Angela Davis and Nikki Giovanni Set Example of “Radical Honesty” for Black Women

“Throughout time, Black women have been sowing seeds of survival, wellness and self-care into their daughters.

“During the transatlantic slave trade, these tactics and skills were passed down, carried on, and gave us not only a will to live, but the means by which to do so.

“Now in 2020, more than ever, we need to remember the ancient wisdom and daily rituals of our foremothers, who prepared us for a time such as this.

“And so today, we call their names—our mamas and their mamas and their mamas before them. Women who were never meant to survive, but blazed through anyway.”

On Friday, May 8, Black women tuned into Facebook Live for a #DaughtersOf conversation with activist Angela Davis and poet Nikki Giovanni.

The series is hosted by GirlTrek, an organization on a mission to “pioneer a health movement for African American women and girls grounded in civil rights history and principles.” (This conversation in particular was so anticipated that the New York Times gave it a promotional shout out under their “virtual social weekend” section.)

From the start, audience members knew this conversation was going to be real—but I doubt they were prepared for just how real. This first installment of the #DaughtersOf program included an inspiring video featuring Black mothers and women “sowing seeds of survival.” The images of Black women taking on domestic, artistic and spiritual tasks—highlighting Toni Morrison, Shirley Chisholm, and Kathleen Cleaver—set a powerful tone.

Co-founders of GirlTrek, Vanessa Garrison and T. Morgan Dixon led the conversations into a variety of important topics to Black women—ranging from hair care and the difficulties of cooking biscuits, to protesting incarceration in San Quentin, Black beauty standards, iconic trailblazers and veganism.

I’d like to draw specific attention to the mental and physical health issues both Davis and Giovanni unearthed—most specifically both women’s vulnerability in sharing these issues.

When Giovanni was asked how she was doing in quarantine, she shared that her left lung was removed five years ago due to lung cancer and that recently she’d had a surgery. Then last year, after her doctor found a suspicious lump, Giovanni elected to remove her right breast.

Feisty Giovanni joked, “I’m glad it was the right breast, because if it had been the left I would’ve been lopsided.”

Despite her resilient humor, this is a significant admission if we look at American Cancer Society’s statistics: Black women have a slightly lower rate of developing cancer than white women—11.5 percent Black to 13.2 percent white—but have a higher incidence of dying from it: one in 32 for Black women, versus one in 39 for white women.

Beyond statistics, as a Black woman, I know few of us speak about how this silent killer ravages us—making Giovanni’s admission of her private battle with cancer all the more inspiring.


Here at Ms., our team is continuing to report through this global health crisis—doing what we can to keep you informed and up-to-date on some of the most underreported issues of this pandemic. We ask that you consider supporting our work to bring you substantive, unique reporting—we can’t do it without you. Support our independent reporting and truth-telling for as little as $5 per month.


I myself have battled fibroids, the difficult non-cancerous growths which affect the uterus. For some time, I had difficulty addressing my health issues with friends or family. After a year of struggling over whether to operate or not, I began timidly asking other Black women for advice.

Surprisingly, many of my close friends had either had fibroids, had them surgically removed, or directly knew someone who had. Sadly, it isn’t surprising then that Black women are two to three times more likely to develop fibroids at a younger age.

With these statistics looming, transparency among Black women is both crucial and comforting. If I had heard a conversation like this years ago, maybe my own health issues wouldn’t have been so daunting.

Girltrek continued exploring health issues. Early on in the exchange between Dixon and Davis, Dixon asked her how she practiced “radical self-care,” (a term coined by Audre Lorde) while she was in jail for her 1970 arrest.

Davis—who never considered herself to be “particularly brave”—said her prison stay “was a pretty frightening experience,” since she knew there was the possibility she could be sentenced to the death penalty. However, during her arrest, many people nationally and internationally rallied and protested for her release, and emotions of gratitude eventually overwhelmed her sense of fear.

While this is not a specific mental health issue, it speaks volumes that Davis was willing to deconstruct herself as the infamous “strong Black woman” and admit how fearful she was. For decades, Black women have been socially constructed as “superwomen,” and publicly refusing that stereotype is rare and radical—especially by someone as visible and accomplished as Davis. 

The four ladies shifted seamlessly between serious topics like lung cancer and mental and emotional stability, to more academic topics. This embraces the idea of feminism completely: Black women are not a monolith. We are complex, multi-faceted individuals who view feminism in different ways.

Dixon says that she has never called herself a feminist; she pointedly asked Davis why Black women should call themselves feminists, because the label of “’revolutionary’ seems more apt when people are trying to kill us.” Davis answered saying years ago her response was the same, but she failed to “recognize that Black women, women of color and poor women have developed a long tradition of feminism—which is increasingly becoming the feminism we all recognize.”

Examining the aforementioned health issues, while enjoying the communal feel and down-homey-ness that the four ladies provided, made me feel seen as a Black woman. How often do Black women get a conversation that is as honest and revealing as this one?

Rather than answer this question, I’d rather end on an uplifting note: When Nikki Giovanni was asked to close out the conversation with some poetic words, she chose to quote an African American spiritual:

“Walk together children; don’t cha get weary.”

The #DaughtersOf conversations continue on Facebook Live every Friday on GirlTrek: Healthy Black Women and Girls‘s Facebook page.


The coronavirus pandemic and the response by federal, state and local authorities is fast-movingDuring this time, Ms. is keeping a focus on aspects of the crisis—especially as it impacts women and their families—often not reported by mainstream media. If you found this article helpful, please consider supporting our independent reporting and truth-telling for as little as $5 per month.

About

Poet and journalist Celeste Doaks is the author of Cornrows and Cornfields, and editor of the poetry anthology Not Without Our Laughter. Her chapbook, American Herstory, was the first-place winner in Backbone Press’s 2018 chapbook contest and contains poems about Michelle Obama. She is the Visiting Assistant Professor in Creative Writing at University of Delaware. Find her at www.doaksgirl.com or on Twitter and IG @thedoaksgirl.