In solidarity with the traditional means in which America conceptualizes women, as a non-male white, the western world implemented “A Day Without Women.” This holiday asks women to take a day off from quotidian activities to illustrate the void that exists in their absence.
This demonstration requires a professional and economic privilege consistent solely with women of the majority and those of the one-percent. Thus, this holiday in its pseudo attempt at inclusivity illustrates the exclusivity of the woman concept. In their absence, women of the majority and the one-percent produce a day without female contribution. This contribution may come in the form of leadership or creative presence, or a loving and supportive female presence. Those compartmentalized by the western world as women make a contribution to the Western world that fuels feminism or the right to enjoy western privilege in the same manner as white men. For the marginalized female, the label “woman” proves mutually exclusive to her status as other. Her status as other prompts her coerced sacrifice to help build doorways she often never lives to walk through.
I was in my mid-twenties when I first heard of Henrietta Lacks. This acquaintance with Henrietta Lacks did not come from a science classroom or lab that housed her cells, but through a Special Topics course in a small, private liberal arts college. Lacks —poor, young, beautiful and black— was a loved mother, wife, cousin, friend and woman of a small southern community. She died of cervical cancer at age of thirty-one. After her untimely death, doctors tossed aside her lifeless limbs and scraped her vagina and cervix to obtain the cancerous cells that killed her. The cells would go on to enhance and save the lives of many, years after her death.
Lacks holds hands with the abducted African bodies who lived and died before her who were involuntary science specimens, poked, prodded and left for dead by a world made greater by their sacrifice.
Although technically a woman, Lacks’ blackness validated western erasure of her feminine modesty. Lacks died in 1951, a decade where white women were fiercely protected as white male property that warranted death if tampered with. The woman fourteen-year-old Emmitt Till would allegedly whistle at, would yield the torture and mutilation of a child—in which no one would endure legal consequence. In this same time, Lacks’ female genitals are violated without consent or contemplation. This is identical to the female slaves who were sexually violated by slave masters along with countless other white men on the plantation, while white women were covered from head to toe and praised for their chastity and piety. These patterns illustrate black female bodies as historical mistreated and omitted from the protection, privilege, and praise afforded to white women.
Similarly, in the late 1980s, neighbors discovered fifteen-year-old Tawana Brawley in a garbage bag covered in feces. She is later found to have a swollen hymen and several sexually transmitted diseases, yet the white media depicted Brawley as the assailant in her own case. No one is brought to justice and Brawley continues to pay a six-figure settlement to one of the men who raped her. In this same decade, central park jogger Trisha Meili does not name a victim, yet five black men are charged and tried.
In the nineties, the world watches the rise of the video vixen in which black women become sexual props, much like their ancestors did on the plantation. More recent times betray a similar disregard for black female bodies. In 2014, a white male police officer kneels on young professional- Sandra Bland’s back for failing to signal. Hours later she is found dead. In 2015 another white male cop does the same to a bikini clad Texas teen in the middle of a residential neighborhood. Months later a young black high school student is also flipped from her chair and handcuffed by a police officer who dodged racist labeling because “his girlfriend is black.”
These patterns function to dispel any claims suggesting that black female devaluement is an isolated issue. Alternatively, black female devaluement reflects issues isolated by America– a country who solely seeks to villainize its most consistent victim. As scholar and cultural critic bell hooks says in Ain’t I A Woman,
“A devaluement of black womanhood occurred as a result of the sexual exploitation of black women during slavery that has not altered in the course of hundreds of years” (hooks 53).
Slavery offset black female omission from the “woman” concept, an ideology, although veiled by staged pictures of inclusion, remains enforced by contemporary American culture.
Moreover, “A Day Without Women,” asks participants to ponder female absence with the implication that there will not be a tomorrow without them, or that tomorrow will yield an appreciation absent from yesterday. Henrietta Lacks’ family did not have a tomorrow. Similarly, the families of the black female slaves rendered science donations were also without tomorrows. Contemporary slain black youth, Sandra Bland and Reneisha McBride are also without tomorrows. For the black woman tomorrow has always been limited to today, where are “contributions” are sacrifices that not only take our time but often take our lives. Furthermore, tomorrow is a privilege not extended to those most deserving of today’s praise.
In closing, I ask black females who identify as women to distinguish between women who contribute and females who sacrifice for the advancement of the western world.
If you stand at the intersections of blackness and femininity, your ancestors gave to this world by means of sacrifice. Thus, to truly garner the totality of black female presence on western soil is to endure a life without invisible and involuntary black female immolation.
With that said, the whispers of womanism, on behalf of the black collective, recognizes black female sacrifice for women history’s month. From Harriet, to Saartje, to Henrietta, to Fanny Lou Hamer, To Assata, To Francis Cress Wesling, to Tawana, to Sandra, we thank you.