only acknowledges the place where it originated, but the former capitol of the Confederacy. Organizers said they convened in Richmond to highlight racist policies that still hold back families of color in 2016.

Fight for $15, which contends that 64 million Americans work for less than a living wage, committed to engage in rallies at state capitols nationwide on September 12. Those rallies, which will be part of the Moral Revival Movement for a National Day of Action, will call on lawmakers to “advance moral policies like a living wage, voting rights and criminal justice reform,” Fight for $15 said.

“This year, underpaid Americans will show elected leaders in every state in America that they are a voting bloc that cannot be ignored and will not be denied,” said Mary Kay Henry, president of Service Employees International Union, a supporter of Fight for $15.

The Rev. William Barber II, an architect of the Moral Mondays movement in North Carolina and the founder of the social justice group Repairers of the Breach, said in a statement that advancement has always been the result of unity.

“Every step forward in our nation’s history—every stride toward a more perfect union—has been the result of people coming together, pushed by a moral movement towards higher ground,” Barber said. “It took us 400 years from slavery to the present to reach $7.25, but that was far too long, and we can’t wait. We have to stand together and fight together now for $15 and union rights.”

The Richmond Resolution vows to support legislative actions to raise the minimum wage in Alabama and other states that were once part of the Confederacy.

The National Employment Law Project (NELP) Action Fund, a project of The Advocacy Fund that researches issues affecting people who are unemployed or work for low wages, this month highlighted how the fight for a living wage has permeated U.S. political races.

NELP Action said U.S. Senate candidate Katie McGinty, for example, is “edging out” Sen. Pat Toomey (R-PA) by focusing her campaign on boosting the minimum wage and other economic issues that would help people who work low-paying jobs.

Likewise, former Wisconsin Sen. Russ Feingold—an outspoken advocate for higher wages—continues to lead incumbent Sen. Ron Johnson (R-WI) in the polls. Feingold leads Johnson by 11.3 points, according to polling data from Real Clear Politics.

Center on Budget and Policy Priorities fellow Jared Bernstein noted in the Washington Post that Seattle’s minimum wage increase has helped grow the city’s economy. That follows warnings from business lobbies across the country that increasing the minimum wage would devastate local economies.

Bernstein cited a study published by the Seattle Minimum Wage Study Team at the University of Washington showing that the city’s minimum wage ordinance has effectively raised the wages of low-income workers by “seven percentage points more than might otherwise have occurred.”

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