At a speech in Los Angeles in 1962, Malcolm X observed, “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.” X’s statement is supported by the women who shaped his life as well as the many overlooked and often forgotten women behind the scenes of the American civil rights movement.
Black women have been speaking truths, offering solutions for our detrimental divisions, and shaping American culture for hundreds of years. We just haven’t been listening. But what might happen if we listened more attentively? I think we’d experience changes for the betterment of all people groups in America. It’s been noted in recent years by economists that when black women are brought up to the same levels (economically, socially) as the rest of the population, everyone does better. But this is a truth that black women have been trying to get across to those in power for centuries now. We’ve just been ignoring our conscience. I think now’s a better time than ever to listen.
This is obviously not to say that black women’s insights are the only valuable voices worth paying attention to on social and cultural matters (and that this must be noted is a testament to the manipulative type of gaslighting many women must often endure). But who better to gain perspective about American cultural issues than the group of people who’ve been systematically placed at the lowest rungs of our societal caste in America? Fortunately, we can listen to women from the past as well as the present to help guide us through problems and to solutions for America’s amelioration.
When citizens gathered in 1851 for the Women’s Rights Convention in Ohio, Sojourner Truth gave her (today, hotly debated) “Ain’t I a Woman” speech. For all the talk of women’s rights and egalitarian efforts for equal opportunity, African American women’s voices were neglected or not included in the conversation. At the convention, Truth stunned the audience by pointing at a member in the audience, more than likely a parishioner, stating:
Then that little man in black there, he says women can’t have as much rights as men, ‘cause Christ wasn’t a woman! Where did your Christ come from? Where did your Christ come from? From God and a woman! Man had nothing to do with Him.
If the first woman God ever made was strong enough to turn the world upside down all alone, these women together ought to be able to turn it back, and get it right side up again! And now they is asking to do it. The men better let them.
Truth is a more well-known historical figure today because of her words and actions—and quite frankly because she’s further removed from our modern history—but black women of more recent decades are still often ignored in public school curriculum and in mainstream cultural outlets.
For instance, few are familiar with truth-telling activist Fannie Lou Hamer. Hamer, who received a “Mississippi appendectomy” (an unwarranted, unnecessary, and unknowing hysterectomy) and was savagely beaten for voting and organizing voters, unashamedly shared her testimony with the Democratic National Convention in 1964. Her testimony was so powerful that President Lyndon B. Johnson called a last minute press conference to draw the cameras away from the damning truths of Hamer’s life. But his plan backfired and she received more attention as a result. After ten minutes, she concluded her speech by holding the political party she supported accountable: “If the Freedom Democratic Party is not seated now, I question America. Is this America, the land of the free and the home of the brave, where we have to sleep with our telephones off the hooks because our lives be threatened daily 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 took more than just black women and men or white women and men to achieve the change the country needed. “Now, we’ve got to have some changes in this country,” she told the group. “And not only changes for the black man, and only changes for the black woman, but the changes we have to have in this country are going to be for liberation of all people—because nobody’s free until everybody’s free.”
And even before Hamer, there was Billie Holiday, who used her musical talents to sing a truth about life in the American South with her song “Strange Fruit.” The lyrics tell of an awful truth most in political power wanted to conceal in the 1930s and 1940s:
Southern trees bear a strange fruit
Blood on the leaves and blood at the root
Black bodies swingin’ in the Southern breeze
Strange fruit hangin’ from the poplar trees
In fact, Holiday’s words were so threatening, the Federal Bureau of Narcotics targeted and threatened her to stop singing the song at shows. “To [FBN Commissioner] Harry Anslinger, Billie Holiday was like the symbol of everything that America had to be afraid of,” Johann Hari, author of Chasing the Scream: The First and Last Days of the War on Drugs told WNYC.
She had a heroin addiction because she’d been chronically raped as a child and she was trying to deal with the grief and the pain of that. And also, she was resisting white supremacy. And when she insisted on continuing on her right as an American citizen to sing “Strange Fruit,” Anslinger resolved to destroy her.
There are many more black women throughout the history of politics, journalism, the arts, and activism concerned with truth and freedom, than there is time or space to cover here. For example, Callie House was one of the first to lead the movement for African American reparations, and was targeted by the federal government for a bogus mail fraud accusation to stop the growth of her movement. Ida B. Wells documented and courageously 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 her as an inspiration to make more protest music like “Mississippi Goddam.” Juanita Craft 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 organizational efforts that unified and empowered black voices, and yet were still excluded by black male leaders from speaking at the March on Washington in 1963.
But their voices and activism didn’t cease there. Many black women in our modern era continue using their voices to proclaim prophetic truths about our culture and are still targeted for doing so. Investigative reporter Nikole Hannah-Jones helps us connect the dots between our American past and present, shedding light on why we experience so much unnecessary division today; she is the central figure for calls to make teaching “CRT” in schools illegal. Truth’s Table—a podcast made up of Michelle Higgins, Dr. Christina Edmondson, and Ekemini Uwan—shares sometimes uncomfortable theological and social insights that challenge us all to be better. Rapsody is a top-level, yet highly underrated, hip hop artist who uses her lyrical skills to highlight the beauty, power, and complexities of black women.
Often it’s not the wealthy, privileged, or prestigious who have the best insight into a society’s greatest ills. Rather, it’s the lowly, ostracized, and ignored who can best see not only the problems but the solutions that can lift a culture from what plagues it most. For instance, in Ecclesiastes 9:14-16 (CSB) it says,
There was a small city with few men in it. A great king came against it, surrounded it, and built large siege works against it. Now a poor wise man was found in the city, and he delivered the city by his wisdom. Yet no one remembered that poor man. And I said, “Wisdom is better than strength, but the wisdom of the poor man is despised, and his words are not heeded.”
And how much more was this true of Jesus, who grew up among and associated most with the lowly? Truly, He had and has the greatest wisdom of all.
For the American context, black women might be the voice most often dismissed or ignored, yet it is their voices we might need most if we truly want this country to represent all that we say it does (freedom, liberty, and justice for all). And as we close Black History Month, it seems we are taking incremental steps to bolster their voices with the first African American female Supreme Court Justice nomination, Ketanji Brown Jackson.
The truths black women offer are rarely rosy verities, but they are necessary gospels if we are to make our American culture equitable and just for all. Like the temporary discomfort of brightness upon our eyes at dawn, we must allow our vision to adjust to the illumination, because as Ida B. Wells says, “The way to right wrongs is to turn the light of truth upon them.”