A discussion on what it's like to be a black woman in today's society
“Black women’s lives matter” is a statement seldom heard or thought about, explained the panelists of the Black Women’s Lives Matter event on March 9th as a part of International Women’s Week here in Antigonish.
The presentation featured art and discussion about the ways in which black women’s lives matter and the ways this concept has been ignored and overlooked. The participants had some great insights about the intersections of race and gender and the ways in which black women still must fight to be heard and respected in society.
The evening began with a dance presentation by Liliona Quarmyne entitled the “Women’s Walking Dance.” Her dancing touched on the themes surrounding the power and strength of women, motherhood and women’s connection to the earth. The audience was seated in a circle while Quarmyne danced in the centre, working to immerse the audience in the experience.
This high energy routine was accompanied by a host of eight voices that were played in a recording. The recording was created using the voices of local women in which they discussed what being a woman meant to them and how playing this role affects their everyday life. This part of the evening was incredibly powerful and beautiful – a wonderful way to begin the conversation.
The panel discussion that followed was hosted by Lorraine Reddick. She began by giving us a small insight into her life growing up in an all-black community and her experience going to a segregated elementary school, as well as making the transition to an integrated high school. She explained that black communities had inadequate educational opportunities and that even in her high school she learned nothing of her own history or the achievements of those of African descent in Canada.
The first panelist was El Jones, an artist and spoken word poet who works with incarcerated women in Nova Scotia. She discussed how Indigenous women and black women are overrepresented in prisons in Nova Scotia and throughout the country. In fact, black women are the fastest growing demographic of people who are likely to be imprisoned.
Black women in prison are often denied culturally appropriate products, seen as disruptive and are told to be quiet or settle down. This narrative of black women being angry and loud is perpetuated throughout the prison system and society in general.
Historically, women were very powerful and dominant in Africna societies. Once African peoples encountered Europeans through slavery, patriarchal mindsets were pushed upon these communities, which silenced African women and stigmatized them as angry when they attempted to make their voices heard.
Through this and other forms of deeply ingrained racism, the achievements and labours of black women have been continually ignored. Jones explains how everyone is so quick to celebrate Martin Luther King and his accomplishments while the contributions of the black women who carried the civil rights movements on their backs are totally ignored.
Jones also spoke of the patriarchy and rape culture that exists in black communities. The intersection of race and gender gets complicated when women want to stand up against the violence perpetrated by black men on black women, but they do not want to tarnish the reputation of black men. Often the experiences of black women are further silenced because they want to protect their black brothers from further subjugation and persecution by white supremacy.
The second panelist, Sylvia Parris, discussed the dynamics of black women’s lives within black communities and the larger Canadian context as well. She talked about community responsibility in teaching kids to be more polite, more quiet and more respectful, and particularly not to act out in front of authority or police officers.
She explains that teaching black children to be more passive when confronted with authority is a way to keep children safe. However, it bars children from standing up for themselves and their rights.
There is a common narrative that as a black woman you are part of a community before you are an individual. You represent the black community and must act accordingly. This is why the idea that “black women’s lives matter” is very powerful because the value of the lives of these individuals is seldom discussed in such a specific and decisive way.
The conversation that followed the panel centered around the silencing of black women’s struggles. One participant discussed how she always identifies herself as black first and a woman second. She touched on the private hardship that comes with belonging to both of these identity groups. In caring about the reputation of black communities, one does not speak freely of their individual and personal struggle.
The discussion turned to how to change the narrative and help each other heal. One way to do this is to draw attention to mental health, inclusivity, and ending stigmas.
I was very pleased and excited to witness these discussions. It opened my eyes to how the intersections of race and gender contribute to the struggle faced by black women today.
On a campus that is predominately white, I think it is tremendously important to have these conversations. It is necessary to understand the experiences of others and recognize that the systems of oppression that have shaped our country for years need to be questioned and dismantled.
My hope is that conversations surrounding the unique experiences of minorities continue to happen on this campus to create space for all to be empowered, for changes to be made, and for our students learn to our utmost capacity during our time here at StFX.