PSGE Celebrates Black Women's History

Day 19: Marian Anderson, 1897-1993


“As long as you keep a person down, some part of you has to be there to hold him down, so it means you cannot soar as you otherwise might.”

“You lose a lot of time hating people.”

Marian Anderson was an incredible contralto singer who was the first African American person to perform at the Metropolitan Opera, in 1955. As a young girl, she did not let her poverty stop her from pursuing her musical gifts, and she trained herself. Her Church choir was so impressed by her talent and determination that they raised a fund for her to get formal lessons. She became world-famous, and President Roosevelt and First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt invited her to sing at the White House (the first African American to receive this invitation). When Anderson tried to perform at Constitution Hall, the organization Daughters of the American Revolution told her there were no dates available, because their policy barred Black performers from the Hall. Eleanor Roosevelt and many members of the public were outraged, and Eleanor Roosevelt invited her to sing at the Lincoln Memorial. She stunned a live crowd of 75,000 people and millions more over the radio with her talent. Anderson later performed the National Anthem at John F. Kennedy’s inauguration, and in 1991 won a Grammy Award for Lifetime Achievement.




Day 18: Audre Lorde, 1934-1992

Atlantic Center for the Arts

“Caring for myself is not self-indulgence, it is self-preservation, and that is an act of political warfare.”

“I am deliberate and afraid of nothing.”

Audre Lorde was a radical black lesbian socialist feminist womanist, existing in the intersection of many oppressed identities yet refusing to give into fear or silence. She described herself as a “black, lesbian, mother, warrior, poet.” She fought against racism, sexism, and homophobia, and the ways that all three intersect, channeling her anger into productive energy and activism. Lorde spoke out against racism by white feminists, the sexism by black men, and the homophobia by the black community. Lorde also called for the need to eradicate internalized racism, sexism, and homophobia within ourselves, and for the need to take care of and love ourselves so that we are able to take care of and love others. She wrote many incredible works, including Sister Outsider (a collection of essays and speeches), Zami: A New Spelling of My Name, and The Black Unicorn. Some of her most famous and powerful essays/speeches are “Age, Race, Class, and Sex: Women redefining difference,” “Poetry Is Not A Luxury,” “A Letter to Mary Daly,” “Uses of the Erotic: The erotic as power,” and “The Master’s Tools Will Never Dismantle the Master’s House.”


Day 17: Phillis Wheatley, 1753-1784


“In every human Beast, God has implanted a Principle, which we call Love of Freedom; it is impatient of Oppression, and pants for Deliverance.”

Phillis Wheatley was kidnapped from West Africa and enslaved, sold to John Wheatley from Boston to be a personal servant for his wife. Though most slaves were denied their right to education, Wheatley became educated and even learned Latin and Greek, and was the first African American woman to publish poetry. Like Gwendolyn Brooks, she wrote her first poem at age 13! Her book Poems on Various Subjects, Religious and Moral won great acclaim, but required the signatures of 17 important Boston men to confirm that she, a female slave, had written it. Wheatley went on tour in England promoting her poetry, and when she returned to Boston she was freed. Yet she faced great poverty and was forced into work as a maid in awful conditions, and could not find a publisher for a second book. Despite her premature and sad ending, Phillis Wheatley was an important pioneer and a strong voice in the face of unbelievable obstacles.


Day 16: Barbara Smith, 1946-


Barbara Smith is a black lesbian feminist socialist author, activist, and publisher. As a teenager she participated in Civil Rights Movement boycotts, marches, and protests. In 1974, she became a founding member of the Combahee River Collective in Boston, and with her twin sister Beverly penned the iconic Combahee River Collective Statement in 1977. This statement was one of the first written analyses and examinations of the way that identities and oppressions intersect, as it pointed out racism in the feminist movement and heterosexism in the black community and movement, and unabashedly articulated lesbian sexuality. Smith later co-founded Kitchen Table: Women of Color Press, after realizing that woman scholars of color were denied equal opportunity to have their work published. She edited books like Home Girls: A Black Feminist Anthology (1983), which was new and important because it presented black lesbian voices. When her press enjoyed great success, more mainstream publishers began publishing the work of female scholars of color more. She continues to teach, speak, and serve communities.



Day 15: Gwendolyn Brooks, 1917-2000


“When you use the term minority or minorities in reference to people, you’re telling them that they’re less than somebody else.”

“We are each other’s magnitude and bond.”

Gwendolyn Brooks was an incredibly important poet, the first black author to win the Pulitzer Prize, the first black woman to be poetry consultant to the Library of Congress, and the poet laureate of Illinois. Her poetry engaged with the civil rights struggle in a powerful and political ways. She published her first poem at age 13! Much of her early poetry focused on the experience of the black urban poor. She also wrote one book, Maud Martha, a series of vignettes about a black woman’s life, focusing in particular on her self-doubt and her grappling with conventional beauty standards that exclude her. As the civil rights movement progressed, Brooks’ work became increasingly political and concerned with a sense of black consciousness, cultural and political. Her poem, “Riot,” spoke in support of what she called the “healthy rebellion” unfolding, but some white critics accused her of “celebrating violence.” In short, Brooks was a prolific poet, unapologetically black, female, and political at a time when none of those identities were very accepted within the mainstream canon. Yet her work was so remarkable that many people and institutions had to recognize its worth in spite of their prejudices.



Day 14: Annie Devine, 1912-2000


Annie Devine was, as described by Victoria Gray, “a behind the scenes giant, a god-sent giant who came and dwelt and worked on the back roads in the rural places.” Devine lived in Canton, Mississippi, which, as of 1963, was 75% African American yet had 0 black registered voters due to voter suppression (intimidation, literacy tests, grandfather clauses, etc.). She joined CORE, the Congress of Racial Equality, and started working full-time on getting people in the community to come to CORE workshops and get registered to vote. Devine helped to found the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party (alongside Fannie Lou Hamer and Victoria Gray). Though the MFDP’s efforts to challenge the convention failed, as the National Democratic Party denied them seating, Devine and others did not give up. She stood in the House of Representatives (one of the first three Black women to do so) and called for the body to refuse membership to the newly elected Mississippi representatives because black people could not vote in the state. Because of this action, Congress began investigations into Mississippi voter suppression.


Day 13: Septima Poinsette Clark, 1898-1987


I believe unconditionally in the ability of people to respond when they are told the truth. We need to be taught to study rather than believe, to inquire rather than to affirm.”

“The air has finally gotten to the place that we can breathe it together.”

Septima Poinsette Clark was a South Carolina teacher who established “citizenship schools” that worked to help African Americans to register to vote in the face of massive voter suppression and restrictive voting laws. (Sound familiar?) When Clark first started teaching, Charleston public schools would not hire African American teachers so she had to become a teacher elsewhere, and later worked with the NAACP on a campaign to make Charleston end its discriminatory hiring policy. She also worked with the NAACP to get equal pay for white and black teachers, but was later fired from her public school job for her civil rights activism. Clark then became the director of education and teaching for the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, and during her term over 800 “citizenship schools” were created, empowering community members to teach others in their community basic math and literacy skills, and thus to pass the literacy test required for voting.


Day 12: Shirley Chisholm, 1924-2005


“I want history to remember me not just as the first black woman to be elected to Congress, not as the first black woman to have made a bid for the presidency of the United States, but as a black woman who lived in the 20th century and dared to be herself.”

“The emotional, sexual, and psychological stereotyping of females begins when the doctor says, ‘It’s a girl.’”

Shirley Chisholm was the first African American woman elected to Congress, in 1968. She served as a New York congresswoman for seven terms. When she announced her bid for the presidency of the US in 1972, she simultaneously became the first African American candidate for a major party nomination and the first woman to run for the Democratic nomination. Chisholm was a founding member of the Congressional Black Caucus and the National Women’s Political Caucus. She worked to expand the food stamp program and was instrumental in the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children. In 2015, Chisholm was awarded a Presidential Medal of Freedom (posthumously) by President Obama.


For a powerful analysis of Chisholm’s campaign and its impact, read Evelyn Simien’s book Historic FirstsHow Symbolic Empowerment Changes U.S. Politics.

Day 11: Mae Jemison, 1956-


“The first thing about empowerment is to understand that you have the right to be involved. The second one is that you have something important to contribute. And the third piece is that you have to take the risk to contribute it.”

Mae Jemison was the first African American woman to go to space. She was inspired as a young child by how the show Star Trek showed individuals of different genders and races working together – the black female Lieutenant Uhura was her role model. When she went to space in 1992, she took with her pieces of African and African American culture so that they would be represented, not excluded, in space. She later started the technology consulting firm Jemison Group Inc and the BioSentient Corporation that allows doctors to monitor daily nervous system functions. She is also leading the 100 Year Starship program that seeks to make it so that humans can go to the next solar system within the next 100 years.

Source: Rachel Ignotofsky, Women in Science

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