A photo of five Black women at a protest wearing shirts that say "Black Lives Matter" on it.

Lorie Shaull/CC 2.0


Lorie Shaull/CC 2.0

Black Women Are Claiming Their Place in History

Often erased from the activist movements they started, Black women are calling out attempts to silence them, and fueling the #resistance by being each other’s best allies.

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Following the historic Women’s March in cities across the nation on January 21, 2017, thousands of people gathered for yet another Women’s March in Washington, D.C., on January 21, 2019. I decided not to march at either of them. I’m not against marches. They can be effective in drawing attention to particular causes and in inspiring people to come together to create change. As a Black woman, though, I had trouble believing that the Women’s March participants would keep that same energy in addressing important local issues in their own communities. For me, both marches serve as reminders of Black women’s ongoing difficulties with the feminist movement.

Historically, Black women have participated in, even pioneered women’s activism in the U.S. even if they did not self-identify as feminists. Still, Black women have often questioned how mainstream feminism has tended to focus on the concerns of affluent White women. In addition, Black women and other women of color have challenged White women who have prioritized gender over issues of race and ethnicity.

So, I was disappointed but not surprised when I saw that the 2017 Women’s March was originally called the “Million Women March.” This was appropriation and erasure of the Black women who had organized the 1997 Million Women’s March in Philadelphia following the 1995 Million Man March in Washington, D.C. Despite the blessing of Bernice King, Dr. King’s daughter, it was even more disrespectful to later change the name to the “March on Washington.” This was a co-optation of the 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom where Dr. King delivered the “I Have a Dream” speech. Rather than creating a diverse leadership team from the start, early planning efforts for the Women’s March were organized primarily by White women who later added women of color as co-chairs. At the 2019 Women’s March, I was disappointed but not surprised to still see marchers wearing pussy hats, which exclude trans women from the conversation. I was disappointed but not surprised to see marchers high-fiving police despite ongoing police violence against Black and Brown communities.

At the 2017 Women’s March, Angela Peoples wore a hat that read “Stop killing Black people.” Sucking on a lollipop, she held a sign that read” Don’t forget: White women voted for Trump.” The photograph went viral. For me, the image captured the sense of mistrust I have of many self-identified White feminists. After all of the “Pantsuit Nation” cheers and the “Girl Power” shouts, 53 percent of White women voted for Donald Trump. Black women like Peoples pointed out how White women’s complicity in White supremacy were shouted down as “divisive” by White women who now urged reaching across the aisle and being tolerant of difference.

In the time between these two marches, I have not seen a marked change in White women’s support for Black women. I tend not to see White women’s full-throated engagement on issues of race with the same frequency and urgency as Black women. Nor do I frequently encounter White women sitting back and amplifying Black women’s voices when appropriate. Yet, Black women have remained steadfast, vigilant supporters of Black women and other marginalized groups. “Listen to Black women” became a cliché in some progressive circles after the 2016 election. Ninety-four percent of Black women supported Hillary Clinton, but Black women were not prophetic mammies. Black women voted with their interests in mind. They were not seeking to be superheroes or saviors.

Social media has become an important space where Black women have merged as innovators in advocacy work. So-called “hashtag activism” is sometimes dismissed by those who distinguish it from on-the-ground activism. Without understanding its complexity, detractors treat it as little more than a lazy, feel-good practice for those who are unwilling to do more than push a button to “like” or “retweet.” Yet, the focused and deliberate use of social media has been an effective tactic in organizing and supporting other forms of activism and in bringing media attention to particular issues. In Feminista Jones’s new book Reclaiming Our Space: How Black Feminists Are Changing the World from the Tweets to the Streets, she chronicles Black women’s activism and details how social media is an extension of previous work. She writes, “Campaigns like Mikki Kendalls’s #SolidarityIsForWhiteWomen exist in the tradition of women like Sojourner Truth and Amy Garvey, who made it a point to call into question the women’s rights movements led by White women that excluded Black women by way of not including us as being worthy of advocacy.”

In particular, Black women have spearheaded such efforts with hashtags like #BringBackOurGirls, #Ferguson, #BlackLivesMatter, and #OscarsSoWhite. Although the #MeToo hashtag went viral in 2017, Tarana Burke’s Me Too movement began in 2006 with the intent to assist victims of sexual harassment and sexual assault. These hashtags and their resulting actions have had an important influence on public discourse and in fostering change. From #MuteRKelly to #FreeCyntoiaBrown, Black women are among the first to sound the alarm and flood social media with information on issues and events involving race, and especially those relating to Black women.

For example, the #SayHerName campaign was specifically for and by Black women. Founded by Kimberlé Williams Crenshaw, the African-American Policy Forum launched the #SayHerName campaign in 2015. Many are familiar with the names of Black men who have been killed by police, including Michael Brown in Ferguson, Freddie Gray of Baltimore, Eric Garner of New York City. Yet, the names of Rekia Boyd, Korryn Gaines, and Mya Hall are less well known. Black women are often erased from the narrative surrounding police violence. While Black women are disproportionately affected by police violence, they do not receive the same media attention as Black men and boys. The GoFundMe campaigns for their families are not as well funded, and their vigils are not as well attended. Black women have continued to be Black women’s biggest supporters.

In Reclaiming Our Space, Jones documents how Black women are using social media in transformative ways. She contends, “We are building a global community that is revolutionizing the way people fight for freedom, represent Blackness and womanhood, and influence media and culture.” Jones argues that for Black women “we all we got.” I would add—and we got next.

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