As Black History Month ended, I reflected on how the struggle of African American women contributed to who I am. This is dedicated to all those women who knowingly or unknowingly touched my life, inspired me and contributed to me becoming the woman I am today. To my friend “V” who pulled herself and family out of homelessness, to “B” who always inspired me by facing the many challenges of her life with strength and love, and to my shero, Eileen Hernandez, who is truly a women of strength with a strong commitment to gender equality and racial justice...
"Defining myself, as opposed to being defined by others, is one of the most difficult challenges I face." - Carol Moseley Braun
Every year in February, Black History Month is celebrated in United States. The theme for 2012 was Black Women in American Culture and History, acknowledging the critical and yet under-recognized roles that African American women have played in the history of the United States. Barbara Jordan once wrote, `We the people'; it is a very eloquent beginning. But when the Constitution of the United States was completed on the seventeenth of September, 1787, I was not included in that `We the people.' The struggles of African Americans for inclusion and gender equality, against both racism and sexism, have contributed to the discourse of gender equality and the history of United States.
This is the second time in the history of this month that focus and light is being shone on the contribution of African American women. In 1996, the observance of Black History Month was focused on the strides made by black women. From Sojourner Truth's inspiring words, to Mary McLeod Bethune's speeches, to the contemporary novels of Nobel laureate Toni Morrison, from Barbara Jordan to Maya Angelo, the voices of African American women raised our consciousness to racism and sexism, and educated and inspired not only women of color in the U.S. but also many thousands of women around the globe immersed in fights for equality, justice and inclusion. Women like Rosa Parks and Harriet Tubman took a risk to change the world and make it a better place, and they did it in the face of racial and gender discrimination. These known and unknown sheroes and agents of change have fought extraordinary battles for social, economic, and political empowerment, and lit the path for other women.
Pioneer Black women activists contributed greatly to the women’s movement in the United States, though many remain unknown in popular culture. Take Pauli Murray for example, a brilliant and distinguished scholar, writer, lecturer, who in later in life was the first woman to become an Episcopalian minister. She was a feminist black woman who contributed to the feminist movement in U.S. also by being instrumental in the founding of the National Organization of Women.
Aileen Hernandez, whom I have the pleasure and honor to know through her leadership at the Women’s Intercultural Network, is a community leader, political organizer who never ceased struggling for racial and gender equality. Aileen was the first woman on the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunities Commission, where she experienced discrimination against women of all colors, and from behind the scenes urged Friedan and others to start an NAACP for women. She was NOW's first Executive Vice President and in 1970 was the second national president after Betty Friedan. In this year's Black History Month and every day of the year, we honor those who came before us and paved the way for the accomplishments of black women, and all women of color. In the words of Carol Moseley Braun, they were brave not to let others define them.
History of Black History Month
While the struggle of African Americans has a much longer history, the tradition of Black History Month goes back to the beginning of the 20th Century. Historian and educator Carter G. Woodson originally founded “Negro History Week” in 1926, at a time when most history books simply omitted any African-American history and the central role African-Americans played in the birth of America as we know it. Woodson chose February because it coincided with the birthdays of two men who fought for freedom of American slaves: Abraham Lincoln and Frederick Douglass.
Activism for civil rights among African American predates the civil rights movement in the U.S. by almost a century. Women were part of the civil rights struggle. It was Elizabeth Jennings Graham in 1854 defied a streetcar conductor’s order to leave his car who helped desegregate public transit in New York City. During the civil rights movement, Septima Poinsette Clark, who is often called the “queen mother” of civil rights, was an educator and activist with the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People decades before the nation’s attention turned to racial equality. Sharecropper Fannie Lou Hamer was beaten and jailed in 1962 for trying to register to vote, eventually co-founded the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party, and spoke at the 1964 Democratic National Convention. Vivian Malone Jones, against all odds, enrolled in the University of Alabama in 1963 and later worked in the civil rights division of the U.S. Justice Department. These are just a few of the women who struggled for rights and dignity.
During the 1920s and 1930s, African-Americans moved to New York from across the country because it was one of the few states without school segregation states. Harlem became predominantly African-American, and the Harlem Renaissance blossomed out of the creativity in music, art, and writing. This marked the first time in American history that the white mainstream took notice of the creative talents of black America, and women especially expanded their influence by speaking not only to racial discrimination, but also gender issues.
Talented African-American women like Marian Anderson emerged, who was a singer from this era was and soloist who was performing at Carnegie Hall by the time she was a teenager. She was widely acclaimed all over the world, but in 1939 was denied the use of the Constitution Hall in Washington, D.C., by the Daughters of the American Revolution (DAR) because she was black. Anderson garnered the support of First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt, however, and Roosevelt promptly resigned from the DAR, making Anderson a prominent player in the struggle for racial equality, bringing women into the plight. From 1957-1958, she even served as a Goodwill Ambassador for the U.S. State Department, and sang at the presidential inaugurations for both Eisenhower and Kennedy.
The stories of the life and struggle, contributions and strides of black women to the history and culture of the United States is a chapter of the history of this country that has more unwritten pages than written. May the future generations of black women keep moving forward in the tradition and struggle of those who came before them, for racial and gender justice and equality.
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