Women’s History Month: A Celebration of HERstory

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.

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3 Comments

  1. Thank you so much for your comments.

    There were definitely Black women in the film Melissa Harris Perry, Oprah Winfrey, and Eleanor Holmes Norton to name a few, but my larger point is that contributions by Black women who shaped American feminism bell hooks, Kimberle Crenshaw, Patricia Hill Collins, Audre Lorde, and Angela Davis to name a few were left out.

    It’s so important for us to remember that these women were not only advocates for Black women and Black feminism/womanism, but for all women. To omit them from story of the women’s movement in the United States is a gross oversight and really underserves the movement towards gender equality.

    Therefore, when I think about today, International Women’s Day, it inspires me to continue working with my sisters of African descendant throughout the diaspora and applaud the work that we do without often receiving recognition for it.

    Happy International Women’s Day to all!

  2. Jamila:

    Thank for such a thoughtful discourse. I agree with you. I too watched the “special” on PBS and waited for us to be represented. The lack of our inclusion in such an historical piece about American History is indicative of the lack of respect, to and for our contributions in history. This fact made it less “special” of a documentary and more of a mock-umentary and even a fairy tale. Make believing for those who want to negate that we are an essential part of this historical tapestry, works for some.

    However, and in the end PBS, should stand for PROUD BLACK SISTERS because we are and most definitely needed to be included in this exchange. As always we will make our own way and tell our own stories; FULL, BEAUTIFUL AND ACCURATE. Thank you again for this.

    Sisterly,
    Dr. Deborah

  3. Jamila:

    Thank you for such thoughtful discourse. I too watched the PBS “special” and wondered where we were. I did see Melissa Harris-Perry present in a small clip, but not enough time was paid TO HER and or who she is and how she got to be a Black Woman with her own show on MSNBC in THIS DAY. Nor, was there mention of the sisters you listed above. In general, and all too often we have been and are seemingly invisible or we are erased and overlooked in terms of presence, contribution and importance; as if we were never there, and not now HERE.

    Thus, with the absence of our inclusion in the PBS documentary “Makers: Women Who Make America”, there was nothing “special” about it all for ME. Such a telling indeed has its place in the dialogue of and about women. However, when the distinction of our exclusion persists and is evident regarding who we are, where we have been and what we have done to help “Make America, in my eyes this “telling” becomes a PBS “MIS-documentary of sorts and indeed a Fairy Tale. Thank you again.

    Sisterly,
    Dr. Deborah

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