“Black women have a long tradition of bonding together. We have a distinct Black woman-identified folk culture based on our experiences as Black women in this society; symbols, language and modes of expression that are specific to the realities of our lives.” –Lorraine Bethel, Blood, Bread and Poetry
When I was in fifth grade, I read a novel titled The Skin I’m In by Sharon Flake. The book featured a dark-skinned Black girl named Maleeka, who had self-esteem issues because of her dark skin.
Though I never had self-esteem issues because of my skin color specifically, I remember thinking about how I felt as a Black girl, and what I wished I could change about myself. This was the first novel I read that I felt I could relate to. My fifth grade self didn’t realize the intersections of racism and sexism taking place in the novel, and my interpretation was that Maleeka’s suffering was only because she was Black. It ended there.
As a young Black girl, I was never unaware of racism, even if I didn’t fully understand it. That same year while I was in fifth grade, I witnessed national outrage over the death of Trayvon Martin and I ended up writing an essay about his murder. Even still, my understanding of racism was solely through the lens of police brutality. Through slavery. Through extreme acts of anti-Black terrorism in the south. Through the same Civil Rights Movement that I had learned every year since I had learned to read. The Skin I’m In was the closest I got to understand oppression as a Black woman, and I didn’t even realize it. I grew up learning about race separated from gender.
My time in sixth grade left me little opportunity to ponder race and racism, let alone gender and sexism. Truth be told, I didn’t even have to think about race because I had grown up and lived my life around Black people. My school was full of Black people. I lived in a Black neighborhood. This was familiar.
It was when I transferred schools in seventh grade that everything changed. I went from a public school in Brooklyn to a private school in Manhattan. Suddenly, I was immersed in a sea of white faces, white faces who knew each other and didn’t know me. So there I was, one of three Black girls in my grade, feeling very out of place. That year, teachers who didn’t understand me complained about my attitude, my friends and I were always seen as too loud, and that I was still just a nigger according to a homeless man I had crossed paths with near the school in downtown Manhattan.
Coming into this new environment was an awakening for me. Suddenly, I had to pay attention to the things I did and how my actions would be perceived. There was a Black affinity club that I was a part of for my entire middle school life. However, we did not meet very frequently, and it was mainly for the Black History Month assembly planning, in which we regurgitated the same black male Civil Rights leaders, the same poems about the beauty in being different, and the same songs. Nonetheless this was nice, as it was an annual public declaration of my Blackness.
Still, I lacked an awareness about Black womanhood.
Eighth grade gifted me with To Kill A Mockingbird, by Harper Lee. It is a novel deemed revolutionary on the subject of race. One can’t help but sympathize with Tom Robinson, the Black man wrongfully convicted of the rape of a white woman. The cards were stacked against Tom, and the system had failed him. I had read this book as part of a class requirement and I remember not being surprised when Tom was convicted, and even less surprised when he was shot to death.
That year was particularly tumultuous. It was 2014, which meant both Mike Brown and Eric Garner had gained national coverage after having been murdered by the police. This same year, my school actually led a Black Lives Matter walkout, which I participated in and it was my very first protest. I was so excited to be a part of it as a middle schooler because I knew we were on the cusp of something big.
Walking out and declaring that my life mattered, was exhilarating for me. I was finally reaching full awareness of the how the system was out to get our Black men and boys. How they were in danger, and I increasingly began to understand that it was my job to fight for them.
But why hadn’t I thought about whose job it was to fight for me? Subconsciously, I had already ranked the importance of parts of my identity. I was Black, and with time to spare, maybe I could be a woman as well.
To be honest, living in the world I do, I hadn’t not thought about struggles women faced. I knew that there was violence against women. After all, I was an avid reader, and I often read above my level. This included books like Sold and Speak that dealt with sexual assault and other forms of violence against women. I knew women got raped, but I never knew exactly why.
Despite having family members that have survived rape, by this standard, sexism was something I had rarely considered as something that could affect my day to day. But, going into high school, my understanding of societal injustices became clearer and more defined. Something about getting older had already led me to think about how women faced oppression. Granted, I didn’t develop the language for these thoughts until I joined the Feminism Club at my school in tenth grade.
It was in this club that I learned a word that changed my life forever. Intersectionality. This term was coined by law professor Kimberlé Crenshaw, and it describes the connection between systems of oppression such as racism, sexism, and classism. And thus, my journey to self-revelation had come to fruition. Tenth grade was extremely transformative for me. I learned more about Black womanhood than I had ever learned before.
In our tenth grade English class, one of the books we read was The Bluest Eye by Toni Morrison, and we analyzed themes of racism and sexism experienced by Black women. One specific quote from the text completely embodies the experience of Black women. It reads: “All of our waste which we dumped on her and which she absorbed. And all of our beauty, which was hers first and which she gave to us.” It beautifully describes how Black women are systemically mistreated, while simultaneously being profited off of and discarded.
Now that I am in my junior year, I have reached my Black feminist prime. I am now taking a high school feminism class focusing on women of color feminisms and intersectionality taught by Ileana Jiménez, who also taught me Morrison and is the advisor to the feminism club as well.
The documentaries we have watched as well as plays and collections of essays we have read, and historical pieces we have studied, have all completely shifted my worldview. Now, I look at everything through a Black feminist lens. All around me, I’m starting to recognize the ways in which Black women have been under attack. We have some of the most powerful social, political, and economic influence, yet we are systematically mistreated. Societally, negative messages about Black women can be seen through the media. From modern day music to misrepresentations in the movies, racist sexism is all around.
Economically, it is important to note that Black women hold the greatest ” share of responsibility” in the “estimated $1.2 trillion spending power of black people overall,” according to an article on the HuffPost. This means that Black women contribute a large amount of money to the economy yearly. However, Black women “have higher rates of unemployment than white women” and we continue to to make less money than “[our] male counterparts and white women.” Additionally, about 25% of us are living below the poverty line, which is more than half of compared to white women, who have about 10% living below the poverty line, according to a 2015 census. The fact that Black women devote so much to the economy, yet are simultaneously neglected by it, is a form of systemic sexist racism. It makes it harder for us to get jobs, and take care of ourselves and our families, meaning we cannot thrive in this capitalist society.
Politically, we have the power to shift elections and sway votes. This can be seen in the recent election of Doug Jones to the Senate. His opponent Roy Moore, has numerous allegations including sexual assault and misconduct against him, including assault of a minor. This all came out while he was running for the Senate position, and even still, over 60% of both white men and women voted for him. However, he did not win because of the political influence of Black women.
Despite only comprising 17% of all voters that day, 98% of Black women voted for Doug Jones, which propelled him to the lead. The fact that only 17% of all Black women in Alabama voted shows how gerrymandering and voter suppression in prominent, but did not succeed in this case. Outside of the voting booths, Black women can spark political movements.
One powerful example is that of the Black Lives Matter movement, which erupted in July of 2013 to protest systemic racism that has claimed and continues to claim the lives of Black men and women. What most do not know is that the movement was started by three black women, Alicia Garza, Opal Tometi, and Patrisse Cullers.
As the movement gained national acceptance and fervor amongst the Black community, these women were invisible to most. Personally, I hadn’t learned who founded the movement until my tenth grade year. This, the movement I had supported since I was 12, and I didn’t even know who to thank. The kind of invisibility that Black women have is not uncommon. It is why we are often underrepresented in television and movies, and heavily in high level jobs, and government positions. However, this pales in comparison the misrepresentation seen in the media, often designed to degrade Black women and send negative messages that many end up believing, and using to perpetuate systems of oppression.
Images like this are common in the media. Black women being compared to apes is and old stereotype that is continuously damaging to many young Black girls and Black women. Attacks are made on every aspect of out being. Our hair is always too nappy or unprofessional. We are too loud, too ratchet, too ghetto. We are the “angry black woman.” This racist sexism is often unchecked because it is only seen through the lens of racism, without the element of gender. This means that when
Generationally, Black women have been left out of conversations regarding sexism and other feminist issues because of a lack of intersectionality. Because of this, many educators throughout the years have attempted to teach the masses about the suffering of Black women through creative mediums. Each wave of feminism has neglected to include the voices of the marginalized, particularly, the voices of Black lesbian women who have paved the way for intersectional thought. Some of these women include Barbara Smith, Cherrie Moraga, and Beverly Smith and Demita Frazier, who were two of the co-founders, among others, of the Combahee River Collective.
Their Black Feminist Statement recognizes that “if Black women were free, it would mean that everyone else would have to be free since our freedom would necessitate the destruction of all systems of oppression.”
Looking back, my transformation took place through literature. Thus, I am coming to recognize the importance of education as liberation from all chains. I understand that the main reason I was able to educate myself on this topic is because of the opportunity that I had to attend a private school. I find it quite ironic that this school, majority white, is the one where I discovered the layers of my oppression. But what about so many Black girls in public school, who don’t have the same opportunities I do? It is clear that elements of class are at play here, and I can see that access to information is inadvertently denied through income differences. How do we educate young Black girls on issues pertaining to them? How do we show them the value they have, the power they posses?
This happens through education, as well as changing how American public schools operate, and how they treat our Black girls, as well as other girls of color. According to Girls for Gender Equity, 1 in 10 girls said they lacked the resources needed in their schools. This can be fixed with federal funding, and the hiring of trained teachers, who can educate our black girls on intersectional feminism and issues that involve them. We need to show them black feminist readings that challenge all they have been told, and allow them to shift their ways of thinking.
Most importantly however, we need to teach Black girls that they do not need to separate any parts of their identities, that they can exist as they are.