In a speech in Los Angeles in 1962, Malcolm X observed: “The most disrespectful person in America is the black woman. The most helpless person in America is the black woman. The most neglected person in America is the black woman. The assertion of X is supported by the women who shaped his life as well as the many overlooked and women often forgotten behind the scenes of the American civil rights movement.
Black women have been speaking truths, offering solutions to our harmful divisions, and have been shaping American culture for hundreds of years. We just didn’t listen. But what might happen if we listened more carefully? I think we would experiment with changes for the betterment of All groups of people in America. It has been noted by economists in recent years that when women of color are brought up to the same levels (economic, social) as the rest of the population, everyone does better. But this is a truth that women of color have been trying to convey to those in power for centuries. We just ignored our conscience. I think now is the best time ever to listen.
This of course is not to say that Black women’s insights are the only valuable voices worth paying attention to on social and cultural issues (and that this should be noted is a testament to the manipulative kind of gaslighting many women often have to endure). But who better than the group of people who have been systematically placed at the lower steps of our social caste in America? Fortunately, we can listen to women past and present to help guide us through problems and toward solutions for the betterment of America.
When citizens gathered in 1851 for the Women’s Rights Convention in Ohio, Sojourner Truth gave her (today, hotly debated) « I’m not a woman » speech.. For all the talk about women’s rights and egalitarian equal opportunity efforts, the voices of African American women have been overlooked or not included in the conversation. At the convention, Truth stunned the audience by pointing to an audience member, most likely a parishioner, stating:
Then that little man in black over there says that women can’t have as many rights as men, because Christ wasn’t a woman! Where does your Christ come from? Where does your Christ come from? From God and from a woman! Man had nothing to do with Him.
If the first woman God ever created was strong enough to turn the world upside down on her own, these women together should be able to turn it upside down and put it right! And now they are asking to do it. Men better let them do it.
Truth is a historical figure best known today because of her words and actions — and frankly because she’s further removed from our modern history — but Black women of more recent decades are still often ignored in public school curricula and mainstream cultural outlets.
For example, few know the truth-telling activist Fannie Lou Hamer. Hamer, who received a “Mississippi appendectomy(an unwarranted, unnecessary, unconscious hysterectomy) and it was savagely beaten to vote and organize voters, he unashamedly shared his testimony with the Democratic National Convention in 1964. His testimony was so powerful that President Lyndon B. Johnson called a last-minute press conference to take the cameras off the crushing truths of Hamer’s life. But her plan failed and she received Moreover attention accordingly. After ten minutes, he concluded his speech by holding accountable the political party he supported: “If the Freedom Democratic Party does not sit down now, I question America. This is America, the land of the free and the home of the brave, where we have to sleep with our phones off the hook because our lives are threatened every day because we want to live as decent human beings, in America?
And in 1971, she told the National Women’s Political Caucus in Washington that it didn’t just take black women and men or white women and men to get the change the country needed. « Now, we have to have some changes in this country, » she told the group. “And not just changes for the black man, and just changes for the black woman, but the changes we need to have in this country are going to be for the liberation of all people, because no one is free until everyone is free. . »
And even before Hamer, there was Billie Holiday, who used her musical talent to sing a truth about life in the American South with her song « Strange fruit.” The lyrics tell a terrible truth that most of the political power wanted to hide in the 30s and 40s:
Southern trees bear strange fruit
Blood on the leaves and blood at the root
Black bodies sway in the southern breeze
Strange fruits hanging from poplars
Indeed, Holiday’s words were so threatening, the Federal Bureau of Narcotics he picked on her and threatened her stop singing the song at shows. « TO [FBN Commissioner] Harry Anslinger, Billie Holiday was like the symbol of everything America should be afraid of », Johann Hari, author of Chasing the Scream: The First and Last Days of the War on Drugs he told WNYC.
She had a heroin addiction because she was chronically abused as a child and was trying to deal with the pain and grief of it. Plus, she was resisting white supremacy. And when she insisted on continuing her right as an American citizen to sing « Strange Fruit, » Anslinger set out to destroy her.
There are far more Black women in the history of politics, journalism, the arts, and activism interested in truth and freedom, than there is time or space to cover here. For example, Callie House she was one of the first to lead the African-American reparations movement and was targeted by the federal government on a false charge of mail fraud to halt the growth of her movement. Ida B. Wells she courageously documented and covered the atrocities of black life in the South, and without her journalism we wouldn’t know many of them today. Nina Simone resurrected Billie Holiday’s song « Strange Fruit » and used it as inspiration to make more protest music like « Damn Mississippi.” Juanita crafts organized a boycott of the Texas State Fair in 1955 which drew attention to the hypocritical nature of segregation. The often forgotten women of the civil rights movement impacted most of the organizing efforts that unified and empowered black voices, yet were still excluded from black male leaders from the speech to the March on Washington in 1963.
But their voices and activism didn’t stop there. Many Black women in our modern era continue to use their voice to proclaim prophetic truths about our culture and are still targeted for doing so. Investigative reporter Nikole Hannah-Jones it helps us connect the dots between our American past and present, shedding light on why we experience so much unnecessary division today; he is the central figure in calls to outlaw the teaching of “CRT” in schools. The truth table—a podcast composed by Michelle Higgins, Dr. Christina Edmondson and Ekemini Uwan — sometimes shares uncomfortable theological and social insights that challenge us all to be better. Rapsody is an upscale, yet greatly underrated hip hop artist who uses her lyrical skills to highlight the beauty, power and complexity of black women.
It is often not the rich, privileged, or prestigious who have the best insight into a society’s greatest ills. Rather, it is the humble, the ostracized and the ignored who can best see not only the problems but also the solutions that can lift a culture from what ails it most. For example, in Ecclesiastes 9:14-16 (CSB) it says:
There was a small town with few men. A great king came against it and surrounded it and built great siegeworks against it. Now a poor and wise man was found in the city, who freed the city with his wisdom. Yet no one remembered that poor man. And I said, « Wisdom is better than strength, but the poor man’s wisdom is despised, and his words are not heeded. »
And how much more was this true of Jesus, who grew up and associated more with the humble? Truly, He had and has the greatest wisdom of all.
For the American context, Black women may be the voice most often rejected or ignored, yet it is their voices that we may need the most if we truly want this country to stand for all that we say it does (liberty, liberty and justice for all ). And as we close out Black History Month, it looks like we’re taking incremental steps to bolster their voices with the first African-American female Supreme Court nominee, Ketanji Brown Jackson.
The truths that women of color offer are rarely rosy truths, but they are necessary gospels if we are to make our American culture fair and just for all. Like the temporary discomfort of the brightness upon our eyes at dawn, we must allow our vision to adjust to the illumination, for as Ida B. Wells says, « The way to right wrongs is to shine the light of truth upon them. »