Happy Black Herstory Month!

ID: Images of three historical Black women: Cecile Fatiman, Harriet Tubman, and Ida B. Wells. Happy Black Herstory Month !
Cecile Fatiman, Harriet Tubman and Ida B. Wells (Wikimedia Commons)

Several Februaries ago, I stumbled across a Black History Month TV series highlighting famous Black people of history. To my dismay, the episodes almost exclusively profiled Black men. The one exception was Sally Hemings, whose claim to fame was being Thomas Jefferson’s “mistress.” The choice of Hemings alone seemed to imply that a Black woman can only make history as a white man’s lover. (And even then, I learned, such relationships can still be denied by some historians, despite DNA evidence).

Then, this January, my church gave out Black History 2012 calendars. Of 12 months depicting Black historical figures, only the month of May was a woman, the artist Edmonia Lewis.

And most recently, George Lucas’s new film Red Tails–which he had to self-finance because Hollywood studio executives saw no “market” for an all-Black film–managed to exclude the Black women in the lives of the Tuskegee Airmen, even though the fliers’ bomber jets bore the names of their wives. In fact, those wives fought their own battles to desegregate army posts while their husbands fought overseas. One of them, Mildred Carter, was an accomplished pilot in her own right who flew a plane alongside that of her husband while they were courting (now that would be a movie I would watch!).

Red Tails depicts Black men as if they exist in a vacuum, with no ties to the communities they left behind or those they confronted overseas. The problem with Black patriarchal history is that it is just as stubborn as white patriarchal history in focusing on male-dominated scenes of military might and power. To the victors go the spoils–and the narratives. What’s written out is the off-the-battlefield perspective, in which women and many others strongly influence the course of history.

This is no accident. Feminist historian Gerda Lerner once wrote, “To those in power, history has always mattered.”

In other words, patriarchs write History-with-a-capital-H, to create the illusion that unequal conditions have always existed, unchanging, and that oppression has always existed, unchallenged. That is the History that dominates not only textbooks but also movies, songs, art, literature, religious doctrines and media of all kinds–and through all that, individual psyches and the public consciousness. This History is writ large even within a supposed celebration of marginalized history.

The truth, however, is that there have always been those fighting against oppression–some successful, some not–many of whom have been women, particularly women of color. And none of these struggles had a certain outcome; history unfolds with the same murkiness and uncertainty that our lives do. There’s nothing dead about the past!

All of this is why I eagerly look forward to posting regularly during the short month of February on the subject of Black Herstory Month. The organizers of Black History Month have helped me out by declaring this year’s theme to be “Black Women in American Culture and History.” And in a leap year, no less!

Of course, a similar case could be made about Women’s History with a capital W and a capital H. I imagine I could logically expand Black “Her” Story Month to include March, Women’s History Month–and perhaps I shall. No longer can we pretend that “all the women are white, all the Blacks are men, but some of us are brave.”

To those in power, history has always mattered, and I would very much like to subvert that power–even just by committing to blogging a full series about amazing Black women in history, some of whom we’ve heard about, some of whom we’ve long forgotten, and almost all of whom deserve their own grand epic movie. Given Hollywood’s limitations, I hope that some of the creative writers, artists, scholars, and activists out there will begin to explore other venues, mediums and tools to keep these histories alive.

And no, I’m not aiming for that “inspirational” divorced-from-the-present-day approach that we often see in the usual Black History Month fetishizing of the past. I’m going to blog as if history from decades, centuries, even millennia ago could play out in the here and now of 2012. These spirits are churning, and they are still here.

I survive daily conditions that constantly threaten to undermine my sense of self as a Black woman, and I thrive with my spirit intact because I know where I come from and I know where I’m going. I walk the steady path ahead because I’m being led by ancestral spirits. I know other worlds are possible and other strategies of resistance are effective because those who came before me have pointed the way: the Harriet Tubmans, the Ida B. Wells, the Cecile Fatimans, the warrior women, the mothers, the homemakers, the laborers, the women (of all sexual orientations) who resisted marriage, the educators, the leaders and the artists.

If we ever lose sight of how our past can guide our present and future, as women, as people of color, as the colonized, as the marginalized, then we concede the power of history to others. The many histories without a capital H tell us we don’t have to do so–that indeed, we have always had the power to resist.

If history matters to those in power, then it goes without saying just how much more it matters to the rest of us. Happy Black Herstory month.

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Janell Hobson is professor of women's, gender and sexuality studies at the University at Albany. She is the author of When God Lost Her Tongue: Historical Consciousness and the Black Feminist Imagination. She is also the editor of Tubman 200: The Harriet Tubman Bicentennial Project.