In July 2015, a black woman named Sandra Bland was found dead in a Texas county jail three days after being arrested for alleged assault. According to authorities, Bland killed herself in her cell using a plastic trash bag, but many questions are being raised regarding this issue. A dashcam video was released showing that the woman was brutally arrested, threatened and slammed around by highway patrol trooper Brian Encinia. Shockingly, Bland isn’t the only black woman who died in police custody. In July alone, six black women died in police custody. Although the deaths of these women vary from one another, the circumstances of each are suspicious, especially that they were supposed to be under police protection.
These actions of racial bias and brutality against women of color in the US aren’t new. In fact these women have a long history of struggle against oppression, racism and discrimination that extends to hundreds of years ago. History shows us how these women have been fighting on two different levels at the same time: a fight for their civil rights against racism, and another against gender inequality.
It all started in the sixteenth century, when the first African slaves were brought to the Americas, to help in the production. Later through the 17th and 18th centuries, the number of slaves increased to millions of slaves. Black people generally, and black women specifically experienced brutal physical and psychological abuse under the system of slavery. “You never knew what it is like to be a slave; to be entirely unprotected by law or custom; to have the laws reduce you to the condition of a chattel, entirely subject to the will of another.” These words were said by Harriet Ann Jacobs, a writer and an activist, in her slave narrative providing the upcoming generations with a vivid picture of the system of slavery.
In 1865, The African-American people started to see a glimpse of hope when slavery was eliminated, according to the 13th Amendment of the U.S. Constitution. But the situation started to intensify again when the 15th Amendment was released in 1870, giving the black men the right to vote, but not the women.
By the end of the nineteenth century, and as a response to the amendment, black and white women organized their lines and created clubs that called for their rights in suffrage, founding the National American Women’s Suffrage Association (NAWSA). The efforts and the attempts never stopped until they won their right to suffrage by the declaration of the 19th Amendment in 1919.
Black History Month, also called African-American History Month, is an annual celebration of the role, and accomplishments of African Americans in the history of the United States. The event takes place in February every year, and is not only held in the US but also in the UK and Canada.
According to the Association of the Study of Negro Life and History (ASALH), the history of the month dates back to 1915, when a historian named Carter G. Woodson and others started the ASALH, which was devoted to research and increasing the awareness of the participation of African Americans in US civilization. Later on in 1926, they sponsored a National Negro History week in February, the second week specifically, to commemorate the birthdays of Abraham Lincoln and Frederick Douglass, who both played a great role in the black history.
In the years that followed, the event became widespread in schools and communities and history clubs; lectures and performances were established. In 1960, thanks to growing awareness about the black identity, Negro History Week had become Black History Month in many college campuses. In 1976, President Gerald R. Ford, officially announced Black History Month asking the public to “honor the too-often neglected accomplishments of black Americans in every area of endeavor throughout our history.”
Although black women, who form 13% of the female population in the United States, have been trying to take huge steps in education – getting college degrees and going into business at rates higher than other women in the US – they are still facing health, social and economic problems. The report “Black Women in the United States, 2014, Progress and Challenges,” provides information about the conditions of black women over the last 60years. According to the report, black women are more likely to be victims of violence, murder, and rape than any other women in America.
As for the economic conditions, the rates of poverty among black women are very high, due to pay disadvantages and unemployment rates; black women over the age of 65 have the lowest household income in America. Furthermore, the rate of unemployment among black women is found to be 10.5% which is double the rate of unemployment among white women, of 5.8%. Black women are most likely to have retirement insecurities, and less likely to have Social Security Spousal Benefits or Widow Benefits. As a result of these socioeconomic problems, black women face a shortage in health insurance, which of course leads to health problems.
Black women have had long a history with political leadership. Mic reported that “In the 2012 presidential election, 74% of black women voted, a higher rate than any other group. In 2008, black women accounted for 60% of all black voters.” However, these rates aren’t translated in political representation. In Congress, the representation of black women is 16% of the 102 female members, while the representation of women in the legislature nowadays is 242 of black women out of 1,787.
African Americans fought for hundreds of years, but their battles towards equality never stopped. #BlackGirlsMagic is a hashtag that was launched on social media to honor the beauty and power of black women,, encouraging them to love themselves the way they are. A few weeks ago, Beyoncé released a new single video clip called ‘Formation’ as a love message to all blacks people, to say that no matter what happens nothing will ever take her identity out of her heart, and confirming that #BlackLivesMatter.
Similarly, #SayHerName, a growing movement, was established by activists and social media users, to spread the stories of innocent black women like Bland who were killed by the police, as a result of blind racism, asking everybody not to forget about them and to always remember their names. Say Her Name is a movement that is also providing documentation to the cases and the surrounding events, serving as a resource for researchers, and concerned organizations to better understand the facts.
In addition to the movements and campaigns, so many black women are playing an honorable role in helping and supporting women all over the country. Laverne Cox, actor, activist and LGBT+ supporter, is the first transgender woman of color to produce and star in her own television show and was nominated for an award. Besides her acting, Cox is exerting huge efforts in supporting women to move beyond the gender limits and live genuinely. In a Documentary of hers “Laverne Cox Presents: The T Word,” seven lives of transgender youth are presented and their decisions to take the lead over their lives is pretty inspiring to everybody out there. Cox is also producing another documentary to support CeCe Mcdonald, a transgender woman who is sentenced to 41 months for committing a crime while defending herself against a racist and a trans-phobic attack.
Monica Raye Simpson, a musical artist, is another honorable role model and a supporter of women of color. Monica, who is also the Executive Director of the National Women of Color Reproductive Justice Collective, established campaigns on a wide range against human rights violations, the prison industrial complex, and the physical and emotional cruelties against African American Women and the African American LGBT community. Monica was recently named a civil rights leader by Essence Magazine.
These women are the role models we need, having suffered and survived the toughest of circumstances. The celebration is a reminder of the struggle, the bravery, and the victory that we are proud of, it’s a shout for equality. The support isn’t only limited to activists and the public figures; we as women who are proud of the history of our fellow black sisters, and must exert all of our efforts in order to help them better their conditions and attain equality.