Black and Brown Women Save The World

Recent developments across the nation evoke the work of 19th century Black feminist Anna Julia Cooper. In 1892, Cooper boldly and proudly declared in Voice From The South that “only the BLACK WOMAN can say ‘when and where I enter, in the quiet, undisputed dignity of my womanhood, without violence and without suing or special patronage, then and there the whole Negro race enters with me.’” Cooper claims for the Black woman a special place in the history of Black struggle for equality and recognition. She would be paying close attention to our current moment because it appears our women are here to save us.

The last decade in America has been notable for a reason that few have bothered to mention, failed to notice, or have not cared to acknowledge: Black and brown women strengthen our moral fiber and elevate our civic sense of duty. The two most important and consciousness-raising social movements of the 21st century were begun by Black women – Black Lives Matter (BLM), founded by Alicia Garza, Opal Tometi, and Patrisse Khan-Cullors, rose to national prominence in response to the racist murder of Trayvon Martin. The movement calls for the equal recognition of Black humanity in a society in which Black life is treated cheaply and with disdain.

BLM fights against white supremacy and Black heteronormative patriarchy, centering the voices of queer Black Americans (including that of co-founder Garza, who is queer). The movement also worked to make visible violence against transgender Blacks, a group that had mostly been rendered invisible by mainstream news coverage. #MeToo, initiated by Tarana Burke, soon followed and forced a national conversation around our society’s epidemic of sexual abuse against women. That movement resulted in consequential action against male abusers, with very public takedowns of previously powerful men such as former CBS chairman and CEO Les Moonves, Harvey Weinstein, and R. Kelly.

Black women have long paved the way, and present-day Black women scholars have been prolific laborers in service to their causes and memory. These scholars and historians raise our national consciousness by highlighting the often ignored value of their predecessors. Robyn Spencer’s The Revolution Has Come: Black Power, Gender, and the Black Panther Party In Oakland reminds us of women’s place in the Black Panther movement, which has been stubbornly viewed as the domain of “strong Black men.” Keisha N. Blain, editor in chief of The North Star, educates us on Black women’s roles in global nationalist struggles in Set The World On Fire: Nationalist Women and the Global Struggle For Freedom. In Beyond Respectability: The Intellectual Thought of Race Women, Brittney Cooper reconstructs Black women’s place in intellectual history, which has often prized genuinely talented men and relegated women to supporting roles. Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor’s This Is How We Get Free: Black Feminism and the Combahee Collective discusses a movement of brilliant Black lesbians who counted Audre Lorde among its members.

The power players in Congress have similarly begun to yield to the insistence that Black and brown women be part of our national conversation and agenda-setting. And the timing is fortuitous, for we are also in the midst of what has seemed an unending stream of men – white and Black – being held accountable for their racism and misogyny. The most poignant, and recent, case of powerful men behaving badly comes to us from the tragi-comic duo of Virginia Governor Ralph Northam and Lt. Governor Justin Fairfax.

In January, Northam was identified as wearing blackface next to another person in Ku Klux Klan garb in a medical school yearbook. Fairfax, a Black man, was quickly embraced as the Northam’s replacement until allegations of sexual assault against two women surfaced. Here, white and Black patriarchy colluded to make a mockery of one of America’s great states and damage real lives.

But there is hope in the leadership of women. Stacey Abrams nearly made history in 2018, coming within a hair’s breadth of winning the Georgia governorship. Had she won, she would have been America’s first Black woman governor. Yet there were many victories for Black and brown women in 2018. A historic one hundred women were voted into Congress this year, including Rashida Tlaib and Ilhan Omar – women of Palestinian and Somalian origin, respectively – and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, who won a stunning victory in a New York runoff. Ocasio-Cortez’s presence in Congress has already yielded a national conversation on taxing the rich as well as a co-sponsored bill for a Green New Deal that focuses on marginalized communities, including native, disabled, and poor Americans who often represent a tragic trifecta of neglect and abuse. Where Senator Corey Booker seems to be in no real rush to identify President Donald Trump as a racist, these women have been unapologetic in naming the administration for what it is: a bastion of racism, misogyny, and xenophobia.

The degree white women will show up to support Black and brown women remains an open question. We are seeing some dispiriting signs that prominent white women on the left are failing to appreciate the arrival of a new cohort of forward thinking minority women leaders. For example, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi has been ignorantly dismissive of Ocasio-Cortez’s Green New Deal while Flint, Michigan residents continue to struggle to secure clean drinking water. But, in an admittedly smart and necessary move, she picked Stacey Abrams to deliver the Democrats’ response to Trump’s State of the Union Address – a significant moment when the party collectively challenges problematic claims made during the address.

But Abrams did so much more. She did what Black and brown women have been doing for centuries with little real acknowledgment, in our homes, businesses, civic lives, and politics. Abrams told the audience about searching for her father in the rain, only to find him walking along the highway after giving his coat to a homeless man. When Abrams asked why he would give up his coat, Abrams's father responded “I knew you would come for me.” In her rebuttal to Trump, Abrams reached out her hands and claimed us all as being worthy of care and love when she said, “We are coming for America.”

But unlike Abrams's father, who was convinced that help would come, we have a different choice. We can wait and make these women toil in a world that has consistently told them they have no rights, or we can see them. We can acknowledge them and put in the work to help clear the way for these Black and brown women to lead us towards redemption.

About the Author

Chris Lebron is Associate Professor of Philosophy at Johns Hopkins University and a Senior Writer for The North Star. He specializes in political philosophy, social theory, the philosophy of race, and democratic ethics. His work has focused on bridging the divide between analytic liberalism and the virtue ethics tradition. He is the author of The Color of Our Shame: Race and Justice In Our Time (2013) and The Making of Black Lives Matter: A Brief History of An Idea (2017).