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Reflections Unheard: Black Women in Civil Rights

Free Huey newton, Black Panther Rally San Francisco, May 1, 1969  Leaping wi Mao Book   sheet 294 frame 42

Malcolm X. Martin Luther King Jr. Bobby Seale. Huey Newton. These are just a few names that regularly come to mind when we think of the civil rights struggle. However, black women’s contributions to revolutionary activism is regularly overlooked  and marginalized. The struggle over racial equality is usually attributed to black men, even today. Names like Trayvon Martin and Jordan Davis sound familiar, but Renisha McBride and Rekia Boyd are largely unknown. Noticing this trend does not diminish the real struggle that black men experience, nor does it diminish their activism, but the narrow focus on black men eclipses the names of Black women who have suffered from and contributed to the struggle in unique ways.

Nevline Nnaji is the director of the film Unheard: Black Women in Civil Rights which centers on black women activists who were instrumental in the Black Power movement, the feminist movement, as well as revolutionary struggles today. Feminist history is largely understood to center on white women’s activism. In fact, even the “wave” model [first wave, second wave, third wave] ignores the long history of activism that black women have contributed to. Blogging, which is a staple activity among feminists today, also privileges the white female voice where “experts” in popular feminism are usually white.

Nevline states:

“Issues and abuses that specifically affect black women are still placed on the back burner when it comes to discussions about ‘the black community.’ There is plenty of outrage and sympathy for violence against black men. There’s more silence around issues like street harassment and rape, which are typically gender-based forms of violence. Mainstream feminism is still re-working itself to be more racially ‘inclusive.’ As a result, women of color often carve out our own spaces, which is wonderful. That was actually the purpose of my collaboration with a group of other black women filmmakers, when we created our artist collective, ‘New Negress Film Society’. “

Black women’s erasure from the history of revolutionary struggle largely informs the ways in which we are still not prized today [though we  still do a lot of work]. As black women, we sit at an interesting intersection: we are largely excluded from discussions about racial inequality because black men dominate those discussions [while *completely* leaving out the gendered oppression black women experience], and we’re completely marginalized in mainstream feminist discussions where white women hijack the discussion, assuming that patriarchy is the only oppressive regime [while not talking about white supremacy].

Nevline also states that she is very passionate about issues regarding sexuality and black women’s bodies. She states:

“All genders need to re-educate ourselves about what sex is supposed to be, because the way we’re taught is only designed to cater to the male body. Women should be having amazing orgasms. We need to permit ourselves to dance and dress how we please, and assert ourselves sexually.This sense of agency and freedom with our bodies will inevitably filter into other aspects of our lives. Black women especially have fought stereotypes of being hypersexual, but we cannot live our lives in reaction to racist ideas.”

This is more true than ever today considering the multiple cultural panics around black women’s bodies. From the all-white indie girl band Warpaint calling Beyonce a “slut” to the panic over Rihanna’s see-through dress at the Fashion Icon Awards, there’s still a lot of work we have to do. However, amplifying the voices we did have in the historical struggle for rights would be nice start.

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