The power and legacy of African American historical contributions have expanded beyond their initial acceptance. The official recognition of Black History Month has become a staple in mainstream American discourse; — annually emphasizing important figures and critical events, while also honoring the often neglected historical strides and accomplishments of our people.
Historically, Black History Month mostly highlighted the accomplishments of male contributors such as Martin Luther King Jr, Frederick Douglass and Carter G. Woodson. However, Black women also played a variety of leadership and supporting roles in Black history, too.
Since 1976, every American president has endorsed a specific theme to commemorate Black History Month. In honor of this year’s theme: Black Resistance, one could think of no other movement that represented resistance against racial oppression quite like the Black Power Movement. And the Black women who helped cultivate it.
In the same movement highlighting the visions of Stokley Carmichael, Malcolm X and Fred Hampton, Black women also held active roles and harnessed self-determination to help inform the vital resistance of the Black Power Movement.
The Black Power Movement rose to prominent recognition in the 1960s, becoming a counterculture sector next to the Civil Rights movement. In its inception, the Black Power movement sought to eradicate the perceived failures in the civil rights movement by taking a more militant and aggressive approach against racial oppression.
Though experiencing racial and gender barriers while exercising their power, Black women unceasingly resisted sexist attitudes and racist forces in order to fulfill goals within the movement.
“I am no longer accepting the things I cannot change. I am changing the things I cannot accept.”
Angela Y. Davis is a notable political activist, author, and scholar, who emerged as the leader of the USA Communist Party and held close ties with the Black Panther Party (a subgroup within the Black Power movement) in the 1960s. Davis is widely known for her active roles in the Black Panther Party and her 1970 arrest and trial. However, Davis was also a major figure in other areas that brought awareness to racial oppression in America.
In later years, The Black Power movement began to utilize violent action as a response to white supremacy. Such actions by African Americans often led to imprisonment if not death. One of Davis’ acts of resistance in Black Power history is her involvement in the prison abolition movement. Davis famously referred to the US system as a “prison-industrial complex”, a term that would come to be used by activists and scholars to describe the relationship between governments and businesses benefiting from incarcerated institutions such as jails, prisons, and psychiatric hospitals.
Instead of simply supporting attempts to make prison conditions better for those disproportionately impacted, Davis resisted the role in the prison system that further oppressed African Americans. Davis also resisted the idea that women shouldn’t hold leadership roles in the Black Panther party, and took a leadership role with the Communist Party in 1967. And continued to advocate for prison abolishment during and post the Black Power era.
“Nobody in the world, nobody in history, has ever gotten their freedom by appealing to the moral sense of the people who were oppressing them.”
Assata Shakur (born Joanne Deborah Byron) is a political activist and member of the Black Liberation Army, an organization loosely inspired by Black Power ideology. Like Angela Davis, Assata also resisted the idea that women shouldn’t take leadership roles and would later transition her efforts into co-leading the Black Liberation Army.
The Black Liberation Army was formed in 1970, by Shakur and Eldridge Cleaver. As the Black Panther party began to decline in the ’70s, BLA gained strength; — continuing the mission of liberation by self-determination and open resistance. Assata held positions within the Black Power movement such as coordinating programs and clinics for mothers and children and organizing community outreach initiatives that addressed anti-capitalism and Black separatism in America.
Perhaps Shakur’s earliest acts of resistance were in her name. In 1971 after joining the Black Power movement, she would reject her birth name, Joanne Byron Byron, and begin using the name Assata Olubala Shakur. Assata is a West African name, Arabic derived to mean “she who struggles”, while Olugbala means savior in Yoruba, and Shakur means “thankful one.”
Shortly after, Shakur was reportedly involved in several cases of assault and bank robberies and subsequently became the subject of a nationwide manhunt in 1972. Shakur was arrested in 1973 after a shootout on the New Jersey Turnpike that led to her friend Zayd Shakur and a police officer being killed. Assata and the other police officer were wounded but survived. Between 1973 and 1977, Assata was indicted 10 times on several robberies, kidnapping, and attempted murder charges.
During her imprisonment, Assata faced widespread racism, sexism, and violence. In her autobiography, her lawyer, Lennox Hinds cites: “Shakur understates the awfulness of the condition in which she was incarcerated, which included vaginal and anal searches, and that no woman pretrial detainee or prisoner has ever been treated as she was.” Angela Davis also identified Shakur as a political prisoner and a victim of human rights abuse.
On November 2, 1979, Shakur escaped from prison in New Jersey and lived as a fugitive for years before settling in Cuba in 1984. Though Assata was granted political asylum in Cuba and is still wanted in the United States, she still advocates for the liberation of African Americans; — referring to herself as a 20th-century escaped slave.”
“What I think needs to be examined and explained more fully are the powerful contributions women have made to our resistance against slavery, our resistance against segregation, our resistance against racism.”
Kathleen Neal Cleaver (born Juette Kathleen Neal) is a political activist and law professor who’s widely known for her immense involvement in the Black Panther movement.
Cleaver joined the Black Panther party in 1967 after she met and married Eldridge Cleaver, who was one of the early leaders of the party. During her tenure, Cleaver was tasked as the lead Communications Secretary in which she worked on organizing protest demonstrations, creating pamphlets, holding press conferences, and speaking at rallies and events.
During this time, the Black Panther party was under heavy attack from the L.A. SWAT team and the F.B.I. while also trying to organize a national campaign to free one of the party’s founding members, Huey Newton, who had been charged with killing an Oakland policeman.
Cleaver began to feel helpless and emotionally scarred during this time as she witnessed her peers being murdered or imprisoned. Rather than accept her condition, Cleaver resisted; —creating a group for women within the Black Panther party where they discussed the impact of the party, restoring their health, and creating initiatives around recovering from injuries and traumatic experiences.
Such spaces allowed Cleaver and women alike to continue their mission in the Black Panther party by providing food and medical care to low-income households, supporting African American prisoners and their families, and ultimately creating a healing retreat for women in the Black Panther party who had been exiled.
“If a black woman assumed a role of leadership, she was said to be eroding black manhood, to be hindering the progress of the black race. She was an enemy of black people…I knew I would have to muster something mighty to manage the Black Panther Party.”
Elaine Brown is a political and prison activist, writer, and singer. Brown rose to major prominence as the first Black female leader of the Black Panther party.
In 1968, Brown joined the Black Panther party and was initially tasked with selling the party’s newspapers, cleaning weapons, and helping to organize programs such as the Free Busing to Prisons and the Free Legal Aid Program. In 1974, co-founder Huey Newton fled to Cuba to avoid criminal charges and appointed Brown to lead the Black Panther party. Though Brown faced her own share of barriers within the movement, she resisted the misogynistic attitudes that were angered about the idea of taking orders from a woman. Brown was the chairwoman from 1974 to 1977.
During her leadership tenure, Brown focused her efforts on community service and electoral politics. Brown helped managed campaigns for African American candidates such as Lionel Wilson during his run for Oakland’s first Black mayor. Brown also advocated for more education initiatives in the Black community. In 1973, Brown founded the Black Panther Liberation School, becoming one of the first institutions within the movement to be recognized by the state of Los Angeles.
Brown left the Black Panther party in 1977, but to this day, has remained committed to the struggle for liberation by addressing prison reform, police brutality, and voting rights.
The legacy of Black female contributions in Black history is unmatched. Black women undoubtedly helped paved the way during one of the most turbulent eras in Black history through dynamic leadership and unwavering support.
Though Black History has reached a level of prominence worthy of an annual celebration, there is a vital part of Black History that has been softened for American public consumption. It is those parts that represent our adamant refusal to concede to the superiority of white supremacy and oppression. The same parts to which oppressors attempt to enforce ignorance and white comfort.
However, Black history did not happen in comfort nor ignorance, — but in times of turbulence and resistance. From slave revolts to violent protests, to armed self-defense, Black resistance is in some measure, — the clearest demonstration of our history.
Therefore, Black history without Black resistance isn’t our history at all.
And our stories of resistance are a vital part of reframing our history. It is in fact resistance in itself to the status quo that is oppression. And wherever the oppression, resistance must reside there, too.
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