Women still silenced in struggle for freedom

By Josh Odam


Has anyone ever heard of Joan Little? What about Latasha Harlins? I ask this because we as a society are inundated with images of Black male bodies as targets of police and vigilante terror dating back to Emmett Till, James Chaney, Rodney King, Amadou Diallo and now Michael Brown. My question is this – when have we ever acknowledged the death of a woman of color as a pivotal moment in the movement? When has a Rekia Boyd or Renisha McBride sparked a national uproar that revives the conversation on police occupation and the targeting of Black and Brown bodies? Think about that for a moment.

Over the summer, I took a walking tour of Harlem (it’s what good New Yorkers do). My tour guide (who just so happened to be a Black man) proceeded to take us to the Apollo Theater and spoke volumes about Dizzy Gillespie, Count Basie, Louis Armstrong, Bill “Bojangles” Robinson and other male artists who graced the legendary stage whilst seemingly glossing over “The Empress of Blues,” Bessie Smith and others such as Mahalia Jackson and Billie Holiday.

Of course, we had to stroll down West 138th Street, affectionately known as “Strivers’ Row” which housed Black (male) leaders such as U.S. Rep. Adam Clayton Powell Jr., brain surgeon Dr. Louis T. Wright and boxer Harry Wills.

My tour guide told us we were going to visit the “Malcolm X Educational Center” on West 165th Street. The correct name of the building is the “Malcolm X and Dr. Betty Shabazz Memorial and Educational Center.” He did not mention Columbia University sought Dr. Shabazz’s approval to reconstruct the dilapidated Audubon Ballroom as a tribute to her and her husband. My tour guide also did not think it was worthy to note the initial construction plans would have included a demolition of the ballroom had Dr. Shabazz not appealed to preserve the auditorium where Malcolm X was assassinated.

We walked past Marcus Garvey Park without mentioning the 1969 Harlem Cultural Festival took place there only days before Woodstock. Not only that, Nina Simone, the “High Priestess of Soul” and one of the most outspoken artists in the movement, performed “Revolution” (one of the first records introducing the concept of revolutionary struggle and self-reliance).

While we received a stale and hackneyed lesson on Garveyism, we learned nothing about Amy Jacques Garvey who, for all intents and purposes, was Garveyism. Most of Garvey’s critiques and analyses of the race problem in the United States were the intellectual property of Jacques Garvey. While Garvey was imprisoned, she successfully directed the Universal Negro Improvement Association but never received an official title within the organization due to Garvey’s unwillingness to have a woman hold an executive leadership position.

I go off on this tangent in order to address an age-old problem – sexism and patriarchy through the various phases of the civil rights movement.

Communities of color are microcosms of society at large. Therefore, if the United States has issues with patriarchy, sexism and misogyny (especially within the realm of activism and social justice), said issues are often exacerbated within the Black community.

These inequities are often highlighted within the soundtrack of the time. The anthem for the Black Power movement undoubtedly was James Brown’s “Say It Loud – I’m Black and I’m Proud.” However, if one conflates the motto with the omnipresent images of Black men such as Tommie Smith and John Carlos with clenched fists at the 1968 Olympics, Kwame Ture, H. Rap Brown, Huey P. Newton and dozens of Black Panthers toting berets, then the message is construed as “say it loud, I’m a Black man and I’m proud.”

For all intents and purposes, the “Black struggle” was synonymous with a “man’s struggle.”

When I speak to my mentors as to why these inequities existed and continue to persist, some said their colleagues devalue the experiences of Black women and women of color, claiming the issue is “too distracting” or “too divisive” or because “women did not belong on the frontline.”

One can see those conceptions of inferiority lanced if Ferguson is examined. As someone who witnessed the direct actions firsthand during #FergusonOctober, I can say with absolute confidence the people of Ferguson are not waiting for a Black man to deliver them. Many of the individuals I spoke with who have taken a semester off from school to protest and organize, walked away from their jobs and risked arrest and brutalization by militarized police since Aug. 9, were, in fact, women of color. Tef Poe and the Organization for Black Struggle (a group which has the University of Massachusetts alumni in their ranks) verbally censured many men who have not been as active in the movements until recently.

To tailor the situation even further, how do these gendered dynamics translate to direct action and sustainable movement building on our campus? Since the incidents occurred, I have had time to reflect and ask myself whether the community would have galvanized around anti-racism if I was not who I was – a Black male who is active on campus. My honest answer is no. I must say no because many articles on the topic of anti-racism feature my name, my face or my words with no mention of my sisters’ work or contribution to the situation. I have also bore witness to the blatant disregard and erasure of the narratives of my sisters’ as if they serve no purpose other than as my secretaries, proxies or substitutes. It is painfully clear whose bodies are protected and whose voices are respected.

The fundamental sexism and heteronormativity of the movement cannot be denied. In this and in every phase of the civil rights movement, our sisters play essential roles but are often relegated to secondary or token positions. Without them, our movement lacks the power to enact effective social change.

As Danielle Stevens eloquently stated, when men are complacent about the violence against women of color, they perpetuate an idea that the lives of Black women, femmes and girls are disposable, and that their lives hold no value (or lesser value than the male body). Dismantling oppressive power structures that inflict violence upon women of color absolutely depends upon each and every one of us. It is urgent that we centralize the livelihood and self-determination of sisters in our freedom work and continue to transform ourselves intentionally to unlearn habits that uphold patriarchy and sexism. We must critically examine the ways we are complicit in misogynist violence. As Black men, it is crucial that we demonstrate solidarity in fighting with our sisters because they are the first to come to our defense when the Black male body is attacked.

As individuals committed to this fight, we must be hyperaware of the intersecting identities and ready to interrupt and correct micro/macroaggressions when they occur. We must also be ever ready to collectively rise with the same level of indignation whenever a Black body is accosted because precedents show our sisters’ experiences are erased at the expense of the Black male narrative.

It is our responsibility as the new guard of the freedom struggle to ensure #BlackLivesMatter does not become gender-exclusive.

Josh Odam is a Collegian columnist and can be reached at [email protected]