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HerStory Heritage of Strength

Over the last 400 years that folding chair has been worn out! As we celebrate Women’s History Month, it’s easy to see how far we have come but also disheartening to see how much we have to continue to take out our folding chairs. When we examine the history of Black women in the United States (if we look at the slave trade), we can see four themes that continue to intersect from 1619, when a slave ship arrived with 20 captive African men and women, to the present day. Those themes are our hair, our bodies, and medical treatment, involvement in social justice and civil rights, and a desire to achieve self-actualization. 
 
Our Hair

For Black women, our hair has garnered unwelcomed touches and questions its realness. How Black women and men wore their hair became a timestamp to the time in which one lived. Activist Angela Davis, who wore her afro with pride, became the symbol of the Civil Rights era with a touch of the Shaft coolness. Looking back at pre-colonialism, how hair was worn was indicative of one’s role in the community—royalty, soldier, mother-to-be, or hair worn with a yellow ribbon—in a style waiting for their men to come home from war. According to Lori Tharps of Temple University, a person knew who one was talking with based on how the hair was styled. 

However, once the TransAtlantic slave trade began, Black women, as well as men, demonized the essence of Black hairstyles and were forced to have their hair cut or shaved to create a disassociation of tribal affiliation or other means to dehumanize the spirit of the enslaved person. While on plantations, the hair of Black women became a symbol of contempt for the wives of white slave owners, believing it to be a sexual symbol for their husbands, thereby causing them to request that their heads be shaved. Over time, Black women found ways to communicate their beauty through styling their hair. Madam C.J. Walker, who struggled with hair loss, created hair products for Black women to help emulate European hair as a means to make Black women beautiful according to European standards. 

In more contemporary times, the hair of Black women is still up for discussion … Barbara Walters interviewed Diana Ross and asked: “Is that your hair?” In fact, how many Black women have been asked the same question? In 2021, Black women advocated for the CROWN Act to ensure protection against discrimination based on race-based hairstyles such as braids, locs, twists, and knots in the workplace and public schools.
 
Our Bodies and Medical Treatment

The bodies of Black women have been a centerpiece in what is thought to be beautiful. Sara Baartman—known as the Hottentot Venus—became an exploited circus act in the 1800s because of her ample hips and protruding buttocks. Yet today, we see how white women have appropriated an industry that promotes injections of substances into their bodies to emulate Black women.

The bodies of Black women have also been a point of discussion in how they are treated in the medical industry. There is a belief that Black women on plantations and laboratories are less than human and could tolerate pain better. In the 1800s in Montgomery, Alabama, three enslaved Black women—Anarcha, Betsy, and Lucy were experimented on by Dr. J. Marion Sims, who performed gynecological procedures on the women without anesthesia. Modern-day gynecology emerged due to these women being abused and tortured. 

Fast forward to 2021, the Centers for Disease Control said just a few years ago that the maternal mortality rate for Black women was 69.9 deaths per 100,000 live births or 2.6 times the rate for white women (26.6). Surviving childbirth doesn’t matter how rich you are. Tennis champion Serena Williams shared with Vox magazine in 2018 after giving birth that Black women are “often dismissed or ignored by medical care providers.” 
 
Our Involvement in Social Justice and Civil Rights
“Ain’t I a Woman?” became the rallying cry for Sojourner Truth during the 1851 Ohio Women’s Rights Convention, in which she proclaimed women should have equal rights. More than 100 years later, during the March on Washington in 1963, several Black women were pivotal in the event’s planning and organization: Dorothy Height, Corinne Smith, Geri Stark, Anna Arnold Hedgeman, and Daisy Bates. Other notable women at the 1963 March included Mahalia Jackson, Ruby Dee, Lena Horne, Rosa Parks, and Daisy Bates. Almost 200 years later, we are still fighting. This time, the torch has been passed to women such as Ciara Taylor, an educator, artist, and activist; Ashley Jackson, who champions for LGBTQAI rights; and Michelle Alexander who wrote “The New Jim Crow,” which provided a link between slavery and the industrial prison system.
 
Our Desire to Achieve Self-Actualization  
The history of Black Americans has often been viewed through the lens of Black men. Over time, Black women have broken barriers to claim their worth. However, no matter the challenges, Black women have shown and continue to show that the fight to survive and strive is still present and that there is beauty in Black womanhood. Black women have proven to be resourceful and phenomenal because of that desire to self-actualize – no matter the timeline!

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