How Far have We Come? That’s the Wrong Question.

Once again the time has rolled around when the country celebrates Black History month. The inevitable question always comes up, How far have we come since the days of MLK and the March on Washington?

As a person of multiple statuses threatened by deeply entrenched implicit biases, the question is a moving target. Asking, How far have we come? flattens our collective vision. Haitian historian Michel-Rolph Trouillot called this phenomenon different views of “pastness.” The lens we use to explore whether social realities and political power have changed distort the social narratives. Worse,  the shortcomings symbolically ally themselves with systemic structures and customs rife with implicit race and gender biases.

Consider the conventional social justice yardsticks of reducing paternalism (feminism) and racial arrogance (Civil Rights Movement). Ideologically and in practice, the rift in contemporary feminism is still about race. The arch has, indeed, shifted toward recognizing the power of women in public spheres. Witness the political realignment in the recent mid-term elections. Women reshaped the political landscape by casting our votes and by becoming elected officials. At the same time, the gender-based wage gap still exists; women must work until Tuesday of the next work week to earn what men earned in the previous week. Non-white women must work even longer. In regards to having significant influence on corporate culture, in 2018 only 24 Fortune 500 companies were led by women; there were no black women CEOs in 2018. (Ursula Burns ran Xerox from 2009-2016, so there are lessons to be gleaned her story.)

Racial arrogance has been, and with clear historical evidence, defined as white racism against nonwhites, particularly against blacks. Legal redress has come in the form of eight Civil Rights Acts (1866, 1871, 1875, 1957 due to pressure of the Civil Rights Movement, 1960, 1964, 1968, and 1991). This sounds like progress. Yet for black women, racial arrogance came in the double burden of being stereotyped as much by black males as by whites. More than one author in Guy-Sheftall’s anthology, Words of Fire, speaks out against black women’s intellectual work being dismissed, our sacrifices trivialized, our contributions subordinated. In their 1970 essay, The Liberation of Black Women, Pauli Murray speaks frankly about the “bid of black males to share power with white males in a contining patriarchal society in which both black and white females are relegated to a secondary status.” Murray calls out the organizers of the iconic March on Washington for having done the same even in that pivotal historical moment, saying the “historical neglect continues into the present.

In 2017 millions of women and our allies marched in 600 rallies held around the world to gain rights and protections for ourselves and those precious to us. Here in South Bend over 1,000 people took to the streets. The atmosphere was electric, filled with passion and determination to make change happen. Yet, our local Women’s March for all its fire and fury and chants of solidarity was a microcosm of the problem facing third wave feminism. Images from that day showed a sea of white faces and the faces of the same 12 Black women, cycling in endless loops through the various social media platforms.

To widen the lens on how to view progress since the I Have a Dream speech of 1963, I take inspiration from the new generation of Black, female intellectuals. Beverly Guy-Sheftall’s edited anthology referenced earlier links the lived experiences of Black women, prevailing over the dilemma of competing identities, across generations, and around the world. Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor interrogates the evolution of black feminism since the Combahee River Collective in How We Get Free. N. K. Jemisin’s speculative fiction How Long ‘Til Black Future Month? provides compelling heuristics if, for the length of a story, one is willing to suspend cherished ideas.

Originally published in the South Bend Tribune

Photo Credit: Elizabeth Catlett, Homage to My Young Black Sisters

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