Making Black women’s lives matter

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In the words of Fannie Lou Hamer, Black America is “sick and tired of being sick and tired.”


We are fed up living in an America where a pack of Skittles and a hoodie renders us suspicious and selling loose cigarettes gets us a death sentence.  America has been telling black folks “fuck your breath” for hundreds of years. And it’s just too much. We are fed up…again.

The stolen lives of black men in Sanford, Ferguson and Baltimore have galvanized African Americans and our allies. But as a black feminist, I can’t help but wonder about my sisters in Chicago, Bastrop, Texas, and Los Angeles. Where is the equal anger for black women who have lost their lives to extrajudicial violence? Where is the nationwide cry for justice for women like Shereese Francis, 23, an unarmed New York City woman suffocated to death in March 2012 by police after her family called 911 seeking a mental health intervention?


In spite of targeted efforts to make their lives matter, women like Rekia Boyd, Yvette Smith, Pearlie Smith and Tyisha Miller, all victims of police violence, have not become the rallying points that Eric Garner, Mike Brown, Tamir Rice and Freddie Gray have. But black women may eventually see the mountain top, too. Because #blackspring, the Twitter-driven resource and organizing hub, is not your grandfather’s civil rights movement.

In my forthcoming book, The Sisters Are Alright: Changing the Broken Narrative of Black Women in America, I explore how persistent racist and sexist stereotypes continue to negatively affect black women’s lives and how the success of black women in spite of this adversity changes the narrative. One explanation for our erasure from discussions of state violence could be the centuries-long surety that women of African descent are hard, durable beings and never victims worthy of sympathy or reparation. One of the solutions to this long-standing assumption is to amplify our voices, explaining where we're coming from and providing leadership to shape the future.

Black women were believed unbreakable long before Kimmy Schmidt came along. Our assumed lack of fragility made our enslavement, overwork, torture and sexual exploitation conscionable in an era when “real” (read: white, middle-class) women were thought in need of white men’s protection. Our continued economic exploitation dictated that we be seen as subhuman — not worthy of empathy or care.

Today, black women are still weighed down by the stereotype of the hard woman, in her various evolutions and permutations—from the always-ready-to-get-buck Sapphire to the sturdy, ever-sacrificing Ma’Dear.  America loves a damsel-in-distress, but black women allegedly don’t need help. That is perhaps why, in November 2013, Theodore Wafer, 55, saw a threat and not a woman in need when 19-year-old Renisha McBride knocked on his door late at night in a Detroit suburb. Why missing, white teen, Natalee Holloway, became a household name when she disappeared on a graduation trip to Aruba, while equally-missing, but black, Tamika Huston, 24, who left behind a grief-stricken family when she disappeared from her Spartanburg, South Carolina, home in May 2004, did not. And why no neighbor came to Glenda Moore’s aid when the Staten Island mother’s two boys, age 2 and 4, were swept away by floodwaters during Hurricane Sandy in November 2012.


Historically, black women’s requests to have our humanity and needs regarded have been met with ambivalence even within black communities. Mythological toughness has not inevitably translated into real power and the ability to ensure that our unique concerns for equality are met.

We have organized and served as the hardworking rank-and-file of civil rights movements and still been denied the responsibility and rights of leadership. Icon and activist Dorothy Height, president of the National Council of Negro Women, was not allowed to address the crowd at the March on Washington in 1963. And the idea that a woman’s only place in the Black Power movement was explicitly prone may be apocryphal, but the sexism of male leaders, sadly, was not. Activist Barbara Smith recalls in the 2013 documentary MAKERS, that during the Black Nationalist era of the 60s and 70s, with its insistence on self-determination and racial consciousness, black men were kings and black women were queens whose major role was to “walk three or seven steps behind our men and have babies for the Nation.”


Civil rights movements have traditionally been for the liberation and glorification of men. And so perhaps it should not be surprising that these same movements prioritize the lives and deaths of men. Even today, the oft-repeated statistic that a black person is killed every 28 hours by police, security guards or vigilantes, is often used as if it refers to black men only. It is black men whose deaths are a community concern; black female lives are an after-thought.

Black Lives Matter, one of the most visible organizations targeting state violence against black people, was founded 2012 by three black women, Alicia Garza, Patrisse Cullors and Opal Tometi.  And the group’s manifesto makes its regard for black female lives (and the lives of other people with intersecting oppressions) clear:

It goes beyond the narrow nationalism that can be prevalent within Black communities, which merely call on Black people to love Black, live Black and buy Black, keeping straight cis Black men in the front of the movement while our sisters, queer and trans and disabled folk take up roles in the background or not at all.  Black Lives Matter affirms the lives of Black queer and trans folks, disabled folks, black-undocumented folks, folks with records, women and all Black lives along the gender spectrum.  It centers those that have been marginalized within Black liberation movements.  It is a tactic to (re)build the Black liberation movement.


Just last week, The New York Times profiled two activists who “built the nation’s first 21st-century civil rights movement.” One of them is Johnetta Elzie, a young Missouri woman who has been online covering and agitating since the murder of Mike Brown in Ferguson. The article lauded Elzie as one of the movement’s “most reliable real-time observers of the confrontations between the protesters and the police.” In the article, Elzie laid out the movement’s demand: “Stop killing us.” She meant black women, too.

Garza, Cullors, Tometi and Elzie are not alone. For all the lamentations about the new civil rights movement’s faults, in this way, it has bested its predecessors: Black women have been counted and recognized among the leaders of the cause and they are fighting not just for their fathers, sons and brothers, but for themselves. If there has been any good to come of the myth of the unnaturally strong black woman, it is that it has served as a shield for many a sister when the going got tough and she had no choice but to get going.


In Sisters, I counter negative perceptions of black women by letting them share their experiences, because only we can truly tell our stories. In an interview with The Atlantic about so-called “hashtag activism,” new civil rights activist DeRay McKesson seems to share a similar belief in the power of authentic stories:

“The history of blackness is also a history of erasure. Everybody has told the story of black people in struggle except black people. The black people in the struggle haven't had the means to tell the story historically. There were a million slaves but you see very few slave narratives. And that is intentional. So what was powerful in the context of Ferguson is that there were many people able to tell their story as the story unfolded.”


What has been true for all black people has been especially true for black women. This revolution has been criticized for being not just televised, but Tweeted and Instagrammed. But social media is an equalizing force that has given a platform to many people, including black women, who would not normally be called to speak in mainstream spaces. At the same time, black women have pushed in to more traditional media spaces, especially in the years since the 2008 Presidential Election. In pre-Obama America, the designated spokespersons of black America were Jesse, Al and maybe Michael and Cornel. Now, in additional to the OGs of the black cause, we have Melissa (Harris-Perry), Zerlina (Maxwell), Charlene (Carruthers), Janet (Mock) and a host of other dynamic black female voices.

The presence of black women in the leadership of the new black civil rights movement and in the places where our stories get told may be the key to making sure America knows that our lives matter, too.


Women are more than 52 percent of the black population in America.

We are dying, too.

We are fed up, too.

But finally, with our sisters on the frontlines making sure that we are not forgotten, we might at last have room to breathe.


Tamara Winfrey Harris specializes in the intersection of race and gender with current events, politics and pop culture. Her work has appeared in The Chicago Sun-Times, In These Times, Ms. and Bitch magazines and online at The American Prospect, Salon, The Guardian, Newsweek, The Huffington Post and Racialicious. She has been called to address women’s issues in major media outlets, such as NPR’s “Weekend Edition.” Her first book, The Sisters Are Alright: Changing the Broken Narrative of Black Women in America, will be released July 7 by Berrett-Koehler Publishers.

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