may black suffragist voices be silenced no more
April 30, 2019
Next year, it’ll be 100 years since the 19th Amendment was signed into law. On August 18th, 1920, the United States Constitution gave “women” the right to vote by prohibiting the denial of a citizen’s vote on the basis of sex — a feat achieved by a suffragette movement also filled with women who would only be allowed to vote in 1956 because voting was still prohibited on the basis of race. Black women marched, canvassed and mobilized alongside white suffragists, led by the likes of Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony, who, according to Pulitzer Prize-recipient Brent Staples, “seized control of the feminist narrative of the 1920s,” in his New York Times piece.
The seizure of suffrage led to the age-old tradition of the systemic erasure of the Black presence in the suffragette movement. My first encounter with the notion of American suffrage was a Powerpuff Girls episode where a blonde, latex-clad villain stole Susan B. Anthony coins in the name of “girl power.” I cannot tell you how angry I was when I learned (much) later that suffrage also looked like me; that women like Sojourner Truth asked, “And ain’t I a woman?” in 1851, 52 years before the formation of the suffragette movement.
Black suffragists were told to leave their Blackness at home when attending to matters of the movement because white suffragists — much like white feminists — viewed the enfranchisement of the (white) women’s vote as a means of securing white women the power of white men while Black women wanted to secure the vote for all Black people. The tune is pretty much the same, even today so while mainstream feminism erects statues to white supremacy’s princesses, we want to know if they’ll remember to include the likes of Sojourner Truth, Ida B. Wells-Barnett and many other forgotten Black women of suffrage.
Next year, I want to be inundated with stories, facts and essays dedicated to figures such as journalist, suffragist and anti-lynching crusader Ida B. Wells-Barnett, who co-founded and wrote for paper Free Speech, a Black newspaper that was outspoken about the tyranny of early white terrorism. She assisted in the establishment of the NAACP and founded the Alpha Suffrage Club (ASC), the largest Black women’s suffrage club in the state of Illinois. In her travels, Wells-Barnett found that Black women weren’t aware of the mechanisms of government and voting so the ASC became a hub of Black female political literacy and empowerment.
When 5000 women marched on Washington one century ago, Ida refused to march at the back of the parade with a Black procession. She marched with 21 other founders of Delta Sigma Theta Sorority despite the back-of-the-bus request, making the Delta’s the only African American organization to march. These are the stories of suffrage that should be woven into pop culture, regurgitated in one form or another to remind the masses of the true diversity of suffrage. The narrative needs to expand to include the contributions of educator and activist Fannie Barrier Williams and the works of Baltimore poet, fiction writer, and abolitionist Frances Ellen Watkins Harper.
Mary Church Terell was a racial equality and suffrage activist that also happened to be the daughter of former slaves and one of the first Black women to attend college. Maria W. Stewart was a slave turned teacher, journalist, lecturer, abolitionist and women’s rights activist who was thought to be the first American women to give public lectures. These women and many others preceded and elevated the suffrage movement and they all deserve their own coins. In fact, next year, they deserve their flowers.
The legacy of suffrage is a multi-racial, multi-cultural affair when you peel away the stark white paint. Black women feature significantly in the movement and our appreciation should match the vigor of their contributions because untainted Feminism is defined by those eclipsed by the privileged. That is the discussion Black women have been waiting a century to have and next year, it’s going down.
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