What do Vice-President Kamala Harris, voting rights activist Stacey Abrams, media mogul Oprah Winfrey, and viral immunologist leading the fight against COVID-19 Kizzmekia Corbett have in common? They’re all Black women with magnificent accomplishments—things most people do not achieve, let alone those staring down racism and sexism. As a Black woman, they inspire me, but at the same time we must acknowledge both Black women’s resilience and our fight against social processes continuing to oppress us.
Let’s return to Harris, Abrams, Winfrey, and Corbett. Their successes are remarkable in large part because of how steep their climb to the top was. We intuitively evince this understanding as we breathlessly say: “Look at what she’s done?!” In other words, “she’s played a losing hand brilliantly—and with aplomb!”—Black Girl Magic. To be clear, these women warrant acclaim. Yet this Women’s History Month, if we’re serious about honoring all women’s humanity—the rarefied and the regular among all racial and class statuses—we must commit to dismantling the barriers these women overcame.
…if Black women are free, our country would necessarily be closer to a truly just society.
Sociologist Patricia Hill Collins, in her groundbreaking book Black Feminist Thought, argues Black women’s standpoint—their understanding of themselves and their politics in relation to that of others—reflects how Black women simultaneously occupy race and gender oppression, and often subjugation related to class and sexuality. Three controlling images, propagated by White elites from the slave era to the present, create dominant narratives about Black women to justify the exploitative social practices they endure. And importantly these controlling images absolve those in powerful positions from responsibility for the social outcomes resulting from their decisions. “Mammy” is the asexual Black woman with no interests or family of her own. She exists to serve Whites’ needs and desires. The “matriarch” is a “failed mammy” due to her excessive strength whereby she emasculates Black men, which leads to Black men not heading their households, and ultimately pathological Black families. The “welfare queen” is a Black woman dependent on the state for financial support because she does not have a sufficient work ethic, nor male breadwinner. Each of these narratives diverts our attention from structural forces uniquely shaping Black women’s (and men’s) lives through government policy and market activity—from the slave era, to Jim Crow segregation, to the present-day “neoliberal racial order” (to borrow a term from political scientists Michael Dawson and Megan Ming Francis.)
How do these narratives find their way into our policy discussions and rationales for the distribution of material and social resources in our country? And what do such controlling images obscure? Today, most Black mothers are working mothers. Yet, according to the Pew Research Center in 2019 (thus before COVID-19 struck), over 25 percent of Black children lived in poverty—about triple the number of White children. In this case, the debate often centers on Black women’s work ethic, sexuality, fertility, and marital status, rather than why adults working full time do not earn a living wage with health and other benefits like sick leave. Or for that matter, why something as essential to wellbeing as healthcare is tethered to one’s employment status. We implicitly tell these women to get a second or third job. And the kinds of work Black women do, particularly those without a college education, is often care work for children and elders. This form of labor is back-breaking, requires long and irregular hours, and remains poorly compensated (and presently increases workers’ risk of exposure to COVID-19). And the narrative further implies that Black women are especially suited for this work—and therefore they should want to do it and be grateful to have work to do.
To put a quarter in the pay-to-park in anticipation of counterarguments, let’s start with marital status. Two adults earning the federal minimum wage of $7.25 per hour, take home just a few thousand dollars more than the poverty threshold for a family of four, $26,500. And let’s also note fertility rates across racial and ethnic groups—Blacks, Whites, Latinx, Asian, and Indigenous—is a little under two children per woman. Marriage is one route to improved economic stability. But here too we know tying the knot and having a financial foothold go hand in glove. People tend to marry when they have regular incomes that meet household needs. As I explained in a previous piece, White women’s non-marital fertility rate is now inching close to the number for Black women in the 1960s, reflecting how market forces shaping Black communities are now impacting those of Whites. Working class and poor Whites now weather severe job loss and a drug crisis, just as Blacks faced for the same over 50 years ago. And significantly, Black families have always navigated burdens other racial and ethnic groups have not (or at least not to the same extent)—including, among other things, inadequate access to decent housing, education and employment discrimination, disproportionate pollution in their neighborhoods, and mass incarceration (notwithstanding Blacks do not use drugs at greater rates than Whites). Even middle class Blacks do not escape predation, as demonstrated by how mortgage lenders, such as Wells Fargo, targeted African Americans for toxic home loans, even when they qualified for standard terms.
Black women, as activists and everyday folk, have regularly connected their own and their families’ oppression to how society is organized—where more powerful interests are served at their expense. The Black feminist lesbians who penned The Combahee River Collective Statement in 1977 modeled the magic of Black women’s thinking (The Collective is named after the South Carolina River around which Harriet Tubman led a Union battle during the Civil War—the only woman-led military action in that war—freeing hundreds of enslaved Africans). Women of The Collective, like their foremothers Ida B. Wells, Mary Church Terrell, Nannie Helen Burroughs, and Anna Julia Cooper, just to name a few, contended that if Black women are free, our country would necessarily be closer to a truly just society. This is because Black women’s liberation would mean we’ve eradicated racism, sexism, and class oppression—and ushered in economic, political, and other social systems affirming more people’s humanity. Members of the Collective maintained a global perspective, recognizing how corporations engage in a “race to the bottom” as they cast about for people’s labor to exploit and privileged access to natural resources, without bearing the costs to human health and that of our planet. Capitalism per se in not necessarily the problem, but unregulated forms of it divorced from policies providing for equitable resource distribution and responsible stewardship of our planet, is certainly the problem.
As we honor women this Women’s History Month, let’s ask ourselves: How well do government and market policies, and other aspects of our social structure, address women’s pressing needs, particularly those most marginalized? Black girl magic, for all its sparkle, shines a light on the glaring racial and gender inequities still stalking us. May we harness the magic of collective resolve to reach for an America where all people realize their potential and our society honors everyone’s humanity.
We’ve learned that quiet isn’t always peace
And the norms and notions
of what just is
Isn’t always just-ice
And yet the dawn is ours…
The hill we climb
If only we dare
It’s because being American is more than a pride we inherit,
it’s the past we step into
and how we repair it…
“The Hill We Climb,” Amanda Gorman, U.S. Youth Poet Laureate, at the Biden-Harris Inauguration, January 2021