Since March is Women’s History month, who are the women you are celebrating? Do you know about Elizabeth Keckley? Maggie Lena Walker, Sarann Knight Preddy, Gertrude Pocte Geddes-Willis, Trish Millines Dziko, Addie L. Wyatt or Marie-Therese Metoyer? What about Ernesta Procope, Dr. Sadie Alexander, Or Dr. Phyllis Wallace? What about Bettiann Gardner, Lillian Lambert, or Emma Chappell? What about Ellen Holly, Mary Alice, or Edmonia Lewis? If we knew anything about these women, it might cause all of us, African American men and women, to walk a bit more lightly, hold our heads a bit higher, and revel in the accomplishments of our foremothers and fathers.
History belongs to she who holds the pen, she who will speak up, speak out, and tell the whole story. If the names of the sisters above aren’t as well known as others, like Harriet Tubman, Sojourner Truth, and Mary McLeod Bethune, it is because no one has chosen to tell those stories. There are a thousands of unsung heroines for every one we lift up and know, women who have made phenomenal contributions to the arts, literature, money, finance, and economic development. Why write this now? African American History Month is usually about notable Black men; Women’s History Month (March) is about notable and mostly White women. Then, as Gloria T. Hull, Patricia Bell Scott, and Barbara Smith wrote in “All the Women Are White, All the Blacks Are Men,” some of us are brave.
What difference would it make to our daughters and nieces if they knew about Septima Clark or Claudette Colvin? Had they read Lucille Clifton’s poetry, would they find it easier to breathe life into their words? It pains me to watch Black Women’s History so swallowed that we are almost invisible. The most benign interpretation of this phenomenon is that those who lift history up are too myopic to consider African American women. Is there is a sinister interpretation? Is it that both racism and patriarchy combine to swallow Black women’s history?
International Women’s Day was March 8. Annually, the United Nations sets a theme for the commemoration. This year, ‘Equality for Women is Progress for All’ was the theme. According to the United Nations, countries with more gender equality have better economic growth. Companies with more women leaders perform better. Peace agreements that include women are more durable. Parliaments with more women enact more legislation on key social issues such as health, education, anti-discrimination and child support. The evidence is clear: equality for women “means progress for all.”
We can’t make progress if we bury our history. We can’t put Melody Hobson in context if we don’t understand Maggie Lena Walker. We can’t celebrate women’s history unless we celebrate Black women’s history, because Black women’s history is women’s history too, and because both the African American community and the world community cannot progress if any segment of that community is sidelined.
The place African American women hold in our history celebrations is quite similar to the space we occupy in contemporary life. We can get tens of thousands or more folks to turn out (as they should) in response to the massacres of Trayvon Martin and Jordan Davis, but the killing of unarmed Renisha McBride has caused much less of an outcry. Theodore Wafer, the White man (yes, race matters) who shot young Renisha, will be tried for second-degree murder in June. Will we remember this effrontery in the same way that we remember our Black history heroines? Will we be their chanting and demanding justice as we have for Trayvon and Jordan?
The sidelining of Black women is one of the reasons that the late C. Delores Tucker worked tirelessly for more than a decade to ensure that a bust of Sojourner Truth be placed in our nation’s Capitol building. And why not? Susan B. Anthony, Lucretia Mott and Elizabeth Cady Stanton are there. But it took a fight and a victory C. Delores, a lifelong leader and a founder of the National Congress of Black Women, did not live to see. Who was Hon. C. Delores Tucker? That’s another Black women’s history moment that will be swallowed unless we lift it up. C. Delores is an example of utter tenacity, and a passionate belief in recognition of Black women. If we celebrate women’s history month—we must celebrate Black women.
If you know nothing about the women I’ve mentioned, Google them, or check my website, www.juliannemalveaux.com for more information on them.
Julianne Malveaux is a D.C.-based economist and writer and president emerita of Bennett College for Women.
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