Black women’s place in history must be recognized


International Women’s Day (IWD) is a United Nations-recognized day which, according to the UN, is dedicated to “looking back on past struggles and accomplishments and, more importantly, for looking ahead to the untapped potential and opportunities that await future generations of women”.

In 1975, during International Women’s Year, the UN began celebrating International Women’s Day on March 8. However, IWD supposedly “emerged from the activities of labour movements at the turn of the 20th Century in North America and across Europe”.

In the USA, National Women’s Day was first observed in 1909 when the Socialist Party of America chose February 28 to honour the 1908 garment workers’ strike in New York, where women protested against their working conditions. The history books omit the fact that the women who were protesting were White women because at that time in the history of North America, African women were relegated to working as domestics in the homes of White women.

In the December 6, 1938 edition of Crisis Magazine (founded in 1910 by W.E.B. Du Bois as a crusading voice for civil rights) Ella Baker and Marva Cooke wrote an article documenting the experience of African-American women in New York who worked as domestic servants. Some of the women, ranging from as young as 17 and as old as 70 “would stand on a two-block stretch as White housewives from the suburbs drove by in their cars and negotiated to hire them for domestic service”.

This area was considered the Bronx Slave Market and Baker and Cooke wrote that this “illustrated the race, class and gender subordination of Black women”. Following in-depth interviews and hours of research, Baker and Cooke observed: “Rain or shine, hot or cold, you will find them there, Negro women old and young sometimes bedraggled sometimes neatly dressed waiting expectantly for Bronx housewives to buy their strength and energy for an hour, two hours or even for a day at the munificent rate of fifteen, twenty-five or, if luck be with them, thirty cents.”

In their groundbreaking expose, Baker and Cooke also discussed the backbreaking work and the sexual assault the women often encountered on the job from the male relatives and friends of the White women who employed them as domestic workers.

The similar struggles of domestic workers in Canada have been documented in Makeda Silvera’s 1989 book, Silenced: Talks with Working Class Caribbean Women about their Lives and Struggles as Domestic Workers in Canada. The vivid descriptions of the emotional, physical and sexual abuse as told in the voices of the women themselves, using their own language, makes for a heart rending read.

Many of these women had left children and other loved ones behind in their home countries while they tried to make a living with the hope of eventually reuniting. Those hopes were in many cases never realized as a result of the turmoil that they dealt with working in precarious and unsafe conditions.

IWD is also supposed to address the absence of women from the history books. While White women’s history may have been relegated to the margins of the history books, African women’s history is usually in the footnotes or entirely absent. Fortunately, there are books written mostly by African men and women (from the continent and the Diaspora) that document the lives, struggles, triumph and contributions of African women internationally.

In Annette Madden’s book, In Her Footsteps 101 Remarkable Black Women from the Queen of Sheba to Queen Latifah, published in 2000, some of the remarkable women are well known while others are not. This book, which lists 101 African women beginning with Dankness, who lived more than three million years ago in Ethiopia and is considered the first woman in the world according to archeological records, should be required reading.

In many cases when we read of a historic struggle of Africans the names of the women are absent. We may know of the freedom fighters of Haiti who wrested their freedom from brutal French enslavement but most of those names are male. One of the few books where the contribution of women to the Haitian Revolution is mentioned is Haiti: The Breached Citadel, published in 2004 by Haitian historian Patrick Bellegarde-Smith.

One of the women mentioned in Bellegarde-Smith’s book is Cecile Fatiman, who officiated with Boukman at the Vodou ceremony that launched the revolution on August 22, 1791.

Bellegarde-Smith also writes of Marie-Jean Lamartiniere, who is popularly known as Haiti’s Joan of Arc for fighting at the Battle of La Crete-a-Pierrot of 1802. We need to know the names of these women described in Haiti: The Breached Citadel.

“Other female revolutionaries such as Suzanne Sanite Belaire and Henriette Sainte-Marc demonstrated formidable military prowess until they were captured and executed by the French”.

Professors Dayo Gore, Jeanne Theoharris and Komozi Woodard have collaborated to publish Want to Start a Revolution? Radical Women in the Black Freedom Struggle (2009) where African-American women’s contribution to the Civil Rights, Black Power and feminist movements are at the centre. The women including Shirley Chisholm, Shirley Graham Du Bois, Vicki Garvin, Fannie Lou Hamer, Rosa Parks, Assata Shakur and Johnnie Tilmon are recognized for their activism, bravery and ground-breaking work that contributed to changing the lives of Americans.

There has been a growing movement to include women’s history in the curriculum in Ontario schools. The names of African-Canadian women including Marie-Joseph Angélique, Jean Augustine, Zanana Akande, Rosemary Brown, Lucy Blackburn, Chloe Cooley, Afua Cooper, Viola Desmond, Sherona Hall, Mary Ann Shadd and Carol Ann Wright are all part of that history and their names and contributions must be included to encourage our “future generations of women” to tap into their potential.


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