Black History Month is a sacred time when we come together to celebrate the Black individuals who have worked hard to create resources to uplift our communities. But as much as we center the importance of these movements, we often do so at the expense of the people who create them. That often leaves Black women unacknowledged for creating so many resources that we love and value.
It’s no secret that our culture loves to commodify Blackness more than it loves Black people, but naming the Black women who have metaphorically given birth to the movements that are so vital to social justice and our collective well-being is a necessary step toward truly celebrating Black excellence. Here are a few Black women and their organizations that are still underrecognized for the necessary work they have done.
At the core of all large-scale activist movements is a commitment to justice. And though the public spotlight has been on causes like police brutality, they aren’t the only important human-rights issues. One movement that doesn’t receive as much recognition is reproductive justice and the fight to fully support women’s reproductive choices. SisterSong, a Women of Color Reproductive Justice Collective, is on a mission to “build an effective network of individuals and organizations to improve institutional policies and systems that impact the reproductive lives of marginalized communities.”
Founded in 1997, SisterSong created the term “reproductive justice” to address the inequalities in access and support that women of color face. Defining reproductive justice as “the human right to maintain personal bodily autonomy, have children, not have children, and parent the children we have in safe and sustainable communities,” SisterSong has worked in the Southern United States to fight states’ invasive abortion bill laws, which further restrict access to abortions.
But the group has also worked to help communities of color get greater access to resources, education for improved reproductive health, and support for the personal choice to start a family or end a pregnancy. SisterSong’s work is vital, but because of sexism and misogynoir, it remains largely unrecognized by mainstream activism.
The Combahee River Collective
Of course, reproductive justice wouldn’t exist without the larger movement of feminism. But historically, mainstream feminism has left out those who have existed at the margins: Black, queer, disabled, elderly, working class. Many Black women found themselves moving into their own subgroupings, including Black feminism and womanism.
The Combahee River Collective was a Black lesbian feminist group active in Boston from 1974 to 1980. The collective played a vital role in bringing to light mainstream feminism’s lack of inclusivity at the height of second-wave feminism. It is also best known for developing the Combahee River Collective Statement, addressing the history of contemporary Black feminism and centering identity within political organizing and social theory. Even as second-wave feminism faded and “third wave” feminism has taken its place, many Black feminists and allies still recognize the collective’s work in creating the vital praxes for them to continue evolving the work to fit the needs of the times.
Audre Lorde and Self-Care
But it’s not just Black-women-led movements that have remained undervalued in the public eye. Individual Black women have birthed movements, phrases, and practices that have become part of the mainstream dialogue. One important example of this is writer Audre Lorde’s legacy, and how her development of the concept of “self-care” has been turned into a massive marketing tactic. But Lorde intentions in talking about self-care (“Caring for myself is not self-indulgence, it is self-preservation, and that is an act of political warfare“) weren’t rooted in the desire to buy sheet masks or take bubble baths for the luxury aesthetics of it but, rather, to center her mental well-being as a Black lesbian with a long-term illness.
When we refer to self-care in the mainstream dialogue, Lorde’s work in promoting the need for self-care is too often erased. But without her work, we wouldn’t have our current understanding of self-care—along with other important terms and definitions.
Tarana Burke and the Me Too Movement
Of course, one of the most public examples of how important it is to give Black women credit for the movements they create is activist Tarana Burke. Since 2006, Burke has led the Me Too movement to increase awareness of sexual violence against Black girls and women. In 2017 the #MeToo hashtag brought a global spotlight to the movement, but Burke’s original focus was transformed into sexual harassment, abuse and assault in society more broadly, especially in the wake of the many accusations against Hollywood’s Harvey Weinstein.
That shift in focus also led Me Too to be seen as a white-focused awareness campaign, with some even miscrediting the movement’s founding to actress Rose McGowan instead of Burke. This erasure is all too common for Black women, and it makes the push for centering and saying their names alongside the work they do both necessary and non-negotiable.
From SisterSong to the Combahee River Collective, from Audre Lorde to Tarana Burke, we must ensure that the Black women behind the movements that are vital to our understanding of sexuality and liberation are cited and credited. But the work is not done. We also need to make sure that publicly crediting these Black women becomes routine because, in light of the violence and discrimination that Black women face, these movements are some of the few ways that they will gain public acceptance. It’s time that we move Black women from behind the curtains and into the spotlight, celebrating them for their commitment to change and to centering those that need change most.