Donna Owens
Apr, 02, 2018

On a weeknight inside Google’s high tech offices in the nation’s capital, a few dozen women and girls assembled to explore the legacy of Harriet Tubman and its impact on contemporary African American women.

Yet this wasn’t a traditional lecture about the famed abolitionist, Civil War nurse, union spy, and suffragist. Instead, the women danced to live African drumming, sang spirituals, did meditative exercises, and enjoyed a dramatic performance—all part of an event dubbed “Recovering Harriet: An Interactive Evening of Arts and Action.”

The event was hosted by the African American Policy Forum (AAPF), a think tank founded in 1996 that works to bring new voices and a broader framework to social justice issues and practices in the U.S.  Among its campaigns is #SayHerName, which aims to draw attention to African American women subjected to police violence.

The organization, based in New York City, recently convened “Her Dream Deferred: A Week on the Status of Black Women and Girls.” Now in its fourth year, the annual series took place last week in Washington, D.C.  

Using the lens of artistic expression and intellectual dialogue, the programming addressed a number of issues facing Black women today. They ranged from sexual harassment and policing, to the education of Black girls and systemic challenges pushing them out of school, to issues affecting Black women veterans, and more.

Kimberlé Williams Crenshaw, a Harvard-trained lawyer who co-founded AAPF and serves as its executive director, says it’s time for the nation to hear and acknowledge the unique history of African American women in America.

“Black women’s intersectional experiences of racism and sexism have long been forgotten,” said Crenshaw, a law professor at UCLA and Columbia University known for the development of intersectional theory. “We must begin to tell Black women’s stories, because without them we cannot tell the story of Black men, White men, White women or anyone else in this country. The story of Black women is critical because those who don’t know their history, are doomed to repeat it.”

The conference series kicked off with #SayHerName: An Activist Happy Hour’ held at Busboys and Poets, a D.C. restaurant chain. The series concluded with a forum titled “From Birth Control to Death: Facing Black Women’s Maternal Mortality.” Public health experts and reproductive justice leaders assembled to address the disproportionate rate at which Black women die during pregnancy and childbirth. 

Another highlight of the conference was “Harriet’s Daughters: An Evening of Conversation and Celebration” held at the National Museum of African American History and Culture. Guests gathered onsite in the Oprah Winfrey Theater for a panel discussion (with attorney Barbara Arnwine, artist Tatyana Fazlalizadeh and Samantha Masters) that explored Tubman’s role in history beyond The Underground Railroad. The event included the performance of an original play that Crenshaw penned about the freedom fighter.

Beyond the multigenerational audience it drew last week, AAPF also garnered support from lawmakers on Capitol Hill.

Senators’ Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY) and Kamala Harris (D-CA) have been allies as the organization pushes for African American women to be acknowledged with a special week during Women’s History Month, held annually each March.

Recently, Harris addressed colleagues, urging that “the U.S. government officially recognize the last week in March as the Week on the Status of Black Women.” “Black women have long gone above and beyond the call of duty in their contributions to American civic society, particularly when it comes to voter turnout and political participation,” said Harris, whose remarks were entered in the Congressional Record.

“Even in the face of grave oppression dating back to our nation’s origins, Black women have continued to stand strong and contribute to the well-being of families, communities, the economy, and our country as a whole.”

Still, challenges and barriers to full inclusion and equality for African American women remain.

Black women are disproportionately subject to compromising health conditions, such as poor-quality environments in impoverished neighborhoods, food deserts, and lack of access to basic health care, Harris noted.

Moreover, single Black women’s median wealth is just $100 dollars, while single white women have a median wealth of $41,000, she said. Around half of single Black women have zero or negative wealth, meaning their debt equals or exceeds their assets. And on average, Black women workers are paid only 67 cents on the dollar relative to white non-Hispanic men, even after controlling for education, years of experience, and location.

Harris further added that Black women, especially trans Black women, are “exceptionally vulnerable to violence, both at the hands of the state and at the hands of intimate partners,” but are often ignored or not believed when they speak up. “On all these fronts, we can and must do better,” the Senator said. “And we will.”

In conjunction with the Congressional declaration, Harris’ office said it has partnered with several organizations who are advocating for the well-being of women and communities of color. Besides AAPF, they include the Center for Intersectionality & Social Policy Studies housed at Columbia University, the Transformative Justice Coalition, the Institute for Women's Policy Research, and V-Day.