As a fierce advocate for social justice, Rosa Parks labored on behalf of black women raped by white men long before she stood up to white supremacy by defiantly sitting down on a segregated bus 60 years ago.
A righteous trifecta of courage, conviction and outrage fueled her activism just as it motivated black female activists before her and just as it continues to prompt so many brave, outspoken black women today.
Yet Parks’ anger at racism is seldom acknowledged when we look back on her civil rights legacy. Until recently, the myth that she was simply too tired to give up her seat had all but eclipsed her militancy and decades-long history of social justice organizing.
For Parks, the fires had burned since before the 1940s when she fought to get justice for black women such as Getrude Perkins, who was raped by two white policemen in 1949.
Parks’ efforts and those of the Women’s Political Council were not entirely in vain because the officers did go before an all-white grand jury, but in the end the charges were dismissed. It was an all too familiar outcome.
Embittered and silently stewing during that fateful day on the bus, Parks was indeed tired — tired of “giving in,” she later said. Black women such as Parks were also infuriated by the unending violation of black womanhood and the unchecked violence visited on black women, men and children.
But today, the conviction, fury and raw courage that underscore black women’s determination have been muted under a national fairytale about how institutional change really happens.
What’s worse is that rather than being recognized for its utility, black women’s rage, in general, has been criticized. Often, black women are ridiculed for being surly or hostile or even, heaven forbid, angry.
But that is precisely what black women should be — angry and outraged.
Angry and outraged about a host of issues because black women live at the nexus of such painfully fraught terrain — race, gender and sexuality, but also how those factors impede access to the full rights of citizenship.
Black women’s unemployment has climbed to 8.9 percent nationwide while it has declined to 5.5 percent for the general population. One in 4 black women lives in poverty in the U.S. compared with 1 in 7 white women nationwide. One in 18 black women can expect to be imprisoned in her lifetime while it’s 1 in 111 for white women. African American women are also disproportionately victimized by violent crime.
Black women and girls had also been the lesser-acknowledged victims of deadly police brutality, but campaigns such as #SayHerName and the shocking death of Sandra Bland brought the murders more into the spotlight.
Even so, the current trial of Daniel Holtzclaw, a former Oklahoma City police officer accused of the rape and sexual assault of 12 black women and one black girl, before an all-white jury finds history poised to repeat itself.
Across the country black women are beyond tired of being brutalized, oppressed and ignored. And if history and Rosa Parks’ legacy tell us anything, it’s that black women’s outrage is critical because when we get fed up and angry, we get organized, and when that happens, we mobilize the entire black community.
That’s what happened 60 years ago. And that’s what needs to continue to happen today.
Recent protests, largely spearheaded by black women, have forcefully changed the national discourse on race, policing and criminal justice. Black women’s righteous indignation and subsequent activism have compelled presidential candidates to acknowledge that black lives do indeed matter.
Increasingly, that mantra is expanding to represent all black lives including those of queer and transgender black folk — though admittedly not fast enough. Still, more and more black women are fighting inequity in ways that contest their invisibility within the black community and within national discourses.
These efforts mark the ways that modern-day civil rights activism is coalescing into an embodied, intersectional approach to social justice, and despite the stigma, black women’s outrage has been a potent deliberative agent for that change.
Kali Nicole Gross is an associate professor of African and African Diaspora Studies at The University of Texas at Austin.
A version of this op-ed appeared in the Houston Chronicle.
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— Texas Perspectives (@TexPerspectives) December 1, 2015