As we reflect on Juneteenth, many of us will think of the ongoing black freedom struggle. We will analyze the role of black men as leaders throughout history and in the present day, in the home and in movements for justice and black liberation. We will discuss how these men of different backgrounds and the like came together to advance the causes of our community. However, we should also take the time to think critically about how black women are and are not included in this revolutionary blackness.
The intersectional struggle of black women has been explored by many writers, such as Angela Davis, Paula Giddings, bell hooks, Patricia Hill Collins, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, and Melissa Harris-Perry. They address the issues that black women face when aiding in the struggle for justice and equality for the race, while navigating a society that simultaneously oppresses women. Not only have black women dealt with white, heteronormative, patriarchal systems in America, but intracommunity prejudice as well.
The question is often raised: "Does race or gender come first?"
Put simply, race and gender cannot be separated for black women. Black women do not have the privilege of living their lives as solely black or solely women at any given point in time. They endure both struggles at once.
Today, these struggles take on familiar and new forms: colorism, sexism and homophobia.
One may first think that blackness is physically inclusive with the resurgence of afros and other forms of natural hair, as well as the praise for the beauty of Lupita Nyong'o. Not only are African-Americans a physically diverse population, but the Africans from which we descended were as well. However, several studies and documentaries have been produced to address the issue of the black aesthetic for women. Good Hair, Dark Girls, and Light Girls all sparked discussions over the pervasiveness of these biases.
Recently, a thread of tweets was made praising lighter or racially ambiguous women and degrading darker-skinned women on Twitter, accompanied by a photo of women on a spectrum of skin tones. Tweets declared that those with light skin were on the end of the scale to have higher GPAs, be happily married and have fewer sexual partners, while those with dark skin were attributed the opposite. Those tweeting and laughing at these comments defended them as jokes, while they were opposed by black women of all shades as senseless self-hatred.
One's racial identity (and perceived racial identity) has always been linked to their experience in America. The issue of colorism has pervaded the black community for centuries, becoming sharply defined during slavery. While historically light skin has been associated with privilege, opportunity and European standards of beauty; dark skin has been with inferiority, poverty and ugliness.
It is up to the black community as a whole to reclaim the full beauty of black women, of all colors, hair types and sizes. It can no longer be a passive effort to affirm the diversity of black beauty. Further, we must end the notion that a woman must be perceived as beautiful to have value as a human being.
We have examples throughout history of black women being at the forefront of movements for black liberation: Harriet Tubman, Sojourner Truth, Ida B. Wells, Constance Baker Motley, JoAnn Robinson, Ella Baker, Diane Nash, Gwendolyn Brooks, Angela Davis, Kathleen Cleaver, Elaine Brown. Yet for all the work these women did, they still found themselves relegated to positions without power in organizations such as the NAACP, SCLC, and Black Panther Party for Self-Defense.
The phrase "Black Lives Matter" was coined by three black women, Alicia Garza, Opal Tometi, and Patrisse Cullors, who then formed the national organization so many know today. While activists have worked tirelessly to recognize the lives lost to police violence, the hashtag "Say Her Name" had to be created due to the lack of support for black women who had been killed vs. black men. This has led many to discuss whether or not black women's lives matter less.
Black women have always been the vital other half of the movement for black liberation, but their experience has been marred by gender inequality. Due to the intersectionality of race and gender, women have often been left to continue the fight for the right to vote, equal pay, reproductive rights, and sexual assault and domestic violence awareness alone.
At times, it seems forgotten by many that black women are often on the front lines of these protests, and some of these same women are fighting for men who haven't fought and wouldn't fight for them. It is important to understand how we benefit from women being empowered, and how we gain justice for all by dismantling the social systems and cultural ills that plague them.
There are great talents and heroes throughout history who have been members of the lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer and intersex community. Oftentimes, this population is erased from history and demonized in the present, constantly fighting for their humanity to be affirmed. The arts have been particularly welcoming of the LGBTQI+ community, as we have seen with Bessie Smith, Josephine Baker, Nikki Giovanni, Audre Lorde, Janet Mock, Laverne Cox, and Samira Wiley.
While the legal right to marriage was granted across the United States in 2015, we have also seen more media attention towards the alarming rate of black trans women being murdered, as covered in Time, The Root, Vibe, and The Guardian. Melissa Harris-Perry previously hosted a special about the issue on her talk show. While trans women are meant to be included under the principle of Black Lives Matter, there have been separate protests to proclaim that "Black Trans Lives Matter" as well.
With the violence that black LGBTQI women face, especially in the midst of the Orlando Shooting and transgender restrooms debate, it is clear that these women need our protection. It is time for the black community to have open and honest conversations about how homophobia further divides us and weakens our cause. These women are still our sisters.
The most disrespected person in America is the black woman. The most unprotected person in America is the black woman. The most neglected person in America is the black woman.
- Malcolm X, "Who Taught You to Hate Yourself?" (1962)
We need the black community to fight for black women. We need you to support our dignity, empowerment, and liberation. We need to stand hand in hand, and fight side by side. It is the only way to truly unite and uplift our community, and it can only be done if black women are fully included.