Honoring Black History Month
In recognition of Black History Month, MCADSV would like to share the stories of three women whose work and lives shed light on how Black women experience domestic and sexual violence. This February and every day, we honor the Black women and men who contributed to the movement to end rape and abuse.
Zora Neale Hurston (1891-1960)
Zora Neale Hurston was a literary giant of the 1920s Harlem Renaissance Movement, made of a group of young African-American musicians and writers who sought "spiritual emancipation" exploring African and African-American heritage and identity in the arts.
Although Hurston is best known for her 1937 novel, Their Eyes Were Watching God, which is considered one of the best novels of the 20th century, it is Hurston's short story Sweat that solidified her position as an early and outspoken advocate against domestic violence. In addition, Sweat was one of the first pieces of literature that featured the intersection between abuse and institutional racism.
Hurston's Sweat tells the story of Delia, a woman who has been physically, emotionally and verbally abused by Sykes, her husband of more than 15 years. The men in community are fully aware and talk about Sykes' treatment of Delia throughout their marriage. The only brief relief from her husband’s abuse comes when Delia she says she is going to call "the white folks" on Sykes. In this story, Hurston illustrates the unique, complex and adverse roles institutional oppression continues to play in the African American experience and solidifies the importance of ensuring equitable and culturally inclusive services are always available and offered to those affected and experience domestic and sexual violence.
Harriet Ann Jacobs (1813-1897)
Former slave turned abolitionist and social reformer, Harriet Ann Jacobs wrote the first and one of the few autobiographies published documenting the physical abuse and sexual exploitation endured by women of color during American slavery. In her 1861 book, Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl, Jacobs details her story of sexual abuse as an enslaved woman and her attempts as a mother to protect her children. Jacobs was naturally very hesitant to tell her story. However, she knew it was important for the Southern patriarchy she grew up with to take responsibility for its sexual tyranny over women of color like herself. Very little is written about how women of color resisted sexual exploitation during American slavery.
Jacobs describes the ongoing emotional, physical and mental tactics used by her owner, specifically his constant threats to sell her two children, as means to force her to engage in sexual intercourse. Jacobs faked her own escape for seven years by hiding in a crawl space above a storeroom in order to remain close to her two children as best she could, as they were still owned by her former owner. Starting in 1825, at age 11, Jacobs endured ongoing sexual victimization and exploitation by her slavemaster until her eventual escape in 1842. For ten years after her escape, Jacobs survived as a fugitive slave. Throughout this time, her former slave owner made numerous attempts to find her. In 1852, Jacobs’ freedom was finally secured through in exchange for $300.
For the remainder of her life, Jacobs was a staunch advocate in the struggle to end institutional oppression in the United States and abroad. Until her death, Jacobs worked tirelessly to establish schools to educate former slaves and wrote and spoke out against inequities such as pay, quality of healthcare and disproportional rates of incarceration based on race.
Sojourner Truth (c. 1797-1883)
As we celebrate the countless accomplishments of people of African ancestry who have made so many invaluable contributions to social justice, one of the first individuals to influence the civil and women’s rights movements is Sojourner Truth.
Born a slave, Truth spent 29 years in forced servitude. After numerous attempts to run away, an abolitionist bought her freedom for $20. Truth as the “new face” of the U.S. $20 bill is symbolic of what was paid to finally secure her freedom. Truth is most recognized for her efforts to abolish slavery and efforts to end racial inequality in the United States. Truth was also one of the first people in the nation’s history to speak out and fight against gender inequality. It is because of her work to bring awareness to and end gender inequities that Truth is often mentioned as one of the pioneers or the U.S. women’s rights movement. Truth inspired noted women’s rights activists such as Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Lucretia Mott. However, the color of her skin played a role in her being seen as equal, even within another movement with the same goal: equality.
Despite having to sit in separately from her Caucasian counterparts, Sojourner Truth gave one of the most prolific speeches in our country’s ongoing fight to end inequality, “Ain't I a Woman?" at the 1851 Women's Convention in Akron, Ohio. This speech illustrated the argument supporting limitations on women’s rights based on the male perception of women as the “weaker sex." Truth argued that women of color are being forced to perform the same tasks, every day, that were “innately” suited for men. In this speech, Truth asked, if women of color are able to perform the same tasks as any man, aren’t all women capable of performing the same tasks as their male counterparts?
“Ain't I A Woman?” solidified the inherent relationship between racial and gender equality and epitomizes the famous quote by Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.: “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.”
Text of the speech "Ain't I a Woman?" by Sojourner Truth, delivered at the 1851 Women's Convention in Akron, Ohio:
“Well, children, where there is so much racket there must be something out of kilter. I think that 'twixt the negroes of the South and the women at the North, all talking about rights, the white men will be in a fix pretty soon. But what's all this here talking about?
That man over there says that women need to be helped into carriages, and lifted over ditches, and to have the best place everywhere. Nobody ever helps me into carriages, or over mud-puddles, or gives me any best place! And ain't I a woman? Look at me! Look at my arm! I have ploughed and planted, and gathered into barns, and no man could head me! And ain't I a woman? I could work as much and eat as much as a man—when I could get it—and bear the lash as well! And ain't I a woman? I have borne thirteen children, and seen most all sold off to slavery, and when I cried out with my mother's grief, none but Jesus heard me! And ain't I a woman?
Then they talk about this thing in the head; what's this they call it? That's it, honey. What's that got to do with women's rights or negroes' rights? If my cup won't hold but a pint, and yours holds a quart, wouldn't you be mean not to let me have my little half measure full?
Then that little man in black there, he says women can't have as much rights as men, 'cause Christ wasn't a woman! Where did your Christ come from? Where did your Christ come from? From God and a woman! Man had nothing to do with Him.
If the first woman God ever made was strong enough to turn the world upside down all alone, these women together ought to be able to turn it back, and get it right side up again! And now they is asking to do it, the men better let them.
Obliged to you for hearing me, and now old Sojourner ain't got nothing more to say."