And Still We Rise

I celebrate Ketanji Brown Jackson’s confirmation to become the first Black woman United States Supreme Court Justice. I can’t wait to say: “Justice Jackson” in a few months! Her ascendance to this position is well-earned and I look forward to how her vision of justice will shape the court.

In the midst of commemorating this breakthrough, let us not lose sight of how, yet again, a Black woman was asked to endure abuse to rise to a position she was more than qualified to attain—lest we normalize and even condone what happened to her. As Ms. Jackson spoke, it was hard not to see Anita Hill, the lawyer who testified during U.S. Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas’s nomination hearing in 1991. Ms. Hill accused Justice Thomas of sexual harassment. White men on the Judiciary Committee, at the time chaired by President Biden, bombarded Ms. Hill with questions about her character, motivations for testifying, and qualifications in ways that patently disrespected her personhood and disregarded her record (President Biden has apologized for how he treated Ms. Hill, and, as president, nominated Ms. Jackson to the U.S. Supreme Court). Ms. Jackson’s experience was similar to Ms. Hill’s—the line of questions she received were largely devoid of civility and not grounded in Ms. Jackson’s judicial and personal records.

Clearly, the rules of human decency and law are often applied differently when a Black woman takes the stand in this country. That Ms. Jackson and Ms. Hill “followed the rules” of the legal profession and yet were still subjected to gaslighting—the attempt to undermine the credibility of their statements to distract from the veracity of what they communicated—indicates gendered racism is alive and well. Feminist scholar Moya Bailey labels the particular forms of discrimination and harsh social criticism and sanction Black women face “misogynoir”—the intersection of race and gender subordination. Sociologist Patricia Hill Collins and legal scholar Kimberle Crenshaw convey similar ideas when discussing “interlocking oppressions.”

The vicious silencing of Black women confirms just how powerful we are.

Yet paradoxically, the vicious, nearly apoplectic response to the mere presence of Ms. Jackson and Ms. Hill evinces Black women’s power. And Ms. Jackson’s presence was all the more alarming to those upholding White dominance because she has the audacity to assert that she is qualified to pronounce rulings on the very systems which continue to oppress her and others who share her social statuses.

When entering the public square, a Black woman’s voice carries the potential to destabilize the social order, and thus loosen White men’s grip on society in at least three arenas—leading to the ruthlessness of those who seek to silence them. First, by daring to utter an alternative perspective, Black women show they have not internalized and naturalized White supremacy and therefore do not self-police based on White dominant worldviews. Second, when Black women detail narratives of their lived experience and offer alternative visions for social relationships, they expose that the emperor has no clothes, and no justification for hoarding inordinate resources and social status at Black women’s (and other marginalized groups’) expense. Third—and this is the most dangerous threat to social control—Black women’s voices potentially catalyze and sustain social movements and other forms of organizing across marginalized groups that could upend the status quo.  

African American women, simultaneously marginalized by race and gender, hold a clear view of the mechanisms used to ravage the many for the benefit of the few. The mirror Black women hold up to America reflects devastating social monstrosities, such as our 700 billionaires matched alongside our 44 million sisters and brothers who live in poverty. In these increasingly unfair realities, Black women provide grand visions of how to move forward (read, for instance, the Combahee River Collective Statement, published in 1977, and Ruth Wilson Gilmore’s vision for “abolition democracy”).

Ketanji Brown Jackson, Anita Hill—and I too—stand surrounded by a great cloud of witnesses of bold Black women who have spoken and still speak truth to power—from Harriet Tubman, to Sojourner Truth, to Anna Julia Cooper, to Ida B. Wells, to Fannie Lou Hamer, to Ella Baker, to Angela Davis, to Kamala Harris, to Stacey Abrams. Our lineage demonstrates that in each generation the Lord raises up Black women prophets who call us to usher in systems where all people flourish. The vicious silencing of Black women confirms just how powerful we are.

So, the question remains, why do so many Americans settle for social systems creating scarcity, when God’s abundance means there is more than enough for us all? What will it take for broad swaths of America to at last divest of White patriarchal capitalism, and its political complements, and embrace social systems designed for all people’s thriving? Black women have been calling America to account since its inception. And we will keep doing so. Like Ketanji Brown Jackson, we rise—and will keep rising, until justice rolls down like waters and righteousness like a mighty stream!

You may write me down in history
With your bitter, twisted lies,
You may trod me in the very dirt
But still, like dust, I’ll rise.

Does my sassiness upset you?
Why are you beset with gloom?
’Cause I walk like I’ve got oil wells
Pumping in my living room.

Just like moons and like suns,
With the certainty of tides,
Just like hopes springing high,
Still I’ll rise.

Did you want to see me broken?
Bowed head and lowered eyes?
Shoulders falling down like teardrops,
Weakened by my soulful cries?

Does my haughtiness offend you?
Don’t you take it awful hard
’Cause I laugh like I’ve got gold mines
Diggin’ in my own backyard.

You may shoot me with your words,
You may cut me with your eyes,
You may kill me with your hatefulness,
But still, like air, I’ll rise.

Does my sexiness upset you?
Does it come as a surprise
That I dance like I’ve got diamonds
At the meeting of my thighs?

Out of the huts of history’s shame
I rise
Up from a past that’s rooted in pain
I rise
I’m a black ocean, leaping and wide,
Welling and swelling I bear in the tide

Leaving behind nights of terror and fear
I rise
Into a daybreak that’s wondrously clear
I rise
Bringing the gifts that my ancestors gave,
I am the dream and the hope of the slave.
I rise
I rise
I rise.

-“Still I Rise” – by Maya Angelou