Wednesday, February 22, 2017

Black History Month--Women's Edition

On December 6th, 1865, slavery in the United States was abolished. It is hard to think that just 152 years ago, humans were using other humans as their slaves. Shortly after the Thirteenth Amendment was passed, Carter G. Woodson and Jesse E. Moorland had founded what is known today as the Association for the Study of African American Life and History (ASALH). Celebrated during the second week of February, it focused on researching and promoting achievements by black Americans. In 1976, President Gerald R. Ford officially recognized the whole month of February as Black History Month, stating that our country should, “seize the opportunity to honor the too-often neglected accomplishments of black Americans in every area of endeavor throughout our history.”

Race is a hot issue in our world right now. We've come a long way in the past hundred or so years, but we still have a ways to go. It is all a work in progress. I can't speak for the rest of the world, but the United States is a patriarchal society. The works of men have always been highly regarded and appreciated, and women have fought to be recognized and appreciated. Today, in 2017, women are still fighting for rights and equality. If women are already cast to the side, black women tend to be put even further back on the back burner. Stereotypes of black women are rampant in the media, and many are judged based off of these over-exaggerated tropes. Many black women can attest to having heard 'you speak white' or 'your hair isn't like most black hair' in their lives. Ernestine Johnson, actress and performance poet, does an excellent spoken piece about this called, 'The Average Black Girl' on an episode of The Arsenio Hall Show. I highly recommend taking a few minutes out of your day to watch this moving piece. It will give you chills, and hopefully make you think about the way people speak to each other.

Everyone knows a stereotype about their own race or gender. The problem with stereotypes comes when people get defined and therefore, confined by them. This video on YouTube--Three Black Female Stereotypes that Need to Die--explains it all perfectly. It talks about how--generally--there are three characters that black women portray--the Jezebel (young, aggressive, overtly sexual),  the Mammy (older, chubby, loving motherly-type, complete opposite of the Jezebel), and the headstrong black woman (the sassy, loud girl). Come on, most of us can think of a tv show with a black female character who is loud and sassy. Thankfully, many television shows and movies are starting to give better roles to black women, roles that show their acting strengths, range, and emotional depth, rather than a superficial surface act.

All that being said, there are tons of black women who do not get the recognition they deserve! Of course, there are names we all know off the tops of our heads--Harriet Tubman, Rosa Parks, Ruby Bridges, Maya Angelou, etc. But there are many names that are not as well known or recognized. I'd like to take some time here to list just a few, past and present, that I think are deserving of being spoken about--not only this month, but always.

In History

Madam CJ Walker

Walker was actually born Sarah Breedlove on December 23rd, 1867 in Louisiana. By the age of 20, she was a widow and single mother of a two-year-old girl. In 1905, she began to lose her hair. She developed a system called "the Walker System" that combined scalp preperation and the use of lotions and iron combs. Her products were specifically geared towards blacks. She went door to door advertising her products before becoming a successful businesswoman. She eventually married again, a journalist named Charles J. Walker. Walker became known as the first female African-American millionaire in the United States. She was extremely charitable, even to her own employees. She donated money to the NAACP and the black YMCA and many other black charities. She also lived lavishly, building up her Manhattan townhouse. Unfortunately, she passed away at the young age of 51.

Florence Griffith Joyner

Better known as Flo-Jo, Joyner was born on December 21st, 1959 in California. She was a track and field athlete. She set world records in both the 100m and 200m, both of which are still unbroken. She is considered the fastest woman of all time. During her freshman year at California State University at Northridge, her track team won the National Championship. She eventually graduated with a Bachelor's Degree in Psychology. In the 1988 Olympics, she won four medals--three gold and one silver. Besides her speed, Flo-Jo was known for her style. She competed with long hair, jewelry, and long, painted fingernails. Toy maker LJN Toys made a Barbie Doll of her. She painted in her spare time. She designed lots of her outfits, and even designed the uniforms for the Indiana Pacers basketball team. Sadly, she passed away very young, at the age of 38. The cause of her death is thought to be complications from a severe epileptic seizure.

Dr. Mae Jemison

Jemison was born on October 17th, 1956 in Alabama. Though she is still alive, I feel that she is a big part of American history as well as our future.
As a child, she was always interested in space. She attended Stanford University at the age of 16, eventually graduating with a B.S. in Chemical Engineering. While there, she was also the head of the Black Students Union. She then went on to get a Doctor of Medicine degree at Cornell Medical College. She worked as a doctor for awhile, traveling to other countries and providing medical care. She then moved to work in the Peace Corps as a Peace Corps Medical Officer, even saving the life of a volunteer by realizing that a different doctor misdiagnosed them.
In 1987, Jemison applied to NASA. In 1992, she became the first African-American woman in space aboard the Endeavour, Mission STS-47, a co-op mission between the U.S. and Japan. She was in space for eight days. She left NASA in 1993. Afterwards, she worked as a Professor at both Dartmouth College and Cornell University. Also in 1993, she became the first real astronaut to appear on an episode of Star Trek: Next Generation. All together, she holds nine honorary doctorates.
Currently, she leads the 100 Year Starship--a mission to make human interstellar travel possible within 100 years. Also, from her website--"She founded two technology companies and the non-profit Dorothy Jemison Foundation for Excellence which designs and implements STEM education experiences. A member of Fortune 500 companies’ boards, the National Academy of Medicine and the National Women’s Hall of Fame, Jemison was voted as one of the top seven women leaders in a presidential ballot national straw poll." She is also fairly active on Twitter.

These are just a few amazing women that helped set the groundwork for our country. There are many, many others--for example, Claudette Colvin, who predated Rosa Parks by nine months by refusing to move to the back of the bus. She was arrested and fought the segregation law in court. There was Coretta Scott King, wife of the late Martin Luther King Jr., who was ahead of the game as far as LGBT rights go, and advocated for equality in the early 1980's. She won a scholarship to the New England Conservatory of Music in Boston, where she met MLK Jr. Later in life, she was awarded the Gandhi Peace Prize. There was Dorothy Dandridge, who was the first black woman to be nominated for an Oscar for her role in the film Carmen Jones; And then there was Hattie McDaniel, who became the first black woman to win an Oscar for her supporting actress role in the film Gone With the Wind.


Laverne Cox

Cox was born on May 29th, 1984 and raised as a male, alongside her identical twin brother, M Lamar. As a child, Cox knew she was different. She was bullied in school and had feelings of intimacy towards boys. These issues led to her attempt at suicide in the sixth grade. Thankfully, she was not successful, and went on to transition into the beautiful actress we see today. Her breakout role as Sophia Bursett in Orange is the New Black led to many other roles, such as Dr. Frank-N-Furter in the Fox remake of Rocky Horror Picture Show, and a new role as a trans lawyer on the CBS show 'Doubt.' According to her website, Cox was the first trans woman of color to produce and star in her own television show--TRANSform Me--about a group of trans women who travel the country giving makeovers to women. Cox is an advocate for LGBT rights and speaks frequently about gender expectations in our society. She was listed as a Woman of the Year in 2014 by Glamour Magazine. She has also won many awards as a result of her advocacy work. Currently, she is producing a documentary called Free CeCe about a black bi-trans woman named CeCe McDonald. McDonald was sentenced to 41 months in prison for second degree manslaughter after allegedly engaging in self defense while being attacked for being black and trans. The film has several screenings at film festivals this year.

Ericka Hart

According to her website, Hart refers to herself as "A kinky, poly, cancer-warrior, activist, sexuality educator and performer with a Master’s of Education in Human Sexuality." She has taught sexual education to people of all ages in NYC for the last six years, and was briefly an HIV/AIDS volunteer for the Peace Corps in Ethiopia. In May 2014, four months before her wedding, Hart was diagnosed with bilateral breast cancer. She underwent a double mastectomy. About a year after the mastectomy, she underwent reconstructive surgery on her breasts. Both her and her surgeon had trouble finding pictures of black women who had gone through a similar surgery, despite the fact that the rate of breast cancer in black women has increased in previous years. Now, healed from her second surgery, Hart does speaking engagements topless. She attended the music festival AfroPunk in Brooklyn topless because "I wanted people to see me such that they saw themselves, their mothers, lovers and friends. I wanted people to see me and remember that they need to check their breasts regardless of their age." She wanted to show that breast cancer isn't just something that hits old white women--young black girls are affected, too. Despite her illness, she is still the same person--an intelligent, beautiful, sexual being.
 In January of 2017, she spoke at the Women's March in Philadelphia--topless. Her Instagram is filled with beautiful inspirational photos, and her account has gained lots of popularity in the past couple of years. Currently, she works as a lecturer in the School of Social Work at Columbia University in New York.

Tamika Mallory

Mallory, now 35 years old, was working as a staff member for the National Action Network (Reverend Al Sharpton's civil rights organization) at age 15, before becoming their youngest ever Executive Director. She worked with the Obama Administration and Former VP Joe Biden to help strengthen gun control legislation. It is something she cares a lot about--about 15 years ago, her son's father, Jason Ryans, was shot and killed. She played a big role in creating the NYC Crisis Management System, a city-wide initiative to reduce gun violence in New York City. Most recently, she was one of the National Co-Chairs for the 2017 Women's March. She also founded Mallory Consulting, a strategic planning firm in NYC. She also regularly contributes to online magazines and occasionally appears on national television networks. She is also fairly active on Twitter.

Again, these are just a few women you should know about. There are tons of black women out there, working hard everyday to change our world for the better and to advance the recognition of works by women of color. For example, there is Ava DuVernay, the first black female to win the Best Director Prize at the Sundance Film Festival; Beverly Johnson, the first African-American model to appear on the cover of Vogue in 1974; Michelle Obama, the first African-American First Lady in the White House, who previously worked as a lawyer and in government, and holds degrees from both Princeton and Harvard Universities; Wanda Sykes, a writer, actress and comedian who was the first African-American LGBT woman to be the featured entertainer at the White House Correspondents' Association dinner.  She also briefly hosted her own tv show--The Wanda Sykes Show--and was nominated for seven Primetime Emmys, winning one; Oprah Winfrey, author and actress who hosted her own show for many years before becoming a big philanthropist and CEO of two networks. She has donated millions to charity and began Oprah's Angel Network, a charity that helped support charitable projects and provided grants to nonprofit organizations around the world. She even founded a boarding school for girls in South Africa--the Oprah Winfrey Leadership Academy for Girls (which has been open for 10 years now); and etc., etc. I could go on all day.

One more thing I'd like to mention is a website I just recently discovered--Afrosexology. It was created by two women--Dalychia and Rafaella--who both hold degrees in Social Work and had a mutual desire to create a more sex-positive black community. The two offer workshops based around sexual education, as well as speaking engagements, curriculum development, and consultations. You can find them on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram.

"Our mission is to educate, explore, and reclaim Black sexuality.
Our vision is to promote Black self empowerment through sexual liberation."

I wrote this post with the utmost respect for all the women you see here. As a woman, I have struggled in many ways, but I am privileged in the sense that I have never been excluded or ridiculed for my skin color. A lot of white people like to say, 'I don't see color.' But you should, because it exists. It can't just be coincidence that our country was built on slavery and became predominantly powered by whites. The reality is that race DOES matter. Black women are twice as likely to become pregnant as teens (three times more likely in some states), three times more likely to die during childbirth, and while women in general are more likely to suffer from depression than men, black women are less likely to receive treatment. We should all be conscious of this separation and work together to bridge the gap between race and gender, as well as celebrate the accomplishments of those that put in the hard work.

Filmmaker Ava Duvernay said, "Some black filmmakers will say, "I don't want to be considered a black filmmaker, I'm a filmmaker." I don't think that. I'm a black woman filmmaker. Just like A Separation is [by] an Iranian, male filmmaker and his film is through that lens, my films are through my lens, and I think it's valuable and fine and worthy to be seen by everyone."


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