Editor’s Note: This is the first in a multi-part series that considers the extensive impact of Black women on politics in the United States. Though not new in praxis in our own communities, #trustblackwomen is slowly becoming a fairly common chorus, even in the mainstream. Where would this country be had it begun to trust Black women 50 years ago? 100 years? 200? Here, we’re looking to initiate an exploration of the ways Black women’s refusal to divide ourselves into pieces—all of the identities that make us who are—for political expediency has made us trailblazers, mules and saviors, when we just wanted to be free.
“Only the Black Woman can say ‘when and where I enter in the quiet, undisputed dignity of my womanhood, without violence and without special patronage, then and there the whole Negro race enters with me.’” –Anna Julia Hayward Cooper
Far from the sterile notion that the study of politics and political behavior should provide the most objective viewpoint in the struggle for policy changes, the more likely reality is that aspects of one’s personal life leave the subjective realm and find themselves part of political debate all too often. As quickly as that is done, the halls of power fundamentally become disquieted, and the centuries-long nature of patriarchal views of governance tremor. The idea that the personal is political is the foundational platform that undergirds the politics and actions of Black women in the United States. For Black women, the personal has always been political. More specifically, private troubles have often become public issues that have helped transform a nation.
C. Wright Mills discusses in “The Sociological Imagination” private troubles vs. public issues. He describes the tension between the two primarily as a differentiation between the private and public interactions of individuals. Troubles, he says, are “an individual’s character and with those limited areas of social life of which he is directly and personally aware.” In this area of life, Mills argues biography and personal experience are the keys to the ways an individual ultimately addresses and deals with troubles. So the matter is private. Issues, on the other hand, are “matters that transcend the local environments of the individual and the limited range of his life.” Mills goes on in the text to describe a social environment where “versus” is the key dynamic. But In the case of Black women, “versus” changes to “and.” Why? Because in the lives of an oppressed people, private troubles are the function of a social and political system where their oppression is codified. For Black women, social and political change necessitates that they become public issues.
Often cited in any discussion about the lives of Black women is Sojourner Truth who, when addressing the Women’s Rights Convention held in Akron, Ohio, in 1851, memorably and repeatedly asked the attendees, “Ain’t I a woman?” Her speech and the journey that led her to that place were inherently personal and inescapably political, because of the very act of escaping the erasure of Black womanhood, by being seen and heard, in a political space, heretofore, unwelcoming to her. History is replete (if not necessarily forthcoming) with Black women entering such spaces to access the right to existence denied them. Many of these instances are seen, however, as individual efforts, rather than stances on behalf of larger political goals. Truth’s words are, literally, etched in stone, but ultimately fell upon deaf ears in the forward advancement of women’s rights during the First Wave of feminism. Political change may begin with the individual but is grounded in communities of Black women.
Showing Up, Showing Out
The Civil Rights Era is, of course, known for the tectonic shifts of political action and discourse. From that history come women such as Rosa Parks, Fannie Lou Hamer and Dorothy Height, each of whom is credited, in histories not fully told, with supporting roles in the struggle for rights of African-Americans. While none of the women held political office, their voices, plans and efforts created much of the movement in which men were identified as leaders, rather than partners—the proper designation—in the struggle.
Parks is best known for the civil disobedience of refusing to move to the “colored” section on a public bus. This act is widely credited as the catalyst for the Montgomery bus boycott and a cascade effect on other civil rights victories. Hamer, who was never elected to office, nevertheless, forced President Lyndon B. Johnson’s hand because he was afraid of the power she wielded as the spokeswoman for the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party. In 1964 she addressed the credentials committee of the Democratic National Party and demanded a literal seat at the proverbial table along with the all-white, all-male delegation from her state. President Johnson needed the support of southern Democrats and feared Hamer would damage his chances for a nomination. Her speech to the panel still ranks as one of the most moving political statements on equality of the era. Height, a longtime educator and activist, formed the National Women’s Political Caucus with Rep. Shirley Chisholm, Gloria Steinem and Betty Friedan in 1971. The organization was instrumental in connecting the activism of women to the institutions of political power.
By most standards, these are not all conventional ways of engaging in politics, but when examining the patterns of Black women’s engagement, the concept of the personal is political becomes a well-known refrain. These three women’s acts of political organization, knowledge and defiance, served as platforms for the entrée of Black women into the institutions of politics.
Political organization is, perhaps, the most polarizing component in the U.S. system, primarily because it is attention grabbing in nature. It is the bedrock of most storytelling in social life because, for each cause, there is often a catalyzing event, a struggle for change and then resolution. Not so with voting. It requires little rhetorical flourish. It creates little excitement, except maybe for those who cast a ballot. It is often seen as a plodding, thankless ritual, and yet, it is the life’s blood and very nature of social change and political action by, for and among Black women. It is also borne out by their participation in this most basic component of the U.S. political system.
According to the Center for American Progress, African-American women turned out to vote at higher rates than any other demographic group in the 2008 and 2012 elections. They were a key component to the election victories of Pres. Barack Obama, as well as for many gubernatorial elections. More recently, Black women are credited with the astonishing win of Doug Jones in a key Senate race in Alabama. The victory made Jones one of the few Democrats to be elected to federal office from Alabama.
As a voting bloc, African-American women are certainly not monolithic, however. The patterns of civic engagement and the near certainty of the result when they do show up are both indicators of the importance of norms in a participatory democracy as well as the deeply institutionalized entrenchment of white, male, patriarchy in social and political systems. Because for all of their participation in civic and social life, Black women are still woefully underrepresented in positions of power in public life. African-American women constitute roughly 7 percent of the U.S. population, but rarely meet that same representational percentage in public office. This obvious disparity is rarely addressed but keenly felt.
Black women owe much of the lack of proportional representation in political leadership to what Patricia Hill Collins describes as the matrix of domination. It occurs when race, class and gender act as interlocking systems of oppression. Instead of the one category of oppression encapsulated within race, Black women experience oppression at each of (at least) three levels, at every facet of life in which they intersect. These social realities conjoin to create impediments to potential candidates and construct centuries-old stereotypical narratives for any constituency from whom a candidate seeks to earn votes. This, in turn, creates a more difficult, already-steep hill to climb.
When African-American women do enter the political arena, though, they often bring with them, the knowledge that the personal is political, and so too, is patriarchy. Black women have been fighting the battles for recognition, against erasure for as long as they have been part of the social fabric of the United States. In so doing, Black women bring the common experience of others into public life, thus melding the ideas that the personal is political with the debate between private troubles vs. public issues. In each instance, women are making the choice to create formal platforms, candidacies, campaigns and terms out of previously informal interactions.
Early leaders in these crossover experiences are people such as Sojourner Truth and Fannie Lou Hamer. In the present and very recent past, the storytelling of Black women, in the age of a Trump presidency has acted in much the same way that the breaking of the fourth wall in visual media both captures audiences while also taking them aback. These personal issues resonate in ways traditional political rhetoric doesn’t because Black women have been engaged in political systems well before being granted full rights to the franchise.
It was women like Sasha Avona Bell, who brought the lawsuit against the state in the ongoing Flint, Mich. water poisoning calamity, and 8-year-old Amariyanna Copeny’s letter to Pres. Obama. These examples, among others, are Black women and girls who have brought a human problem, caused by political structures, to the forefront. And others are and have followed suit in different ways.
Keeping Watch, Never Yield
Lucy McBath won the Democratic nomination in Georgia’s 6th congressional district. McBath is the mother of Jordan Davis, who was killed when he was 17 years old by a white man in 2012 for playing his music loudly. She has spent the better part of the last six years traveling the country giving speeches and interviews on gun control and calls for justice. Prior to her run for office, McBath was a member of the group Mothers of the Movement. The group is eight women, all of whom had children killed by police: Gwen Carr, mother of Eric Garner; Sybrina Fulton, mother of Trayvon Martin; Maria Hamilton, mother of Dontre Hamilton; Lezley McSpadden, mother of Michael Brown, Cleopatra Pendleton-Cowley, mother of Hadiya Pendleton; Geneva Reed-Veal, mother of Sandra Bland and Samaria Rice, the mother of Tamir Rice.
The group participated in the 2016 Democratic National Convention in the endorsement of Sect. Hillary Clinton (with the exception of Rice, who was not sufficiently convinced of Clinton’s commitment to ending police brutality), and the 2017 Women’s March. The women of the group make the personal political in order to facilitate change in many ways. But by choosing to lay bare the wounds left by the violent deaths of their loved ones by the state, they follow in the centuries-old tradition of people like Mamie Till, who refused to let the world look away from the death of her son. McBath is working to take her activism to the halls of power.
Alicia Garza, Patrisse Cullors, and Opal Tometi
In 2013, Alicia Garza, Patrisse Cullors and Opal Tometi created #BlackLivesMatter, in response to the acquittal of Trayvon Martin’s murderer, George Zimmerman. Perhaps the most well-know sociopolitical movement since #Occupy, the organization has become a symbol in the quest for meaningful change in the lives of Black people in the United States and across the globe. The three women at the heart of the organization lean heavily upon the admonishment of Ella Baker, a secretary of the N.A.A.C.P., about the leadership of radical organizations. Baker posited that pointed, focused leadership in any organization was detrimental to both it and the way forward for Black people. She suggested a more diffuse leadership style constructed for longevity of the organization, and thus, the cause of justice and liberation. Garza, Cullors and Tometi made the concept a critical component of #BlackLivesMatter, along with the goal of creating and organization that includes the many facets of Black life. Two of the three women identify as queer. Now a global network of organizations, working to defeat anti-Blackness, the founders have taken a communal rage at systemic injustice from a personal trouble to a public issue through activism and a savvy use of media tools and civil disobedience to move political awareness about the lives of Black folx into the public consciousness.
Marsha P. Johnson
Marsha P. Johnson is credited with being among the people who resisted the efforts of the police raid on the Stonewall Inn in 1969. In fact, David Carter, the author of “Stonewall: The Riots that Sparked the Gay Revolution,” describes her as being in the vanguard. Johnson described herself as gay and transvestite during a time when the descriptors carried legal sanctions as well as severe social stigma. During her time in New York City, she advocated for the rights of transgender youth by forming Street Transvestite Action Revolutionaries (STAR), a group to support young people whose families had abandoned them. Though Johnson’s life was filled with the types of problems causes by the matrix of oppression, mental illness, homelessness, homophobia and poverty, she worked tirelessly to raise awareness for transgender people during a time when there was not a positive descriptor for it. Via civil disobedience and the creation of structured organizations, she engaged in political action at a time when it was most dangerous for her to do so. Her social action is made all the more important by the spotlight on what could have been private troubles and made them into public issues. She is credited with much of the initial work for, and visibility of, Black transsexual women in the United States.
Patriarchy is an inelegant system that is difficult to understand in its fullness. It is a foundational social system that is predicated upon maleness (especially white maleness) and distributes power via institutions based on the sex and gendered attributes of human existence. In social systems built upon pointed stratification, racism is usually present and performs a magnifying effect and increases the likelihood citizens whose identity is not constructed of the social characteristics that are prized are then lesser. All functions of the larger social system, including political, are constructed to fit an overarching narrative.
In the United States, Black women have upended the narrative, as well as the functions in ways that necessitate change. The informal participation of Black women yielded such thoughtful refrains as “Ain’t I a woman?” which poses a question, but also indicts the framework and entire structure of the American experiment. The grief-filled storytelling of the Mothers of the Movement fuel the fires of humanity in people who empathize with their sorrow and work to make sure it does not happen to another mother. The spur of the moment action of a woman set up by police and the construction of a global initiative to save lives have all been brought to fruition and widespread by the informal political actions of Black women. These actions are but a part of the many-faceted approaches to change and social movements.
Key to the discussion of politics is the notion that actions should be divided into front stage and backstage behavior and, further, that those who engage in the arena of social change must perform a type of subterfuge in order to achieve desired outcomes. Black women are most often successful precisely because they eschew such notions in favor of the exposure of private troubles because, in the realms of Blackness, survival and life, the counterintuitive is the reality: Public issues often lead to private troubles. The strength of this reality almost always underscores the initial phase of Black women’s participation in politics.