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We Are Not Your Superwomen: On Black Women Saving America From Itself

In the wake of Democrat Doug Jones’ stunning Senate win in Alabama last night, black women again demonstrated our ability to show up and rescue the country from gross moral turpitude. Exit returns show that over 98% of Alabama’s black women voters cast their votes for Jones, ushering him on to victory by the narrowest of margins. This is similar to black women’s overwhelming support for Hillary Clinton in the 2016 presidential election, although that election (due to the electoral college) had a very different outcome. The truth is that black women have a very long and storied history of trying to save America from itself.

While the Constitution still declared black people three-fifths human, Harriet Tubman delivered black people into freedom, and sometimes at the muzzle of a gun. When the earliest forms of American feminism centered itself around white women’s desire to vote, it was Sojourner Truth who famously said, “Ain’t I a woman?” and wondered aloud why the female suffrage movement depended on her voice, but would not fight for her vote. Though black men first won the franchise by virtue of the 15th Amendment, it wouldn’t be until the Voting Rights Act of 1965 that the right to vote would be extended to black women. Ida B. Wells and Anna Julia Cooper rest among the black women in history who did the intellectual, emotional, and physical labor for American feminism while only white women enjoyed its spoils in their lifetimes.

If you want to know what a mainstream moral opinion will be 50 or 100 years from now, ask a black woman today. Black women are always light years ahead of America’s present moral compass. Consider, for example, the popular “Me’ Too” movement, which puts the spotlight on sexual harassment and sexual assault. While white women like Alyssa Milano, Ashley Judd, and Gretchen Carlson have been credited as heroines of the movement, it was a black woman, Tarana Burke, who first created the hashtag to call awareness to the pervasiveness of sexual abuse in our culture. Yet, per usual, the first beneficiaries of the intellectual or cultural movement first ignited or championed by black women are not black women ourselves.

Even before Tarana Burke, there was Anita Hill, who famously faced the whitest, most powerful, most testosterone-laden institution in American history–the U.S. Senate–to give her account of the sexual harassment she endured at the hands of now Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas. One by one, Senators took turns ripping her reputation to shreds, while Joe Biden, who then chaired the Senate Judiciary Committee, simply let them. It’s important to note that Thomas went on to be seated on the Supreme Court (where he still sits today), Biden went on to become vice president of the United States (and enjoys broad support in the black and feminist communities today). Anita Hill, on the other hand, suffered numerous career setbacks and acts of persecution stemming from her 1991 testimony against Thomas. In the late 90s, political resentment about her Senate testimony forced her from her position at the University of Oklahoma’s College of Law. At the time, David L. Boren served as the University’s president. However, in 1991, he was a senator who sat on the Judiciary Committee and voted to confirm Clarence Thomas. Hill even received a harassing phone call from Thomas’ wife nearly 20 years after her testimony, demanding that she apologize for having testified against him. David Brock authored a book entitled “The Real Anita Hill” that painted Hill in a very critical light. Brock later recanted much of the negative information he had written about her, but the damage to Hill’s reputation had been done. Fastfoward 26 years later, every white  woman who lives to see her abuser held accountable in the “Me Too” movement owes Hill a debt of gratitude, because she said “me, too” before the cultural zeitgeist had shifted to believing women and holding powerful men accountable.

Anita Hill during 1991 Senate testimony

So why do black women repeatedly find ourselves ahead of the curve on cultural and political issues? Why do we continually lay the groundwork that others benefit from long before we do? Is it because we relish living up to the strong black woman trope? Do we enjoy setting tables that others will eat from before us? Of course not. As black women we often find ourselves at the intersection of multiple marginalized identities, so our efforts to reduce the burden of any aspect of our identity is an effort in self-care. If a storm is brewing, we build a shelter for ourselves, even if we are the last ones to enter it.

While America lags behind on issues of social and economic justice, black women continue to be ahead of our time waiting for the rest of the country to catch up to where we were a generation ago. However, let us remind policymakers that our support is not unconditional and automatic. Let us make demands on lawmakers that prioritize our needs. Now, in the wake of Doug Jones’ Democratic victory in a deep red state, black women hold important cards in terms of setting the Democratic Party’s policy agenda.

Though the rest of the country might think so, we are not superwomen. We cannot continue to do the heavy lifting of America’s moral consciousness without equitable recompense.  The empty applause and you go girls that Alabama black women are receiving for rescuing their state (and themselves) from Roy Moore aren’t the same as equitable treatment in terms of public policy. Black women in rural Alabama, for example, have higher food insecurity and higher infant mortality rates than their white counterparts. Their policy needs for better food accessibility and prenatal care are evident, yet continue to go unaddressed. Here’s hoping that Alabama’s black women, and black women in general, leverage our political capital to advance our interests going forward.