Maria Stewart (1803-1879)
One of the pioneering Black women to plead the case of the African-American community and denounce both racism and sexism has greatly been ignored by history. Maria W. Stewart was the first American woman, Black or white, to speak in front of a mixed crowd of men and women, but her legacy is rarely acknowledged.
As a deeply religious and purpose-driven woman, Stewart employed many aspects of the prophetic and African-American jeremiad used in the careers and rhetoric of several accomplished Black thinkers.
Although Stewart had a brief career as a public figure and only a few of her published works are available, an appreciation of her prophetic character and discourse can be obtained by reading Marilyn Richardson’s Maria W. Stewart: America’s First Black Woman Political Writer.
Stewart associated women with virtue and cited scripture to support her claims. This suggested women are an integral part of the liberation of Black people and enlightenment, and it was considered revolutionary thought during a time when women were only honored as mothers and wives.
Stewart’s claim was a direct challenge to patriarchy and hegemony and it’s important to note that her analysis preceded many known Black thinkers such as Frederick Douglass and Sojourner Truth.
Stewart challenged Black women to pursue economic independence and encouraged them to model Black women in Connecticut who had worked and saved money to build their own church.
These views identify Stewart as a transcendent defender and advocate of all human rights, not only racial but gender as well.
Amy Jacques Garvey (1895-1973)
Amy Jacques Garvey was the force behind Marcus Garvey and in a leader in the Pan-African/Black Nationalist Movement.
She was a journalist, feminist, and activist, who assumed several important roles within United Negro Improvement Association that was very active during the 1920s, but started to decline after 1949. Amy Jacques Garvey not only made a number of contributions to the UNIA, but to Black political thought in general. She believed that women’s special traits could be used as a “purifying effect on politics.”
Advocating that Blacks learn to protect themselves and acquire weapons, Amy calls to mind the “By any means necessary” philosophy of Malcolm X.
Words were Amy Jacques Garvey’s tools for inspiring people to action. She published several books, a number in service to her husband. After Marcus Garvey was arrested, she stepped up to steer the expansive and ever-growing UNIA.
Popular historical narratives tend to focus heavily on the male leaders of social movements, but in the case of Amy Jacques Garvey and Marcus Garvey, the legacy of UNIA was equally established by both of these radical and daring Black leaders.
Major events like the civil rights movement and women’s movement would not have been possible without the ideas and efforts of Black women. Yet, Black women are rarely acknowledged or praised for the many contributions they have made to these struggles for liberation.
In remembering these pioneering, fearless, and brilliant women, we honor their legacy and are reminded of the radical thought and courage required to create change and end white supremacy.
From this Sankofa moment, hopefully we will be inspired to be more critical of oppressive systems and more determined and purpose-driven in our everyday actions.
Ella Baker (1903-1986)
Ella Baker was a radical and an organizer, a behind-the-scenes force who propelled the civil rights movement. Although the most prominent figures at the NAACP were male, Baker was the main reason the organization proliferated and strengthened.
More interested in action than glory, Baker could always be found in the field empowering people to become leaders and speak truth to power.
She was associated with several organizations from the civil rights era and was influential in the launch of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee in April 1960.
An example of her transcendent views was her approach to leadership and power: She focused on providing everyday citizens with the tools and resources to campaign for issues that were important to them.
Nikki Giovanni (1943-)
Nikki Giovanni is one of the most praised and accomplished poets of her generation. Her body of work tells us what it was like for a strong-willed, militaristic Black nationalist female to come of age during a ’60s revolutionary movement that didn’t make much room for women.
In poems such as “For Saundra,” “Poem for Black Boys,” “Reflections on April 4, 1968,” and “Seduction,” Giovanni proudly pledges allegiance to the Black power movement.
Other poems depicted the hardships and challenges Black women face because of their racial and gender status, and were attempts by Giovanni to situate them as revolutionaries in a movement that regularly overlooked and downplayed their contributions.
Never afraid to speak her mind, Nikki called out her male peers on several occasions for their patriarchal tendencies and lack of empathy for the Black female experience. Giovanni’s work was an important catalyst for Black women to become actively involved in revolutionary action.
She made important contributions to Black literature and America, simply being herself.
Angela Davis (1944-)
Angela Davis is the embodiment of radical Black female thought, having been heavily involved with the Communist Party from 1969 -1991, and associated with the Black Panther Party during the 1960s.
She is a scholar, activist, author, and two-time Communist Party vice presidential nominee who does not just talk the talk, she walks the walk.
During the civil rights movement, she was involved with many organizations that were fighting for Black liberation. The movement was dominated by charismatic male leaders, but Davis stood up for Black women’s rights and called for an end to oppressive state control in America.
In her book, Woman, Race, and Class she analyzes events that have shaped Black women’s experiences in America and uses them to illustrate how multiple oppressive forces impacted the women’s life choices.
This work provides one of the earliest critical examinations to the women’s suffrage movement and feminism, calling out both for their racism and exploitation of the Black community to further their own agenda.
The white power structure has attempted to bring Davis down on several occasions, such as charging her in connection with the 1970 Marian County Courthouse kidnapping and shootings, which led to her name being added to the FBI Ten Most Wanted Fugitive List. Angela was eventually arrested for the alleged shooting and held in prison for several months, but later found not guilty of all charges.
Despite these attempts to damage her character and reputation, she is still fighting to bring an end to the prison-industrial complex system.
Patricia Hill Collins (1948-)
Patricia Hill Collins is a sociologist who has had quite an illustrious career in academia. She is best known for her work “Black Feminist Thought: Knowledge, Consciousness and the Politics of Empowerment,” in which she details how race, class, gender, sexuality and nation intersect to have compounding effects on people with several marginalized identities.
Working from an intersectionality approach, Collins has produced a number of books and essays that illuminate how the intersection of multiple oppressed identities shapes a person’s life chances and experiences.
In addition to her many written works Collins has been a strong Black feminist voice, speaking out against the pervasiveness of inequality in our education system. As a result of her work more attention has been given to the multiple systems of oppression that constrict marginalized persons and how these sustain white supremacy.
bell hooks (1952-)
bell hooks is a venerable force leading the Black feminist struggle against racism, sexism, capitalism, patriarchy and imperialism.
As a writer, scholar, feminist and social critic, she has used her platform and prestige to unrelentlessly speak out against white supremacy. Over the course of her career, hooks has written a number of books exploring the systems of oppression that perpetuate racial inequality and offer transgressive solutions to end these issues.
In Ain’t I A Woman, a work that is a classic in the feminist and Black liberation canon, bell hooks chronicles Black women’s history in America from slavery to the 1970s.
This work is regarded as a necessary read for anyone interested in Black women’s issues, as it provides a brilliant historical account of the women’s experiences during enslavement and demonstrates the true intentions of white women involved in the abolition, suffrage, and feminist movements.
bell hooks has played a defining role in the intellectual development of young Black feminists, activists, and academics as they come to terms with their identity and attempt to construct radical approaches to dismantling white supremacy.
She has been ranked as one of the most influential thinkers by Publishers Weekly and The Atlantic Monthly and she makes every effort to be accessible to the public by stepping outside the confines of academia and lecturing in public venues.
Recently, hooks joined political commentator Melissa Harris-Perry in conversation at The New School, where hooks is currently a scholar-in-residence.
Presnted by Sister Kenneshea Allums. She recently graduated with an MA from the Institute for Research in African-American Studies at Columbia University. Sister Allums provides critical commentary on issues impacting black women at blackwomenunchecked.com.