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  • Dr. Sandra Y. Lewis

Say Her Name

I teach a course called, The Black Woman. Don’t be misled by the title. I’m under no illusion that there is a single, solitary being called the Black woman. Rather, I’m a Spelman graduate who was blessed to sit at the feet of

Toni Cade Bambara, author of the 1970 anthology of the same name, The Black Woman.

I was mentored and nurtured by her and many other women who believed in a Black woman’s story. Women who believed that a Black woman’s story could change the world.

Women who believed that a Black woman’s story could uplift humanity and carve justice out of a mountain of legalized brutality, objectification and inhumanity. And they dared to make it so. Asé (Yoruba affirmation roughly translated to mean, and so it is).

We start this course, The Black Woman, with a brief review of the 1960’s student activism that brought Black Studies to the academy. Then, we move into a discussion of ancient African perspectives on women. We explore ideas that many in today’s world call gender equity or feminism but it is my sincere hope that students come to see this was a way of living in classical and traditional African societies.

We read the works of people like premiere self-determined, abolitionist Maria Stewart and anti-lynching crusader Ida Wells-Barnett and Claudia Jones who challenged the Communist party to take on the cause of Black women domestic workers. We explore lyrics from Sweet Honey in the Rock, Mary J. Blige and India Arie.

We journey through Black women’s writings, speeches, and ideas from ancient times to current day. We make it our business to become fully satiated on the inimitable ways that Black women changed and shaped human and world history.

Inevitably, we gird our loins as I share pictures of Elmina Castle, an enslavement dungeon in Ghana. Students get a look at a courtyard outside the “Governor’s quarters” where young Black women were chained and grouped while the “Governor” chose the one he would “have” in his bed. They’re amazed that this happened just a few steps away from the “Confessional”.

The room goes silent when students watch Sara Baartman’s story. I hear a click when their consciousness registers that these “negative images of Black women don’t come from us”.

Their eyes widen when they hear how Fannie Lou Hamer endured one beating after another and challenged the Democratic Party so that all citizens could access the right to vote. I hear a click when they say, “oh, that was before Shirley Chisolm and Barack Obama”.

My students often ask me, "how can you teach this stuff without being angry?" My answer is that I want to honor those who gave so much so that we could live a better life and have a better world. Yes, these things anger me but my anger is a source of energy, a laser pointing me to an action plan and steps for a better world.

Sometimes, I am completely exhausted by brutality and injustice. I watched the video of Eric Casebolt, the police officer, in McKinney legally assaulting Dajerria Becton, a Black teenage girl in a bikini attending a pool party. I saw him waving his weapon at unarmed Black children. All the air went out of me. I was at once fuming and exhausted. I had no words. I mean, REALLY?!?!?!?

Dajerria called out for her Mama. I had images of women on auction blocks with their breast being lifted and pulled as they were hawked to the highest bidder.

Dajerria called out for her Mama. I heard children call for their Mama as they were sold to the highest bidder.

Sara Baartman, Anarcha, Eleanor Bumpurs, Fannie Lou Hamer, Claudette Colvin, Rosa Parks, Joan Little and a host of other women flashed across my mind. It was sickening.

I remembered Kim Mayhorn’s art installation on Black women who were lynched. I thought of #SayHerName, an effort to publicize police brutality against Black women.

I could hear the guidance as plain as day. “Tell a Black woman’s story. Change the world”.

You see, Truth + Order + Balance + Reciprocity = Justice too. It’s clear to me that those who would brutalize another do now understand Truth. Every human being has a purpose designed to uplift and benefit all beings. That’s Truth. If you understand Truth, Order, Balance, and Reciprocity, you would also act humanely toward others.

I realize that these inhumane scenarios will only change if we dig deeply, unearth and dismantle the ideas that maintain injustice. The course that I teach, The Black Woman, gave birth to a research group. Last year, the group developed a project to study racial microaggressions. Why? Because when we talk about research on Black women’s experiences with racism, many of the students have their own stories to tell.

Yes, today, right now, my students tell personal stories about racism, racial profiling, and police brutality.

And because social media is more like “social immediate”, you can’t avoid being assaulted by the brutalities. This is my students’ everyday life and mine and yours too. So, holding true to the role of those in the academy to create knowledge, we’re taking this journey into racial microaggressions.

I’m moved by this opportunity to nurture this generation of scholars who want to capture stories and use them to transform people, systems and the world. It’s telling a Black woman’s story that brought us to this place. It’s the mothers, sisters, aunties, girls and women whose spirits gave us focus and direction.

We build on the commitment, courage, and conviction that they inspire. Our work is undergirded by and growing on a foundation of unwavering alignment with divine purpose.

Say her name. Her story can save your life and change the world.

© Sandra Y. Lewis

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