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With Martin Luther King, Jr. Day on the horizon, I dutifully re-watched Ava Duvernay’s powerful and accomplished movie, Selma. The story chronicles King’s struggle to secure unencumbered black suffrage in Selma, Alabama, which led to the Voting Rights Act of 1965. This time I watched with a particular question in mind: how are the women portrayed? This question is urgent because it is increasingly clear that black women are America’s invisible population. Black women leaders are not honored anywhere near commensurate with their deep historical contributions to the struggle for racial—and, more broadly, democratic—justice. Neither are deaths of black women at the hands of the police and private citizens properly attended to and commemorated.
Consider how the women in Selma are portrayed, not for the sake of criticizing the movie but to understand how it reflects an overwhelming and commonplace bias in how black women leaders are treated. Diane Nash (Tessa Thompson), a key figure in integrating Southern lunch counters and co-founder of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, delivers only a handful of lines. In one crucial scene, a strategy meeting, she shifts her gaze among the various male verbal combatants in the room, trying but failing to be included as a participant. The camera often seems to play to Thompson’s undeniable beauty in Selma, but the script deprives her of intellectual force. One cannot take refuge in the argument that Nash has a small role only because the movie is about King and his organization (the Southern Christian Leadership Council) rather than SNCC: the other male SNCC leaders—James Forman and John Lewis—receive generous screen time brandishing grimaces, arguments, and resentments in their quest for leadership.
Amelia Boynton Robinson, played by the fierce and underappreciated Lorraine Toussaint, gets a bad turn as well. In the film, her role is to welcome and feed the men of the SCLC; later, she shows up to unfurrow Coretta Scott King’s brow—a woman who stands by King despite the tumult his public life (and admitted infidelities) bring into their lives. Boynton Robinson’s marginalized portrayal is especially grating since she was on the ground in Selma before King, and indeed was responsible for bringing King to Selma.
Why are black women consistently rendered invisible? Gender alone is not the whole story.
Selma thus reflects how we value black women, which is to say, how we so often render them invisible. It replicates and exemplifies wider America’s limited appreciation of black women in the historical struggle for black rights and their ongoing struggles for equality, health, and safety. Why are black women consistently rendered invisible? Part of the answer is certainly misogyny writ large: black women share in American women’s general struggle to be seen, cast, appreciated, recognized, employed—and not only as caretakers, as supporters, as the undergirding of men’s ambitions, but as possessing their own unique and valuable intentions that may or may not complement those of men. Angela Davis, civil rights leader and prison abolitionist, recounts being told that her leadership weakened the way black men would be viewed by white men. But black women’s shared plight on account of gender alone is not the whole story.
Activist and feminist philosopher Audre Lorde lamented the tension between white and black women. She felt that their mutual understanding often reached only what she described as a middle depth—a shared sense of women’s struggle that threatens to rupture when forced to recognize that black women labor under the additional weight of racism. Lorde urged us to see our differences as opportunities for cooperative learning and warned of making them flashpoints for opposition. She understood that the latter might put black women continually at risk of being on the lowest rung in America’s scheme of social valuation and status.
Over the past few years, as the mainstream media reported a seemingly endless stream of stories about black men being killed by police, one could be forgiven for thinking that black women are not victimized to the same degree. Such a contention would be tragically misguided and would be complicit in black women’s public invisibility. Though Sandra Bland’s suicide following her abusive arrest made national headlines—as did the shooting of nineteen-year-old Renisha McBride when she sought help at a white family’s door after crashing her car—few Americans have heard about the many other black women who have fallen victim to the same racist forces that choked the life out of Eric Garner: Yvette Smith, Malissa Williams, and Rekia Boyd name but a few.
And then there is the horrific fact that more than sixty thousand black women are missing in America. To put that number into perspective, black women make up roughly 8 percent of the population in the United States but nearly 37 percent of missing women. The explanation for the missing women is often unclear; it includes the typical suspects, including murder, running away, abduction, and so on. But it is clear that there are at least two problems having to do with our treatment of this full-blown crisis. First, the media tends to publicize stories of missing white women or girls so much more than it does stories of missing women of color that there is a term for it: Missing White Woman Syndrome. Second, what little bandwidth the media does have for missing black people tends to be filled with discussion of the American shame of mass incarceration, which disproportionately affects black men, cast as a metaphorical “missing.” While that phenomenon is a travesty and deserving of all the attention it receives and more, the concurrent absence of media coverage about the epidemic of missing black women renders them doubly invisible: gone and seemingly forgotten.
Any number of solutions could begin to address black women’s invisibility. First among these are legislation that resides at the crossroads of civil liberties and economics. Dorothy Roberts, professor of law at the University of Pennsylvania, one of the most powerful voices in contemporary black feminist scholarship, argues that legislation and social policy are often responsible for the diminishment of black women’s rights—and their visibility, I would add. President Ronald Reagan helped set the public tone by once referring to a black welfare recipient as a Cadillac-driving welfare queen, thus naming the bogeyman of conservative America. The popular image of the welfare recipient has remained racialized ever since, despite empirical evidence that welfare recipients are overwhelming white. Nonetheless the impact of welfare “reform” (read: diminshment) is often felt most heavily by black mothers, who more frequently find themselves raising children alone due to high rates of black male incarceration, yet are compelled to find care for their children while they work jobs that often fail to provide adequate income and benefits. Thus black women are often wedged in the middle, with little political voice or power while their bodies and families are the target of government insensitivity, shamed for bearing children or are seen as deviant if they pursue options such as abortion.
In the realm of education, it should be a national priority to rebalance school curricula to celebrate the rich history of black women leaders. Ethel Payne’s pioneering career was as essential to American journalism as was Norman Mailer’s. A fair and balanced black history curriculum would place Diane Nash alongside King, and Angela Davis alongside Malcolm X so that future Americans can fully grasp that neither the desire for liberty nor the fortitude for radical politics are the domain of black men.
Finally, the media could resist the trope and sensationalism of the dangerous black man brought to his knees by murderous police aggression. Our gender norms have tended to privilege attention to black men; our heteronormative biases have allowed stories of presumptively straight black women to make their way to our consciousness, albeit a very small number. But there is the equally crucial fact that in 2015, of the twenty-two known trans women who were murdered, nineteen were black. These women’s murders were barely covered in the news. The media could follow the example of present day black women leaders Alicia Garza, Patrice Cullors, and Opal Tometi—the three founders of the organization bearing the recognizable name Black Lives Matter—in affirming that every black female, male, straight, gay, lesbian, and trans life counts, that it matters who is seen as worth recognizing and remembering. Otherwise, future generations will never be able to fully grasp the robust demands of racial equality since they will have been taught that the twenty-three million black women in America are not worth seeing, thus not worthy of respect and equality.
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