Day 3- Black Women’s Activism in the US

[Four African American women seated on steps o...

Image by The Library of Congress via Flickr

The descendants of black slaves in the United States were deprived of their histories from the moment they were kidnapped. Given white names and forbidden from using their own languages or practicing their own religions, slaves were also often forbidden from learning how to read or write English.

While black history on the American continent has been preserved through oral history to the effect that black women today do have black heroines with whom they can identify, the racism black people face is an ingrained part of much of American culture.

“Racial prejudice against African Americans becomes part of the Americanization process for immigrants, and prejudice against immigrants becomes part of the ongoing struggle for equity in employment and education for African Americans, especially when it appears that immigrants are exploiting black communities.”[1]

Prejudice against black Americans is the deepest and most persistent racism alive today in the United States. Although the situation for blacks in the U.S. has improved drastically over the course of American history, especially in the past forty years, black people are still systematically oppressed and targeted for failure by the racist patriarchal system of capitalism in the United States.

With highly disproportionate numbers of black men imprisoned, the situation black women face as a consequence is unique. The stereotype of the strong, outspoken black woman has emerged in part because black women have had to be strong and outspoken, as heads of household, so that they can care for their families. The other side to this stereotype is the black Mammy, caricatured prominently as The Black Woman in U.S. cinema and cartoons for decades.

Much of the critique of white, mainstream feminism during the Second Wave came from black women pointing out that they had been working outside the home, out of necessity, for centuries.

The failure of white, middle-class feminists to consider any other race or class and their assumption that their own reality was universal put a deep rift in the Women’s Liberation movement but “other activists–notably feminists and lesbians of color–[lead] socially marginalized lives [and] demanded rigor in analyzing political tactics. These women, initially separate from the more mainstream elements of nonviolent action and feminism, represented a pool of sophisticated but down-to-earth clarity into which other women activists eventually dipped.”[2]

Black women were fighting for their rights even before the United States declared independence. Jenny Slew and Elizabeth Freeman both sued for their freedom from slavery in the state of Massachusetts, in 1765 and 1780 respectively, and won, but “As the future would prove again and again, legal action could take the fight for freedom only so far.”[3]

Slavery would continue to thrive in the United States until the Civil War and black men would still not Constitutionally have the right to vote until 1870. Women would not have the right to vote until 1920.

Even with these legal rights finally added to the Constitution, racist legislation like poll taxes and Jim Crow laws made sure that black men and women were highly discouraged or prevented from voting until the late 20th century.

While “the Civil Rights Act of 1875… stated that there could be no discrimination in public places or on means of transportation within the United States,”[4] the Supreme Court disagreed and in 1913 ruled that this act was unconstitutional. From the 1896 case Plessy v. Ferguson until the 1954 case Brown v. Board of Education “separate but equal” was not only accepted but widely enforced.

Additionally, interracial marriage was illegal in some states until 1967.[5]

Despite America’s long history of bigotry, black women have always been a visible and vital force for equality. Sojourner Truth, Harriett TubmanIda B. Wells, Ella Baker, Rosa Parks, Toni Morrison, Audre Lorde, Alice Walker, bell hooks, Oprah Winfrey and Michelle Obama are black women whose fame and notoriety span the centuries of American history and who act as role models to inspire all young women to greatness today. From actively defying unjust slavery laws and participating in the abolitionist and suffragist movements, to writing, organizing and protesting for civil rights and feminism, to representing the United States on an international scale, these women have dedicated themselves to the fight for justice and equality.

In 1831 black women formed the Colored Females’ Free Produce Society and “There were strikes among black women field workers as early as 1862.” The purpose of the Society “was to encourage the boycotting of goods produced by slave labor. It was part of a larger Free Produce movement, and it provided the public with the opportunity to buy products, such as cotton and sugar, that had been produced entirely by nonslave workers.”[6]

From then on African American women fought not only for their own rights, but also for the principles of freedom and democracy.

“When the Fourteenth Amendment was passed, saying that no citizen could be denied the rights guaranteed by the Constitution, black and white suffragists challenged the unwritten assumption that all citizens were male.”[7]

After slavery was abolished and all American citizens earned the right to vote, black women continued to participate in organizations promoting gender equality and fair labor practices. In the early 20th century black women were active in the Harlem Renaissance and responsible for the popularity of the Blues.

The participation of black women in strategic nonviolent action blossomed though, with the Civil Rights movement of the 1950s and 60s. “For a number of reasons–including sexism, the need to protect their jobs, and deference to a long tradition of community leadership by black ministers–female leaders [were] less visible and rarely if ever served as speakers at mass meetings or press conferences.”[8]

While few women represented the Civil Rights movement to the public, the strides that were made towards equality would not have been possible without the widespread participation of black women. The Montgomery Bus Boycott, publicly lead by the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., owed its success to the “several thousand working-class women who, in the face of intimidation and threats, rode in the car pools or walked as far as twelve miles a day, even in the rain.”[9] In fact, if it were not for Jo Ann Robinson’s stellar organization and community outreach techniques, the boycott probably would not have had the impact it did on the economy of Montgomery.[10]

After the success of the Civil Rights movement black women recognized the backseat their needs had taken to those of men and joined in the Second Wave of the Women’s Movement even though black publications in the early seventies “would trivialize” the feminist movement.

“Black men did not want to lose Black women as allies. And the white power structure did not want to see all women bond across racial lines because they knew that would be an unstoppable combination.”[11]

Today, black women are an integral part of the economy of the entire nation and participate in all kinds of organizations fighting for equality from the National Organization for Women (NOW) to the Human Rights Campaign to Not Dead Yet and Disabled Veterans of America.

Other organizations that are more specifically focused on advancing black women include the National Organization for African-American Women (NOAW), the National Council of Negro Women, Inc. (NCNW), The National Association of Colored Women’s Clubs, Black Career Women (BCW) and the Association of Black Women Historians (ABWH).

The names of these organizations alone show the painful history of black self-identification in the United States; Negro, Colored, Black, or African American, women who identify as descendants of African slaves still have to fight for recognition of their identities, both as black, and as women.

[1] Karim, 2009.

[2] Protest, Power, and Change: An Encyclopedia of Nonviolent Action from ACT-UP to Women’s Sufferage Eds. Roger S. Powers and William B. Vogele. Garland Publishing, Inc. New York. 1997.

[3] Encyclopedia of Black Women in America: Social Activism Ed. Darlene Clark Hine Facts on File, Inc. New York. 1997.

[4] Facts on File Encyclopedia of Black Women in America: Social Activism Ed. Darlene Clark Hine Facts on File, Inc. New York. 1997.

[5] See Supreme Court Case Loving v. Virginia

[6] Facts on File Encyclopedia of Black Women in America: Social Activism Ed. Darlene Clark Hine Facts on File, Inc. New York. 1997.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Ibid.

[9] Hine, 1997.

[10] King, Mary Elizabeth. Lecture.

[11] Smith, Barbara. “Across the Kitchen Table A Sister-to-Sister Dialogue,” in Moraga and Anzaldúa, 1981.

About feministactivist

Many words describe me but none more so than activist. I am dedicated to equality of all people and have a special focus on gender issues including reproductive justice, sexual violence, and strategic nonviolent action. View all posts by feministactivist

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