February is Black History Month in the United States. A time when we attempt to correct the omission of the contributions of people of color from historic narratives, 2021 marks the 95th anniversary of what began as Negro History Week in 1926. By 1976, it was officially recognized as Black History Month in 1976 by President Gerald R. Ford who called upon the public to “seize the opportunity to honor the too-often neglected accomplishments of Black Americans in every area of endeavor throughout our history.”[i]
Continuously edited out of history, women of colour, were set to be recognised in the 2020 centennial celebrations of the ratification of the Nineteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. While this amendment extended voting rights to white women, it would be another 45 years before women of colour were enfranchised, as before the Voting Rights Act was passed (in 1965), voter suppression and segregation effectively excluded them.
This milestone was to serve as a blueprint for the future of how historic narratives for women of colour are recorded. However, the unprecedented circumstances created by a global pandemic have curtailed many of the activities that would have allowed for these women to be elevated to their rightful place in history.
It has become increasingly evident that any progress in the advancement of recognizing and honoring the achievements of women of colour is still disproportionately affected by the setbacks that a fragile democracy and a global pandemic allow. So, here we are in the early months of 2021 confronting some of the same issues that confounded progress in recounting an accurate, comprehensive history for more than a century. Women of colour cannot continue to be edited out of history, not in 1920, not in 2020 and beyond.
To the credit of astute historians of women’s and African American history, the contributions of these remarkable women have begun to be moved from the footnotes of history to the mainstream narrative. Yet there is much work still to be done to address the exclusion of women of colour from our history.To that end, we must continue to acknowledge the significant historic contributions of Black women, we must say their names and lift up their stories whenever we can. Their stories enrich history in a way that cannot be ignored. Women such as Ida B. Wells-Barnett, Mary Church Terrell, Sojourner Truth, Dr. Mary McLeod Bethune, Nannie Helen Burroughs, Frances Ellen Watkins Harper, Delilah Beasley, Addie Waites Hunton, the Forten Sisters, Anna Julia Cooper, Hettie Tilghman, Dr. Dorothy Height, the Honorable Shirley Chisholm, Fannie Lou Hammer, Barbara Jordan, Rosa Parks, Mildred R. Madison, Barbara Blaine, Vice President Kamala Harris and the hundreds of other women whose names can be added to this list from your families, communities, and circle of friends.
When suffragists advocated for the right to vote for women in the United States of America, they thought full equality was at hand. They were wrong. Women of colour were not beneficiaries of this landmark legislation because the Nineteenth Amendment did not guarantee all women the right to vote and segregation and voter suppression initiatives in individual states prohibited the exercise of the franchise.
One year after the centennial celebrations and commemorations, an election that saw a record number of women elected to the U.S. Congress and the election of a woman of colour as Vice President of the United States, I am compelled to ask the question, what do we do when 100 years of resistance, resilience and renewal is not enough? Not enough to acknowledge the significant contributions of women of colour to the advancement of rights for all women? Not enough to achieve full equality for all? Not enough to have mainstream narratives of history incorporate the contributions of women of colour? Not enough?
Events of 2020 have caused each of us to reflect on the 100 years since 1920 and the challenges posed. Challenges like, beginning to tell the truth about history, beginning a reckoning with social and racial injustice, beginning to discuss the power of women in politics, beginning a new generation of activism and civic engagement. We are at a crossroads and the next 100 years is our time to acknowledge achievements, learn from missteps and build a brighter future.
In these first few weeks of 2021 we have a renewed sense of hope as we continue to navigate through this “new normal”. We must have a renewed commitment to honoring each other. I am a believer in the power of our story, but this conversation is bigger than just, one person, one day, and one moment in time.
So what do we do when 100 years is not enough? Black History Month is the perfect time to begin to commit to correct the egregious oversights of history and move forward.
Every time we tell the untold story of women of colour whose contributions have been ignored, every time we celebrate women’s political power, every time we elect a woman to office, every time we expose social and racial injustice and go about the business of eradicating it, every time we make a change for ourselves, our communities and our nation that is transformational and not just transactional, every time we vote, every time we make an intentional decision to make this world a better place, every time we make courage more contagious than fear, we accept the responsibility to ensure that history accurately reflects and honors the contributions of all.
That is what we are called to do for the next 100 years. Let’s do just that!
[i] (The American Presidency Project)
Carolyn Jefferson-Jenkins, Ph.D. is the author of The Untold Story of Women of Color in the League of Women Voters (Praeger, February, 2020). She served two terms as the fifteenth president of the League of Women Voters of the United States and chair of the League of Women Voters Education Fund (1998-2002). She is the first woman of color to have served as national president and the only in the organization’s first 100 years. Dr. Jefferson-Jenkins continues to be an advocate for civil rights, social justice, educational excellence and stronger citizen participation for underrepresented populations. She can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org