As a Black feminist scholar, every February I find myself troubled by the ways that we simultaneously remember and forget women who look like me. Not that I’m satisfied with the memory of Black women every other month of the year but February–Black History Month–can be especially disappointing. I find myself wanting to rant to anyone within earshot, “Rosa Parks did more than sit on a bus!!!”
My urge to scream is rooted in our common cultural practice of remembering Parks only as a demure and delicate old seamstress who sparked the civil rights movement. The common assertion is that Parks’ moment in history began in December 1955 when she refused to give up her seat on a bus to a white man in Montgomery, Ala. But we must confront this assertion, because each time we confine her memory to that moment we erase part of her admirable character, strategic intellect and indomitable spirit.
To be clear, Rosa Parks left us a deliberate legacy of activism, not an accidental activist moment. Furthermore, she, like many other Black women, should not be remembered in the shadows of Dr. Reverend Martin Luther King Jr. or any other Black male civil rights activist, but rather right alongside of them. We must realize and teach that when Rosa Parks was helping lay the foundation for the civil rights movement, Dr. King was still in high school.
At the intersection of sexism and racism, it is not surprising that we remember Rosa Parks as demure and delicate, since the image of her sitting quietly with her hands folded politely in her lap is commonplace. However, if we get beyond our stereotypical expectations of who a Black woman can be, we bear witness to her steely grace and steadfast commitment to defending human dignity. She had been doing so for years before she ever got on that bus.
Rosa Parks was taught as a child to sleep with her clothes on in case she was awakened during the night to run from the Klan. Parks, as one of the first women to join the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), traveled throughout segregated Alabama to document racialized voter intimidation and brutality. It was Rosa Parks who interviewed Recy Taylor, a Black woman violently raped by six White men, and helped form the Alabama Committee for Equal Justice for Mrs. Recy Taylor. Parks was also a woman who vigorously supported the NAACP, Montgomery Improvement Association, Alabama Voter’s League and Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters, just to name a few of her key activist roots.
Then in 1955 at age 42, she, like the women who did so before her, refused to give up her seat because of the color of her skin. Soon after that historic moment, those who loved her pleaded with her not to become the central figure of the Montgomery bus boycott–but it was Rosa Parks who courageously did so anyway, for her sake and for ours.
Please remember her this month, and every month, for all of who she was on the day she refused to give up her seat and changed our lives: a bold, remarkable, fierce, benevolent and righteously indignant woman. And join me in revealing more hidden activist histories of Black women. We can begin with those whose names we know, but then we must seek out the names and herstories of those we don’t. If you accept my invitation, here are some good books in which to begin the enlightenment: Freedom’s Daughter: The Unsung Heroines of the Civil Rights Movement from 1830 to 1970; At the Dark End of the Street: Black Women, Rape, and Resistance-A New History of the Civil Rights Movement from Rosa Parks to the Rise of Black Power; and Hands on the Freedom Plow: Personal Accounts by Women in SNCC.