Commentary Race

Still We Lead: Clarifying the Resolve of Black Women

Jasmine Burnett

Only when our society acknowledges what Black women are doing and have been doing to advance equality for all will people truly understand why Black lives matter.

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

While it has always been the case that Black women work tirelessly to create the change we seek, on the rare occasion our leadership makes headlines, it is often displayed as if it’s some new phenomenon that needs to prove it is relevant, as was the case recently in Ferguson. Further, there’s the idea that this lack of recognition of Black women’s leadership is part and parcel of our experience, as if Black women are not and have not made great strides in justice movements.

This glaring omission of our deep commitment to equality movements is holding all activists back from achieving justice. The narrative that has been pervasive since the late 19th and 20th centuries, which pushes the notion that Black women-centered activities should be dismissed without notice, has only served to pit the power of Black women’s leadership against our Black male counterparts and women of color allies, while isolating and making invisible issues of race within the mainstream women’s and LGBTQ liberation movements. This narrative also neglects the true extent of Black women’s work, and the fact that we are the only ones who can actually be counted on to defend the dignity of Black women and the rights of all Black people.

Only when our society acknowledges what Black women are doing and have been doing to advance equality for all—in spite of the disenfranchisement we’ve experienced that comes with lack of visibility, respect, and resources of any kind—will people truly understand why Black lives matter.

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Black women’s leadership was established out of an urgency to address problems of racism and sexism in this country. Our work has always been the struggle for the human right to create our own terms under which we can define ourselves and our relationship to society, and to have those terms recognized. Our leadership is more than a professional career where the ability to lead is based on one’s level of education, and its reach is broader than an act of charity driven by moral principles. The resolve of Black women, who continue to endure incalculable injustices, drives our sense of urgency to protect ourselves, our families, and our communities, and it is a daily imperative to create safe conditions where our race, gender, class, ability, age, or sexuality does not make us unfit for protection in the face of harm and wrongdoing.

Our political agenda is based on the following concepts: questioning long-established values and institutions of society; developing new systems to solve economic, political, and social problems; and broadening the base of municipal, state, and national governments where Black women are leading in agenda-setting and decision-making.

With the recent rise in peaceful protests and social justice organizing in response to white police officers and vigilantes being acquitted on the use of excessive force and violence on Black people, Black women leaders have received greater attention for their efforts to dismantle white supremacy. Some projects are indeed new—campaigns that are run by youth organizers who have entered the field with fresh takes on how to accomplish their social justice work—but much of the organizing happening in the wake of incidents of injustice recently is an offshoot of preexisting movements.

These movements existed long before many of today’s leaders were even born. For example, in her late 19th century pamphlet Southern Horrors: Lynch Law in All Its Phases, Ida B. Wells responded to the rise in lynchings of Black men for allegedly raping white women while white suspects who were accused of raping Black women went unpunished. This provocative information led to an international speaking tour across the United States and the UK to raise awareness of the horrors of racially motivated sexual violence and lynchings in the Black community.

The disenfranchisement of Black women throughout history is connected, as is the impact of our work. Responding to the resurgence of state-sanctioned killings of Black people and sexual violence of Black women, Alicia Garza, Patrisse Cullors, and Opal Tometti created the hashtag #BlackLivesMatter to build solidarity and create a way for Twitter users to hold all communities accountable online and off for destroying anti-Black structures. The hashtag has had international implications as well, including acts of solidarity in Europe, Australia, Africa, and the Middle East, where activists have held public demonstrations of support for Black lives. These are just a few examples of the ways in which Black women have influenced conversations around racial justice and human rights through the written word as well as direct action and confrontation tactics.

Black women are fighting unfair treatment in their communities all the time; it’s only occasionally that the world is watching.

For years Black women have organized to protect and defend our reproductive rights, though you might not know that from much of the coverage of anti-choice bills, which often will include only quotes from mainstream, white-led organizations. Among the alliances created to fight for the human rights of Black women and girls, the Trust Black Women Partnership was founded in 2010 based on the premise that Black women must come together and do things for ourselves in order to achieve self-identity and self-determination and to get our basic needs met. (I am one of the Trust Black Women founding partners.) In order to do that, Trust Black Women has focused on attaining representation where agendas are set on issues that affect our lives and families, creating power-sharing schemas to improve how our needs are addressed when working with Black men and our allies, and building bases that Black people can tap into for support in challenging local and national systems of oppression.

Sadly, Black women’s leadership is often challenged through co-optation both by our allies and our opposition. In one example, liberal, progressive “allies” took the meaning and relevance of #BlackLivesMatter and decided to replace it with #AllLivesMatter. This attempt at generalizing the impact of police brutality of all people dilutes the specific impact of racial, gendered, and sexualized violence imposed on Black people. Anti-choicers then tried to stigmatize abortion care by inserting it into the #BlackLivesMatter conversation and suggesting that the two correlate. They have also gone so far as to use civil rights language in their rhetoric, omitting the importance of Dr. Martin Luther King’s legacy and his commitment to family planning. The ways antis continue to co-opt the legacy, experiences, knowledge, and public sentiment of historically oppressed communities is deeply problematic and disrespectful.

Black women’s leadership in the women’s rights movements has also been omitted and silenced many times to advance mainstream organizational agendas. In one example, as Loretta Ross explained in her article “Defeating Personhood: A Critical But Incomplete Victory for Reproductive Justice,” reproductive rights activists in Mississippi used single-issue organizing strategies to the detriment of Black women’s issues. In the activists’ anti-“personhood” campaign, there was a dearth of resources and attention paid to voter disenfranchisement of Black, brown, and low-income people in the South under another amendment, which unlike Mississippi “personhood” did pass. What Black women leaders and communities need from allies is a level of support that enables victories for their issues as well, including bans on voter suppression laws and police and vigilante violence.

Organizations seeking to improve their relationships with Black women leaders as they work to advance justice movements in the United States must aim to become better allies, and that includes acknowledging the true value of our work while also taking steps to avoid overshadowing Black women-led organizations and organizers working on a grassroots level, both on- and offline.

An expression used to rouse accountability from allies is “white folks, get your people,” to highlight that the change that shifts the “isms” and stereotypes that are perpetuated through white supremacy can be shifted by allies. As supporters, we expect our allies to give Black people the space we want to define ourselves and to lead and set policy that will meet our needs.

In 1896, Mary Church Terrell helped to organize the first meeting of the National Association of Colored Women’s clubs following a letter written by James Jacks, a white president of the Missouri Press Association who had attempted to silence the anti-lynching campaign of Ida B. Wells through labeling all Black women as “prostitutes and thieves.” She concluded her speech with a question: “Who of you knows how to carry your burden in the heat of the day?” As a Black woman and leader, I am often asking that question of myself, and not because I have a choice. I simply wonder how strong I will have to be at any given moment because I know that often the only people who will stand with Black women without argument or question are other Black women.

The fact that no one will speak for us but ourselves is evident not just across the justice movements, but also within the systems in which we live, including the legal system. Marissa Alexander and countless other victims of state or vigilante violence seemingly have only received support from other Black women, despite the precedents their cases are setting within the “justice” system.

Black women are leading in those discussions as international delegates speaking at the United Nations on racial and gender discrimination and violence, even when our support comes to the detriment of our own visibility and bank accounts.

If you’re still wondering about what you can do, I’ll leave you with this: Black women’s leadership will be made stronger through our allies doing the work to educate their communities and support the organizational infrastructure and capacity of Black women-led organizations and efforts as Black women define it. I stand by the same commitment that several hundred Black women made to each other in 1991 while protesting the racist and sexist treatment of Anita Hill during her sexual harassment hearing against now Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas. I pledge myself “to continue to speak out in defense of Black women, in defense of the African American community and against those who are hostile to social justice, no matter what color they are. No one will speak for us but ourselves.”

Whether that commitment can be made to Black women with any level of integrity from our allies remains to be seen. However, what Black women can promise is that we will continue to lead, defend our dignity, and protect our lives, families, and communities.

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