This is the final op-ed in a series of five op-eds by Nani Jansen Reventlow published by the Dutch newspaper de Volkskrant in October 2023. Read the original Dutch version here.
October is ending and with it the celebration of Black History Month – a month dedicated to commemorating and celebrating Black people’s contribution to history and contemporary society. This year’s theme is “saluting our sisters”, and while one column could never be enough to recognise the contribution of Black women – anyone who identifies as a woman – to justice worldwide, I cannot help but dedicate this last piece to my sisters.
Black women across time and space have been at the forefront of resisting injustice: leading revolutions and peaceful movements, pioneering scientific discovery, redefining feminist thought, giving us the language to challenge institutional oppression, and with it, the possibility to (re)imagine alternatives. I call them “creators of new worlds”. Worlds in which we are not systemically harmed, but where each of us can thrive. Worlds that if we truly dared to bring to life, could address injustice everywhere.
Celebrating the role of Black women in the racial justice movement, and the fight for social, economic, and environmental justice more broadly, cannot be reduced to a month or a theme. Black women deserve so much more attention across the board, every day, because we owe them so much.
Commemorative days love lists as a way of paying tribute, and I could easily create one here to note the many Black women we should honour in the Netherlands. Women who were at the forefront in critical race theory, helped put intersectionality on the map, and led anticolonial resistance.
But no matter how many lists we make, they could never do justice to all the women who merit a shoutout. This is not just a matter of making the list longer. Lists tend to focus on the idealisation of role models, reinforcing the “charismatic leader” trope. We often look at change and resistance through a lens of hero worship: the idea that an infallible (often male) figure leads the way to the change we had all been waiting for. Think of Dr Martin Luther King, Malcolm X, and Fred Hampton. It is an attractive vision, and one that the press, the entertainment industry, and social media are more than happy to serve us, further weakening our ability to engage with complex issues such as change and resistance in anything other than a piecemeal way.
But these stories never tell the full truth. Change is made by different, sometimes seemingly small efforts, by many people. The work of Ella Baker, who helped build some of the most important organisations of the US civil rights movement, highlights a very different kind of leadership than the one in our collective memory. “You didn’t see me on television, you didn’t see news stories about me. The kind of role that I tried to play was to pick up pieces or put together pieces out of which I hoped organization might come,” said Baker. “My theory is, strong people don’t need strong leaders.”
We must also remember that not all work done for a better world is of grand proportions. And not everyone opts into their activism: the notion of pursuing a “career” in any kind of activism – human rights, climate, labour rights – is a sign of extreme privilege of choice that most people doing on-the-ground organising and resisting never had. The majority of activists pushing for change are not celebrity activists. Their resistance is born out of necessity, not a career choice. I am thinking of Black mothers who became activists because their child died of air pollution; women whose family members were killed by police; and whose homes were being threatened. While we’re unlikely to see glamorous photos of them in the media, rubbing elbows with celebrity heroes, their resistance helps create a world that is better for all of us.
Not all resistance has to be world-changing, though. In a world that is engineered to erase us, where Black mothers face disproportionate mortality rates, where Black women are discriminated against in the workplace, and where the statue of a young Black girl causes an onslaught of public frenzy on our national identity, surviving in and of itself can be heroic. Sometimes, the act of existing, against all odds, can become a radical act.
Audre Lord wrote in her famous poem “A Litany for Survival”:
“For all of us this instant and this triumph
We were never meant to survive.”
So here is to all the Black women who are there for us, in and out of the spotlight, and to those who just are.