For far too long, voices of Black women in the fight for justice have been ignored
On Martin Luther King Jr. Day, I sat with my three daughters and watched the «King in the Wilderness» documentary, a remarkable film about the final, turbulent months that preceded King’s assassination in Memphis on April 4, 1968.
«Mrs. King, are you taking part in this demonstration as an individual or as a wife?» a white reporter asks Coretta Scott King, about her participation in a rally against the Vietnam War in one scene.
Taken aback, she offers this response: «Well, I’m taking part as an individual and a wife. I’m both.»
In the future, Hollywood will commit big dollars to major productions about George Floyd’s life and the worldwide movement that followed. As I sat there with my girls, I wondered how those movies and documentaries — a key educational tool for the next generation — might portray the Black women who’ve lent their time, resources, voices and bodies in the name of social justice and the eradication of systemic racism.
Last week, I asked that question of Lena K. Gardner — a Black woman who identifies as queer and a central leader of the Black Lives Matter movement in Minneapolis.
Gardner pointed to the many layered depictions of Black men — heterosexual Black men — as forward-facing figures in the push for civil rights throughout history, a nuance unafforded to Black women who have not been allowed «their full humanity.»
She also mentioned the women missing from some of the most prominent stories from the civil rights movement because they weren’t provided the same privilege to leave their homes and jobs to participate. «I don’t think anything significant is going to change,» Gardner said about the future portrayal of Black women in the current movement for justice. «There is this whole fetishism and cult of the charismatic Black man. I don’t think that will change.»
I have been a dues-paying member of that cult. My perspective on Black history has been tainted by the sexism, misogyny and discrimination that’s sidelined Black women in mainstream conversations about history’s most important moments.
After I saw «Malcolm X,» Spike Lee’s blockbuster movie, in 1992, I bought two things: an Africa chain and Alex Haley’s autobiography written with the icon who was assassinated in 1965. Malcolm X and his contemporaries were my heroes. I did not devote as much energy to learning more about the women around them.
I thought Rosa Parks was a woman who sat in the back of a bus because she was tired. I didn’t understand her contributions as a longtime activist. I researched Huey P. Newton and the Black Panthers, but failed to realize that the women within the organization were instrumental in the group’s outreach efforts, including free breakfast and shoes programs, that strengthened its bond with the community. And I believed the March on Washington in 1963, where King unveiled his «I Have a Dream» speech, was pure, unaware that Black women had been blocked from speaking roles.
Throughout the history of the movement for equality, Black women have been presented as Best Supporting Actresses, denied the recognition they’ve deserved, because men have largely been the storytellers and power brokers behind these portrayals.
Lissa Jones, host of KMOJ’s «The Urban Agenda» and the Black Market Reads podcast, said the arrival of Vice President Kamala Harris, the first Black, Asian and female vice president in the history of the country, will create a larger demand for accountability and curiosity.
«I think it will be incumbent upon Black women to shout out our narratives,» she said. «This whole time, we’ve been doing this unrecognized.»
Over the summer, Sirius Marie, a 21-year-old activist who moved to Minnesota for a better life a month before Floyd’s death, joined friends at the 2020 March on Washington and recited her poetry in front of the statue of King. She chanted «Black Lives Matter!» through a megaphone as she marched through the streets with thousands last summer.
«I know I’m participating in history,» she said.
I asked her if the conversation was simply generational. But she said she’s witnessed the suppression of Black women’s voices among younger activists, too. I asked all three Black women what they hope to see in the movies that will be produced about the past year in Minneapolis and beyond.
Gardner said she hopes Black queer women are represented, too. Marie said she wants to see images of the women she’s witnessed with «boots on the ground.»
«We are neither Aunt Jemima, nor Jezebel, nor any of the other tropes they’ve made up,» Jones said. «We are complex and we deserve to be presented in our complexities.»
A real movie about the movement for social justice should portray Lena K. Gardner as a powerful voice, complete with the complexities she’s said Black women have been denied. It must show Lissa Jones, in her studio in Minneapolis, leading comprehensive conversations. And it also must feature a young activist like Sirius Marie, perhaps with her fist in the air at 38th and Chicago, where George Floyd was killed, an image on her Instagram feed.
If that happens, perhaps boys and girls will see more representation of Black women in books and films that address the current climate.
But I also must do my job to elevate those voices before I can expect that of anyone else, so I’d like to end with a line from Marie’s poem called «Tell Us.» It summarizes the fight Black people, especially Black women, continue to face.
Continuously you try your best to compress and yet
We rise STRONGER
Create beauty from the pain
Masterpieces from your scraps