Today I had the pleasure of speaking to student leaders at the University of South Florida in honor of Black Heritage Month. I have decided to include the speech below:
Black women are a prism through which the searing rays of race, class and sex are first focused, then refracted. The creative among us transform these rays into a spectrum of brilliant colors, a rainbow which illuminates the experience of all mankind (Margaret B. Wilkerson as cited by Hine & Thompson, 1998).
During this time of the season, Black Heritage Month, as we reflect and honor all of those who have and continue to advocate for our communities, I am reminded of the power of the human spirit and voice. The echoes of our ancestors who critiqued, endured, fought, strived, engaged and protested for this very opportunity for me to stand before you and articulate this message….
This message of leadership starts where most human life enters, the womb. While this acknowledgment may appear out of place when one thinks of leadership, it ironically is inherent in the messages many of us have heard and may be even restated ourselves. “Leaders are made and not born.” Again, the womb plays an important role in this perspective of many as a fertile ground where those uncompromising factors of a person are fused. Is this message to be tempered by current political and moral debates? I cannot answer that question. I only seek to link the humanity found in the process of birth to illustrate the historical power found in such a monumental aspect of human existence. And more importantly, to express the significant role that Africana women play in its occurrence.
“The Birth of a Movement…”
This is how we often refer to Africana history’s pivotal moments in which levels of change were fought for: Abolition, the Harlem Renaissance, Negritude, Civil Rights, Black Power Period to just name a few. Each of these identified moments in history project images in which its champions held masculine voices while those who did not were often left in obscurity. What would Frederick Douglass be without Harriet Tubman and Sojourner Truth or W. E. B. Du Bois without Ida B. Wells-Barnett or Anna Julia Cooper? What would Langston Hughes, Countee Cullen be without such women as Jessie Redmon Fauset and Zora Neale Hurston? What would Dr. King be without the likes of Ella Baker, Septima P. Clark and Fannie Lou Hamer?
Each of these female counterparts held and maintained powerful voices and courage in spite of the ever present reach of patriarchy. Voices that, no matter how significant, have been somewhat muted.
An Example During Abolition…
The period of history that encapsulates the antebellum period where equality was not achieved for many members of our community due to racism and the institution of slavery is where I wish to start. The roles of Africana women and men were limited across the nation due to the unjust beliefs and dehumanizing practices that relegated many to that of solely the property of enslavers. During this period, as the recently released movie Lincoln failed to acknowledge, the roles that people of African descent, namely that of Frederick Douglass, played in fighting for their emancipation. Frederick Douglass represents for this period one of the main figures outside of Lincoln who is made the focus of any and most debates about the institution of slavery and the abolitionist movement. Yet, in a similar way to what Stephen Spielberg did with Douglass in his film, many of the heroines of this period we find that their voices are muted within history. The significance of both Harriet Tubman and Sojourner Truth seem to serve as mere backup singers to Douglass’s lead—their voices are muted. We do not fully engage the pivotal roles that both heroines played in a period where the masculinity of Africana males was under attack in very explicit ways. We also do not fully recognize the way in which both women disrupted the gendered roles of their time. They occupied leadership roles in many different forms within many dissimilar settings. We all know of Tubman’s roles in championing the Underground Railroad, but we may not all know of the many other roles of leadership she played throughout the Civil War, especially as a woman of African descent. She continuously disrupted the oppressive structure of the time, yet historically her voice remains muted.
Sojourner Truth’s voice represents another example of the power of Africana women:
To advocate the cause of the enslaved at this period was both unpopular and unsafe. Their meetings were frequently disturbed or broken up by the pro-slavery mob, and their lives imperiled. At such times, Sojourner fearlessly maintained her ground, and by her dignified manner and opportune remarks would disperse the rabble and restore order (p. 98).
When recounting her meeting with Abraham Lincoln, Sojourner stated,
As I was taking my leave, he arose and took my hand, and said he would be pleased to have me call again. I felt that I was in the presence of a friend….I have always advocated his cause, and have done it openly and boldly. I shall feel still more in duty bound to do so in time to come (p. 132).
Yet, in history we are exposed to a muted version of the power in which she channeled as an Africana woman activist. She, as with other Africana women, found ways in spite of the influence of patriarchy to “maintain [their] ground” for the uplift of a people in the face of injustice.
A transcendent figure of this period was Ida B. Wells-Barnett. The significance of her anti-lynching campaign and work as an organizer must also be brought to center stage. Author Linda McMurray, in To Keep the Waters Troubled : The Life of Ida B. Wells, discusses
For several years in the 1890s, no African American, except for Frederick Douglass, received more press attention than Ida B. Wells….When Douglass died in 1895, Wells was his logical heir apparent; they had closely collaborated on several projects. She was better known than Du Bois and more ideologically compatible with Douglass than Booker T. Washington – the two men who eventually became the main contenders to fill Douglass’s shoes. However, Wells had a major problem: She was a woman (p. xiv).
Yet again, we find another’s voice muted…
A Harlem Renaissance example…
Author Carolyn Sylvander conveys Jessie Redmon Fauset’s significance in the following:
Fauset’s contribution to Black American literature includes the definable and the indefinable. It is possible to say from the extant evidence that she was central to the role palyed (sic) by The Crisis in the literature of the 1920s, and that she went beyond mere professional assistance to real personal encouragement to Hughes, Cullen, McKay and others (p. 84).
Sylvander continues by stating, Fauset’s “influence on Black art in the period of the Harlem Renaissance cannot be measured. It can be exposed as it has not been before, and it can be evaluated on the basis of that exposure” (p. 232)
In other words, her voice can longer be muted…
A Civil Rights example…
Nobody sang ‘This Little Light of Mine’ as Fannie Lou Hamer sang it. ‘I’m convinced she chose that song for a reason,’ [Eleanor Holmes] Norton said, ‘that she knew that summarized her life. All she was was a little light, and she fastened upon the notion that every little light could make a difference (p. 85).
Author Vicky Crawford conveys Annie Devine’s recollection of Mrs. Hamer’s speech on behalf of the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party in front of the U.S. House of Representatives on September 17, 1965.
She said that no matter how the nation looked on this challenge, we weren’t there to play. We were there because we wanted the nation to know it was sick. Everything we testified to was true. ‘I hope,’ Mrs. Hamer said, ‘I live long enough to see some changes made, some hearts soften, some people begin to do some right things in Mississippi’ (p. 133).
Yet with all of her efforts, her voice still remains muted.
A Floridian example…
Mary McLeod Bethune represents an important model for leadership as well. In her many roles, as an educator, activist and governmental administrator (with the National Youth Administration) among other duties, her impact can be felt in her influence of President Franklin D. Roosevelt and First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt.
This influence is elegantly captured by author Catherine Owens Peare:
In many parts of the South the fifteen-dollar or twenty-dollar check each month means real salvation for thousands of Negro young people,”… “We are bringing life and spirit to these many thousands who for so long have been in darkness. I speak, Mr. President, not as Mrs. Bethune but as the voice of fourteen million Americans who seek to achieve full citizenship. We want to continue to open doors for these millions” (p. 155).
From these espoused words, Peare highlights the President’s emotional response with the following, “Tears were coursing down the President’s cheeks when she finished. He leaned across the table and grasped her hand in both of his” (p. 156).
“Mrs. Bethune,’ he said, ‘I am glad I am able to contribute something to help make a better life for your people. I want to assure you that I will continue to do my best for them in every way” (p. 156).
Even with her voice being clearly heard and felt by one of the most powerful people of the era, today her voice still remains muted in history.
Fusing contemporary approaches of leadership…
Within each narrative it must be made clear that the issue is not with the voices of the women highlighted but moreover the elements of society in which they are situated—patriarchal society. Implications from learning the valuable lessons of yesterday are important parts of developing a strong sense of self and key principles for demonstrating the ability to lead. In today’s world, you will be challenged in ways that are both new and reminiscent of some of the challenges faced within the periods that I have identified. With the new ways in which we, as a society, are engaging and/or disengaging each other through social media and person-to-person interactions, your challenge remains consistent. Who are you in this life’s journey? What does that person who you discover that you are facilitate the accomplishments of your life’s mission, whatever that may be? Do you embrace the difficulties associated with being a trailblazer or do you actively accept roles as a passive participant in your own life? Do you inspire others to pursue their dreams and passions to the fullest or do you personify complacency and apathy?
In rhetorically asking you all of these questions, I hope to redirect your thoughts back to the center, which is found in you and all that you hope to offer to your respective communities and the world. The task that lies before you is one that will potentially lead you along a very exciting path that will include many highs and lows. How you handle those moments without sacrificing the voice that you are continuously shaping here at USF and your respective communities becomes even more important in a time that more of us are following the paths of others instead of recognizing and following our own.
As I close, I gently remind you to, when those moments in your life become their most difficult, reflect on the legacies that I have attempted to capture here and beyond through the powerful narratives of Africana women in history. Their powerful voices, even in the midst of being muted through patriarchy and other forms of social injustices, provide invaluable inspiration for the tenacity that you will need and already possess as student leaders here at USF. Embrace that inner voice for all that it offers not only you along your journey, but all of those who will be within its range. Continue to use this time to develop the harmony in which your inner voice possesses, as we, citizens of the world, will need to hear its cadence; for our melody is not complete without you leading your part. As the student leaders of today, who will shape tomorrow, I wish you well and all the wisdom of our ancestors because we are eagerly waiting…
Hine, D. C. & Thompson, K. (1998). A shining thread of hope: The history of black women in America. New York: Broadway Books.
Kennedy, K., King, J., Lupi, D., Macosko, K., Skoll, J., Somner, A., & Spielberg, S. (Producers), & Spielberg, S. (Director). (2012). Lincoln [Motion Picture]. United States: DreamWorks Pictures, Twentieth Century Fox, Reliance Entertainment, Participant Media, Dune Entertainment, Amblin Entertainment & The Kennedy/Marshall Co.
McMurry, L. O. (2000). To keep the waters troubled: The life of Ida B. Wells. New York: Oxford University Press
Mills, K. (1993). This little light of mine: The life of Fannie Lou Hamer. New York: Dutton.
Peare, C. O. (1951). Mary McLeod Bethune. New York: The Vanguard Press, Inc.
Sylvander, C. W. (1981). Jessie Redmon Fauset, black American writer. Troy, New York: The Whitston Publishing Company.
Truth, S. (2005). Narrative of Sojourner Truth [with an introduction and notes by Imani Perry]. New York: Barnes & Nobles Classics.
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