It’s time to stop ignoring the leadership power of Black women. The 108-year-old National Association for the Advancement of Colored People announced it is seeking new leadership to meet the challenges of our times. The search will begin in earnest this summer, when the current president, Cornell William Brooks, is expected to step down.
The NAACP has never had a woman as its president. This is a symptom of its outdated doctrine.
The hope is the search will herald a broader, more diverse attitude towards potential candidates. If, however, it continues to frame Blackness and leadership through inaccurate and conservative parameters, this storied institution may rapidly become a relic of the past.
While benefitting from having Black women in its ranks, the NAACP tends to maintain focus on the impact of racial injustice and racist violence on heterosexual Black men. It rarely offers full-throated support on “gender” issues such as violence against Black women both within and without their communities.
In this, the NAACP, a historically revered institution, is sadly not terribly different from larger institutions and most African American communities.
At a time when the Democratic National Committee is called upon to recognize the strength, efficacy, and influence of its Black female voters and leaders, it makes sense for the NAACP to consider the same. More than 30 national, civic and community activists– all Black women– challenged DNC Chair Tom Perez recently to deliberately harness the power of Black women to energize the party in an open letter.
It has not always been this way.
As Smith College Professor and historian, Paula Giddings demonstrates in her ground-breaking 1984 book, When and Where I Enter, the origins of African American activism boast female leadership as a norm. Harriet Tubman and Sojourner Truth are hardly obscure figures in the battle for racial justice. Ida B. Wells was the face of the anti-lynching crusade for decades. Black women founded many of the Historically Black Colleges and Universities including Spelman College and Bethune-Cookman University; these schools have played an outsized role in training our nation’s Black scientists and doctors.
Yet whether on websites, mainstream documentaries or the musings of pundits, this amazing history of Black female leadership and accomplishment has largely been lost.
Indeed, it often seems as if Black women have been erased from our considerations—even our lexicon—altogether.
A frustrated Donna Brazile noted on CNN during the 2008 Democratic primary, that for pundits to opine that women would go for Hillary Clinton and Blacks for Barack Obama for president effectively erased her existence as a Black woman.
As activists Patricia Bell Scott and Barbara Smith noted in the title of their famous 1982 anthology, “All The Women Are White, All The Blacks Are Men: But Some of Us Are Brave,” this canny observation energized a new generation of feminist and queer activists of color. But many mainstream media outlets failed to take the hint.
In addition to pushing to expand access to education, these early Black feminist leaders demonstrated the wide reach of feminism. In her now-canonical 1897 novel Iola Leroy, journalist and activist Frances W. Harper explored how emancipation from slavery offered Black women a chance to push for equal rights in education, economic opportunity, and political representation. That emancipation, in turn, could help create and sustain a Black community where social equality was practiced by all: no sexism, no color discrimination, and an environment where children would be understood as human beings in their own rights rather than as exploited laborers for their parents and/or factories.
In other words, a Black feminist vision committed to justice for all.
Harper’s vision was not idle fiction: from the late 19th century well into the middle of the 20th, Black feminist activists like Mary Church Terrell and Mary McLeod Bethune fought for more egalitarian relations between whites and Blacks as well as within Black communities. This, in many ways, was a far more progressive vision than that practiced by “race men” Booker T Washington and W.E.B. Du Bois, who ultimately sought to reproduce the white bourgeois heteropatriarchal family in which “father knows best.” Noteworthy is that while Du Bois did in fact support women’s rights in writing, in practice he expected his spouse and daughters to serve rather than lead.
The glacial pace at which the NAACP has raised gender and queer issues might reflect this same patriarchal mindset.
Whether as leaders or simply members of a community, Black women are simply not treasured and valued in the same way as men—and this is killing us, both figuratively and literally.
We have largely forgotten Black female lynch victims (often murdered for their social activism). We commemorate lynching as a specifically gendered affair in which Black men alone were the target. To be sure, they did, in fact, make up the majority of victims—but not exclusively. And while it is widely noted that generations of Black men have been erased from society due to mass incarceration, the rates of Black female incarceration is sobering and depressing as well. As the Atlanta Black Star reports, one in 16 will see the inside of a jail within her lifetime.
The invisibility of Black women does not end there.
African American women are being murdered by police in startling numbers—or being found dead while in police custody and being declared a victim of suicide. While The Sandra Bland Act has received initial support in Texas, her tragedy was not hers alone. Yet, like prison rates, these gendered statistics tend to be ignored or marginalized in favor of Black men who, while also being shot down indiscriminately, are more likely to have their deaths protested and commemorated.
Social media has proven to be a force to reckon with and recognize the powerful issues affecting black women. Yes, #BlackLivesMatter was founded by women. Yes, #whatadoctorlookslike was created as a result of a black female doctor being questioned on her credentials on a flight. There’s also Black Women Lead and black women in business efforts.
But social media movements alone cannot do the work of a historic national institution.
The NAACP could do a great deal to reverse these trends of erasure and minimalization of the leadership of black women by embracing Black feminist causes and appointing a Black feminist activist as its new president. History shows that everyone benefits when those most marginalized are enabled and empowered to show the way forward. Let’s not miss another chance.
Michelle M. Wright is Professor of African American Studies and Comparative Literary Studies at Northwestern University, where she is a Public Voices Fellow with The OpEd Project.