Muted in the Movement for Equality

by David Hart | August 12, 2020

State Street groaned with promise. 

Not the groaning a child does when pressed to clean his room, put down her iPad, or sit still. And certainly not the groans weightlifters in tiny humid gyms let out to ensure the world knows how diligently they are working out. 

No, State Street groaned with promise like a pregnant mother about to give birth—pain and joy all at once. 

Folks who have been around the street had heard the groans and watched it give birth to other painful and joyful movements and causes before. The labor and socialist movements. Peace protests. Human rights campaigns. Civil rights protests. Equal rights demonstrations. Women’s suffrage marches. Nuclear disarmament and anti-apartheid rallies. 

And now, this State Street, this infamous hub of Madison, Wisconsin, a quiet midwestern college town, was about to give birth again. This time it would be to a march asking the world to see the humanity of Black people. 

Some 10,000 bodies deliberately marched up the street past the boarded-up stores and restaurants. Some folks marched with fists raised, some with bullhorns. The marchers were sweaty and focused, pausing every eight minutes and forty-six seconds, determined to be heard, determined to show the world the humanity of Black lives. The crowd raised its collective voice, alternating between singing protest hymns of the Black church, shouting demands of freedom, and crying out to remember those who had been lost to state violence. 

“What’s his name?” 

“George Floyd!”

“What’s his name?” 

“George Floyd!”

“What’s his name?”

“Ahmaud Arbery!”

Then a voice yelled out from the crowd, “And what’s her name?”

I was prepared to hear the names of any one of the dozens of Black women killed by police in the last decade. I was about to hear a chilling reminder of how many Black women have been lost in this struggle. But instead, a silence fell over the crowd, and there would be no such list, no such reminder.

A few muffled and uncertain voices were lifted to say, “Breonna Taylor.” But mostly, it was just eerily silent. 

And that silence that fell over the crowd was telling. It was a stark reminder of how easily we forget Black women.

Ours is a country built with the residual anger of protests and revolution. When the British Navy attempted to forcibly enlist Americans in 1747, working class Americans rampaged through Boston and took several naval officers hostage. When President George Washington’s federal government moved to tax American-made distilled spirits, hundreds of protestors used violence and intimidation to prevent the government from collecting the tax. And when a bus driver demanded that a Black seamstress in Montgomery, Alabama, give up her seat so that a white person could sit there, Black residents of Montgomery boycotted the transit system for more than a year. So, it was no surprise to many Americans that the country erupted in protests and violence after a police officer killed George Floyd. 

We all witnessed the death of George Floyd. The graphic video of a Minneapolis police officer kneeling on Floyd’s neck for almost nine minutes made it difficult for us to look away from his pain. While Floyd’s death was distinct, it conjured up all the other killings of unarmed Black men by police. So as we marched for George Floyd, we carried with us a laundry list of other names that we have recited so often. They sound like one long word: Tamir Rice. Walter Scott. Michael Brown. Tony Robinson. Eric Garner. Botham Jean . . .

There was no room on that list for Breonna Taylor, the twenty-six-year-old Black woman who was erroneously killed by police while she slept in her own bed. 

Senator Kamala Harris, along with scores of other Black women, used #SayHerName on social media  in an attempt to insert Taylor’s name in the calculus and discussions of Black people killed by police with little success. Taylor’s exclusion from the discourse, and the exclusion of many other Black women, shines a light on an age-old issue within the civil rights struggle: Black women’s experiences, generally and specifically, of police brutality and their contributions to the civil rights movements have almost always received far less media or political attention.

For as long as Black people have been struggling for equality in America, Black women have played a major role in that struggle. However, their contributions have been muted and considered secondary to the contributions of Black men. From Harriet Tubman to Angela Davis to Alicia Garza, Black women have contributed, led, toiled, and struggled for Black equality but have been forced to yield the spotlight to men. 

What is more, Black women remain a very marginalized and oppressed segment of our country. Despite being among the most educated groups in America, they still face significant obstacles in every facet of this society. They earn 66 cents on the dollar of white men, comprise one of the smallest percentages of the professional workforce and management positions, and comprise one of the largest shares of employment in the lowest paying jobs in America.1 

In addition, Black women’s agency and bodies are threatened at a higher rate than their white counterparts. African American females experience intimate partner violence at a rate 35 percent higher than that of white females, and about 2.5 times the rate of women of other races. Approximately 40 percent of Black women report coercive contact of a sexual nature by age 18, and Black women have the highest rate of violent victimization of any group.

Above this, Black women must overcome stereotypes and perceptions about them that other women do not have to overcome. Studies suggest that our society is more likely to view pregnant Black women as single and in need of public assistance, than white women. Professional Black women who assert their agency are also more likely to be seen as “angry” or “hostile,” while assertive white women are not necessarily seen as angry. Serena Williams, Michelle Obama, Whoopi Goldberg, and Gabrielle Union have all been characterized as “angry” recently. This simply does not happen to white women in the same capacity.

As a result of this marginalization, Black women have been viewed as unsympathetic representatives of the movement for Black equality. This means Black men, usually Christian and respectable, have become the default face of the struggle for civil rights for Black Americans. Think Martin Luther King Jr, Thurgood Marshall, Adam Clayton Powell Jr, and Jesse Jackson. 

In a sexist, patriarchal society, it is easier to accept men as the head or the face of almost anything important. We have few women CEOs of companies, few women who are influential politicians, and few women leading creative industries. 

In the Christian community we understand exactly how this works. Only 11 percent of all senior pastors of all Christian churches are women, not because men are better leaders, but because our patriarchal society calls on us to believe that men are more deserving to lead. 

Because egalitarian Christians understand how women have been muted in the church, we can help support Black women and give them a voice in the church and the broader civil rights movement. Racism and sexism are interlocking oppressions of theological patriarchy. The Bible has been used in similar ways to keep both women and Black people from full equality in both society and the church. Black women have been forced to bear the double weight of these burdens. Egalitarian Christians must understand this double weight and create spaces and room for Black women to lead and be heard if we’re ever truly going to achieve women’s equality. 

The organizers of the march on State Street, all Black Christian clergy, showed us how we can create that space for Black women. After we marched from State Street to the state capitol building, there were six keynote speakers, all of whom were Black women. 

So, while the crowd could not remember or call Breonna Taylor’s name, there was a collective move to correct that lapse as we listened to six dynamic Black women speak for the many Black women, including Breonna Taylor, who have been muted in the movement. 

As egalitarians, we must continue to create opportunities for Black women to lead and speak. 


1 “Women of Color in the United States: Quick Take,” Catalyst: Workplaces That Work for Women, March 19, 2020, https://www.catalyst.org/research/women-of-color-in-the-united-states/.
 

More articles by David Hart:
It’s Not Only Woman’s Work
Why Womanist Theology Is Vital to Me