Phenomenal Women: On the Transformative Power of Black Women

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On a rainy afternoon in August, Valerie Jarrett, April Ryan, Alicia Garza and the Rev. Dr. Renita Weems—truth-tellers, as I refer to them—descended on Lola’s in Martha’s Vineyard to discuss the intersections of race, gender, and power in America. And given the urgency of the current moment, these phenomenal black women drove a deeply felt discussion about how black women, despite sexism, racism and inequitable access to power in America, continue to rise.

The conversation reminded me of conversations I used to listen to between my mother, grandmother and great grandmother. You know: lady conversations. Black lady conversations. A lot of mmm hmm’s, hand claps and head nods. Black women don’t always have the space to talk about our lived experience, the privilege to recount our shared experiences in the context of current events. Listening to them was centering, and it felt like home.

There has been so much talk about Black Girl Magic these days—as if it were something new—but black women have long been navigating the rocky contours of modern America. We’ve been the backbone of American society, showing up and doing the work without the recognition or appreciation since this country’s inception. We’ve been taking care of other people’s children and our own. We’ve been working longer and harder for less money. We’ve been making lemonade out of lemons long before Beyonce’s album dropped. Black Girl Magic isn’t new. It’s always been here because it’s inherent in who we are and we’ve had to be. It’s a gift from our mothers and grandmothers, and the mothers and grandmothers before them.

But knowing the greatness in ourselves isn’t enough. The conversation on Martha’s Vineyard, convened by the Center for American Progress, underscored how, as black women, we must fully realize this power and take our rightful seats at the table. This is not about grabbing power for the sake of having power; it’s about fundamentally transforming the status quo to drive meaningful change and progress. But to do that, we must wholly reconstruct a system built on white supremacy to ensure that America’s promise is as enduring as its racist past has been, and that can be realized by everyone. That requires intentional targeted policy changes. Rev. Renita Weems challenged us on that rainy afternoon to rethink some of these changes in an intersectional light, calling on us to condemn sexism as harshly as we condemn racism, especially in policies like equal pay. The numbers speak for themselves: Black women, who are full time workers only earn 63 cents for every dollar earned by white men working full time. Nearly 1 in 5 black women report being sexually harassed at work, but even these estimates do not take into account the serious under-reporting of sexual harassment charges. And 53 percent of black women have experienced at least one instance of gender discrimination at work.

Black women haven’t yet enjoyed critical mass in places of power, despite piecemeal gains or one-off successes easily tokenized as evidence of some distant, distorted “equality”. Valerie Jarrett reminded us that people are continually shocked by our Magic because we are too often the one or the first to have entered a circle typically reserved for people who don’t look like us. Only three percent of members of Congress and state legislators are black women. Just four percent of mayors in the nation’s 100 largest cities are black women. Not one of the 22 female CEOs of Fortune 500 companies are black women.

But the shackles are now off, as April Ryan powerfully declared, so we must tell our truth and prevent others to distort our nation’s history or allow our foggy relationship with facts to persist. Truth-telling is as critical as ever, given that fewer than three percent of all journalists are black women. We must use our voices and become our own messengers but, as we’ve always done in the past, we must keep our eye on the prize, just as our foremothers did, making the path a little easier for each one of us.

But it can’t be just be on black women to save America. Black Lives Matter co-founder Alicia Garza discussed how co-conspirators—not allies—but co-conspirators: people, not just black women, actively engage in an intersectional, intentional movement for equality and justice. It’s not difficult to understand why we’d need co-conspirators. The 2016 election was a flashpoint that racial divisions still trump gender concerns. Black women continue to be the most loyal and consistent voting bloc in the country, while white women continue to vote against their own and this country’s interests, ultimately playing a decisive role in delivering victory to Donald Trump.

That afternoon in Martha’s Vineyard reminded me of what we, as black women, instinctually know: it’s time to take our seat at the table. And as my grandmother always told me, I stand on the shoulders of those who came before, because together, we rise.


Danyelle Solomon

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