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Leading the Charge: Black Women in Activist Movements

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Photo: Jonathan Bachman / Reuters

Photo: Jonathan Bachman / Reuters

Ieshia Evans (pictured above) is 35 years old. She’s a licensed practical nurse, and mother to a five-year-old son.  She could be anyone you know: your mother, your sister, your aunt, your friend. But on Saturday, July 9, 2016, she was arrested while demonstrating peacefully and serenely at an anti-police brutality protest in Baton Rouge, and by Sunday, she was a symbol. Evans, who was in Baton Rouge with a civil rights organization called Young Minds Can, said that as the police forced protesters out of the streets, she “felt like they were pushing [protesters] to the side to silence our voices and diminish our presence.”  She added, “It’s time for us to be fearless and take our power back.”

Although the police intended to leave the protesters “powerless.” Evans appears anything but powerless in the photo above; she stands proud and tall, calm and serenely composed in the face of police officers decked out in full riot gear. This photograph, taken immediately before her arrest, is iconic, and depicts her exactly where countless other black women have stood in the past: at the forefront of the battle against injustice and inequality.

The history of black women in movements for social justice and reform is about as long as the history of social movements itself. Chances are you recognize some of these figures, such as Harriet Tubman and Rosa Parks, who were immortalized for their history-making acts against slavery and racism. A few years later in the 1960s and 70s, Marsha Johnson, a black trans woman who was a major figure in the Stonewall Riots, set up organizations that supported trans and gay individuals, fought for their rights, and acted as a way for marginalized individuals to find a home in an accepting community.

Fast forward to 2016, there are a number of movements that have surged to the forefront of the public’s attention in recent memory, and still more issues that have yet to be represented by any particular organized movement but exist nonetheless. And while these movements, issues, and problems are all diverse in nature, there are still some overarching similarities—namely, the involvement and leadership of black women.

One such example is the discussion about colorism now beginning to take place in the public sphere. Many people whose platforms are not necessarily very popular have been talking about colorism within the black community for some time, but actress Zendaya Coleman recently touched upon this complex issue in an interview she did for Cosmo Magazine in June. Coleman was honest, well-spoken, and very much on target when she spoke to the privileges that lighter skin sometimes earns in today’s society—privileges from which she acknowledges she benefits. She then went on to say that she is “completely behind” women who experience colorism, and that she wants to “use [her] privilege the right way”: as a way to speak out against colorism and support her fellow black women. Given the recent uproar over the casting of Zoe Saldana as the considerably darker-skinned Nina Simone, Zendaya may get her chance to be a part of the movement against colorism soon enough.

If we’re talking celebrity association, we can’t leave out The We Are Here Movement. Headed by Alicia Keys, who was also recently in the news for her push for self-love and her decision to go makeup free, the We Are Here Movement provides information about the situations happening to marginalized and disadvantaged people across the world, and lets readers know exactly where they can donate to help make a difference, highlighting what’s going on in the spheres of equality, women’s rights, and climate issues, to name just a few.

Leading the Charge2

Image: weareheremovement.com

Recently, the We Are Here movement released a YouTube video on the Mic.com channel entitled ’23 Ways You Could Be Killed If You Are Black in America’, which features notable celebrities such as Beyoncé, Rihanna, Tracee Ellis Ross, Van Jones, and others, each detailing 23 different reasons that black men and women have died at the hands of police over the past few years. It is an undeniably powerful video, made more powerful by the platforms that each of these actors, actresses, musicians, and activists hold, and it ends with Alicia Keys calling upon viewers to help make a difference.

Any discussion about any sort of movement in recent history would be incomplete without the mention of one of the most well-known and, unfortunately, most frequently misunderstood movements of our time: Black Lives Matter. Following the death of Trayvon Martin in 2012, Alicia Garza, Opal Tometi, and Patrisse Cullors created the movement and the world-famous hashtag as a response to the epidemic of unjust and unchecked police brutality that black men and women experience day to day. Though Black Lives Matter has been twisted and maligned by many, its roots are pure: it is, and has been from the very beginning, a movement for the “celebration and humanization of Black lives,” a movement which has always meant to protect black people and fight against anti black racism.

Image: Black Lives Matter.com

Image: blacklivesmatter.com

Black Lives Matter has gained an incredible amount of traction within the last four years, and despite the ways in which it has been twisted, demonized, and slandered since its genesis, it is, at its core, a movement based in and promoting love, headed up by three queer black women who wanted—and still want—to make the world a safer and more understanding place for black people across America.

These movements and issues are but a few of the causes that black women have stood for within the last century or so, but they represent an important constant: the sheer power of black women to make a difference. As a group which falls within the intersection of both race and gender discrimination at the very least, black women have always been present in movements for equality and justice, but now, with the phenomenon of the internet making movements more widely publicized and easily accessible by many, black women are able to voice their opinions and gather support in ways that had previously been more difficult. Still, now, always, black women today are working tirelessly to support the marginalized and disadvantaged, inspire others, and set into motion events that have the power to change the world forever.

 

By Femi Sobowale

Edited by Victoria Krute

Layout Design by Renita Singleton

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