As we exit Black History Month, we march into the celebration of her story – Women’s History Month. First recognized by the United States in 1911, Women’s History Month is a global phenomenon in which billions honor the lives, contributions and accomplishments of women.
But what of black women in history, I found myself wondering as I baulked the scarcity of women of color in the PBS documentary Makers: Women Who Make America, chronicling the evolution of the modern U.S. women’s movement. I watched the film for three hours anxiously awaiting the mention of noted feminists, Bell Hooks, Audre Lorde, and Angela Davis, only to find them absent.
I waited ten minutes before the film acknowledged that the trappings of being a mother and housewife were neither the reality nor the catalyst in the pursuit of equal rights for women who were not white and middle class in the 1950s. These racial and class divisions, which fractured first wave feminism and formed its second wave and a separate and more intentionally inclusive feminist theory called “womanism”, were only briefly mentioned. And while the documentary featured many works central to the advancement of the women’s movement, it excluded the seminal anthology This Bridge Called My Back, a collection of writings by feminists and women of color.
Taken aback by how cavalierly our accomplishments are overlooked, I was reminded a passage from Ms. Lorde’s essay The Master’s Tools Will Never Dismantle the Master’s House:
“Women of today are still being called upon to stretch across the gap of male ignorance and to educate men as to our existence and our needs. This is an old and primary tool of all oppressors to keep the oppressed occupied with the master’s concerns. Now we hear that it is the task of women of color to educate white women — in the face of tremendous resistance — as to our existence, our differences, our relative roles in our joint survival. This is a diversion of energies and a tragic repetition of racist patriarchal thought.”
The activist in me holds a strong commitment to teach anti-oppressive ideologies such as the Combahee River Collective which outlines how the intersections of race, gender, class and sexuality negatively oppress and impact black women, but I find myself torn. In rediscovering this quote I am particularly struck by the expression “diversion of energies” leading me to the question of how black women should forge the reclamation of our history in our own words and on our own terms.
Perhaps the time to educate has passed and the time for action is upon us?
When I think about what this action looks like, it is personified by many examples: young Oscar nominee Quvenzhané Wallis triumphantly raising her arms as her name was announced for Best Actress; it is the brilliant and bold Crunk Feminist Collective’s blog; the Twitter community of Girls Like Us; and environmental activist Tanya Fields.
Storytelling has long been a part of our heritage and through technology, we now possesses a variety of mediums by which we can preserve and share our histories chronicling the realities and complexities of what it means to be black and a woman. While mainstream media continues to omit, revise and distort our images, we have the opportunity to recount our tales without dilution.
This International Women’s Day, March 8, I encourage black women to create, act and stand in solidarity with our sisters throughout the Diaspora – La Red de las Mujeres Afro (The Network for Black Women) in Latin America, the African Indigenous Women’s Organization and CODE RED for Gender Justice in the Caribbean –who also work to reclaim their history and tell their stories in their words and on their own terms.