“won’t you celebrate with me
what I have shaped into
a kind of life?
I had no model
Born in Babylon
Both nonwhite and woman
What did I see to be except myself?
I made it up
Here on this bridge between starshine and clay,
My one hand holding tight
My other hand; come celebrate
With me that everyday
Something has tried to kill me
And has failed.” ~ Lucille Clifton
Being a black woman always means having to offer context for your humanity.
It has always meant this. Before Doug Jones’ win. Before this administration. Before hip hop. Before the Black Power movement, the civil rights movement, the Harlem Renaissance.
You get my point.
Being a black woman means that even though you are hypervisible, the intersection of racism and sexism renders you invisible.
As we march toward 2018, it means that unless black women continue to do the important work of contextualizing and elevating our own stories of how we survive, how we win, in the face of continued aggressions and microaggressions, no one will know anything about what we have faced from our perspective.
Earlier this year, the National Domestic Workers Alliance published the State of Black Women in America to zero fan fare at all: “Black women consistently work for a better country, but our country is not working for them,” the report says in part. It details facts that you might suspect but are still tiring to see in the aggregate:
- More than 80 percent of black women are the primary breadwinners in their families
- Over 60 percent of black women participate in the labor force — among the highest of any ethnic group, despite the fact that our earnings lag behind that of most everyone else, male or female
- Nearly 17 percent of non-elderly Black women lack health insurance, though we suffer from higher maternal mortality rates and a host of other health disparities exacerbated by the stress brought on by racial discrimination. (If you missed it or want to know more about the extent to which health disparities are killing black women in particular, this piece co-published by ProPublica and NPR is important and astounding.)
I think about these statistics and many others that aren’t listed above but I just know from my lived experience and from working for much of my life and I wonder how to reconcile this with the continual dismissal of black women’s lived realities. Because even when there has been a legacy for hundreds of years of black women fighting for the survival of each other and everyone else, the work of centuries can be reduced to relevance only for a single moment, a single victory in service of a single man of any race from anywhere in the world.
And then that becomes the narrative that is the most important about what black women are, and what we are good for. That the presiding narrative of being a black woman at the end of 2017 is that we are good at being of service and helping other people win is discouraging. It also begs the question: Who will help us win?
The day that Doug Jones won over Roy Moore in Alabama was a busy one for a lot of reasons, but that’s not why I wasn’t celebrating as hard as everyone else. I was still stunned by news footage of Roy Moore on a horse at the polls, almost certain that the imagery was meant to be as racially intimidating as the underreported voter suppression, and that image stayed on my mind all day.
I turned on my television for approximately two minutes to look at the exit poll data before polls closed. Moore was ahead at that point, so I turned the television off.
Of the effusive love poured on black women in the aftermath, 98 percent of whom voted for Senator-elect Doug Jones, Marcia Chatelain sums it up best writing for Dissent Magazine:
Those who are concerned about black women’s votes may want to study the incredible history of black women’s political organizing in the South, as well as the current odds that are stacked against them across the country. The post-2016 election narrative about red and blue America fixated on the gulf between conservative and liberal whites. This narrative also mourned the loss of a robust, left-leaning white electorate that has shifted rightward because of the incompetence and indifference of the Democratic Party. This analysis, which often elides the importance of racism and xenophobia in predicting white voting patterns regionally, also ignores the complexity of black voters and their motivations. In this moment, perhaps observers should take a few moments to consider how black women in Alabama and Virginia are not that different from black women in California and New York — all are contending with the forces of racism, sexism, and class immobility. Yet local challenges and regional differences dictate both the strategies and the resources black women have to fight these forces. Therefore, appreciating, or simply noting, black women’s voting patterns cannot provide reliable information on ideological divides across region or class, nor can expressions of gratitude make up for the need to organize whites to do anti-racist work.
I want to underscore the very last point: “…Nor can expressions of gratitude make up for the need to organize whites to do anti-racist work.”
In the past year, this has been my main point to anyone who asks me anything about what it is like to be a black woman right now. I am in search of true allies. I am exhausted by the notion that I have to keep repeating that this is not the work of the marginalized to do and to continue doing. I am not sure why media narratives opt instead to focus on more trendy forgotten demographics and yet, it makes perfect sense.
Black women know the work that is ours to do, so we do it. It is now up to other people, people with privileges that we do not have, to work to divest themselves of the comforts that come with their privilege in order to experience even an iota of what it is like to be us by committing to doing the hard work of anti-racist, anti-sexist work. (My friends Courtney and John model what this looks like. Courtney just posted a great piece on organizations led by black women you should support.)
Privilege, of course, is the elephant in all of these organizing spaces that remains unchecked and unchallenged. It is the economic engine that allows for progress. But it is not without its drawbacks if privileged progressives cannot be confronted about their blindspots.
Privilege means not having to confront the uncomfortable truths that black women have to live with, have to breathe in and don’t get to exhale, every moment of every day.
Privilege means knowing that significant swaths of women across economic classes have internalized misogyny and, often, problematic, racist views that allow them to justify it but instead of interrogating them or this trend as it relates to specific candidates, looking on the bright side, and thanking black women for saving you once again.
Privilege is understanding full well that words have power and meaning; remembering that the U.S. Holocaust Museum in November 2016 reminded the world that “the Holocaust did not start with killing but with words” — and still deciding to be complicit in the use of the vague, soft language of bigotry, coddling profiles of hate-mongers and homegrown Lone Wolf terrorists of the like who murder Christian patriots in their own churches simply because they are black, by supporting institutions and people who do not call racism by its true name and are not explicit about the very real, imminent dangers of racism to our democracy.
For our part, it is clear to black women that outside of standing in (surprisingly, occasionally) as a kind of avatar for the moral conscience of state and national electorates, if only because the narrative above feels so distasteful, generally we are the only ones who come to the defense of one another. I’m thinking specifically here of Rep. Maxine Waters, April Ryan, Jemele Hill, Rep. Frederica Johnson and Myeshia Johnson but they are not the only ones, unfortunately.
In one way or another, an attempt was made to silence or bully each of these black women this year — from the President of the United States, no less, or members of his administration — simply because she was a black woman in possession of herself and her voice and for nothing more.
The first and loudest voices coming to their defense, every time, were other black women. For a culture and society so polarized, it is understandable, though it is one of the more troubling ongoing paradoxes of our democracy that we have reached a moment of reckoning against some sexual predators and institutions under the banner of a movement started by Tarana Burke, a black woman, made more visible by well-known white actresses and erasure of working class people who continue to face the fall out and repercussions of unchecked power and manipulation because they cannot afford to come forward without the protections that privilege affords.
Like icons Ida B. Wells and Mary Church Terrell, who aggressively, actively and strategically organized against antilynching laws, and the many unsung women of the civil rights movement, of feminist movements of yesteryear and present day, I vote in my best interests. I continue to organize, write, read and amplify voices that are in my best interests and therefore, in the best interests of other black women in our nation, because we are the only ones, apparently, who are invested in us winning.
There’s a lot wrong with that, but the biggest tragedy in that to me is that whatever happens to black women ultimately happens to other women. Being both black and woman, at the bottom of the skin and gender hierarchies, our trajectories are bellwethers for everyone else.
I don’t mind being part of a tribe trying save everyone else. It would be nice, though, if other folks would actively decide to take on some of the responsibility for doing some of the saving. If 2017 taught us anything, it is that there is more than enough work to go around.