On Monday, January 16th, the students of Phillips Andover had the privilege of attending a lecture in celebration of Martin Luther King Jr. Upon entering the chapel, where the lecture was being held, the general atmosphere seemed to be lifeless and cold. Settling in, some students assumed an impatient demeanor as if they had already heard this exact lecture before. Nevertheless, we were ardently showered with songs and heartfelt piano to introduce Melissa Harris-Perry, an award-winning author, Wake Forest University professor, and most importantly an awe-inspiring and proud black woman who was to be the speaker of the day. In her speech, she expressed her frustration about how black women are ignored in history and defined what an activist of any modern-day movement needs to embody.
To begin, Melissa Harris-Perry delivered an important claim that “our current race stories are heroic, individual, and focused on men.” She proceeded to explain how Dr. King, as part of the Civil Rights movement, was a disruption in the mainstream American narrative. However, the memorial in Washington proves that his legacy has now been appropriated into that very same narrative. “I do hate that design,” she said with a direct and tender tone. She emphasized the fact that Dr. King did not come out of a rock, as the monument shows. “The most pivotal thing Dr. King did was march and you couldn’t even see his feet.” This, however, is how we teach history, and it reinforces the great heroic tale used to describe many influential leaders.
The truth is that Dr. King came out of a movement, as well as a community. The empty space the monument suggests should be filled with the hundreds of other people who fought alongside him. “The idea that he is standing alone in the space filled with nothingness, arms crossed, and undynamic is bizarre and ahistorical,” said Harris-Perry. A movement, she seemed to say, is not made by one man, but rather by the masses that support it.
Harris-Perry then questioned how black woman get treated both in history and in the media. “We regularly tell the historical narratives of violence against black boys,” she said, going on to say that while acknowledging these horrific events are important, it is also essential to understand issues through all facets of a community, especially from the female perspective. The black woman, historically, is not only criminalized for her skin, but for her gender identity. She is dismissed as “too aggressive” and “unintelligent.” She is finely examined as an “exotic being” hyper-sexualized in media, yet she is told she isn’t pretty enough. But, as Harris-Perry points out, she embodies a strength and fierceness that can only be attributed to black women and that continues to go unrecognized in history.
One of the examples Harris-Perry provided was Rosa Parks. In recounting the events of the civil rights movement, many articles, even in the history books we read in school, include the phrase, “Rosa was old and tired…” However, the Montgomery bus boycott was not incited by a lack of sleep or general weakness. Rosa, in fact, was anything but fragile in the face of racism. Her actions, as Harris-Perry pointed out, were calculated. As a prominent member of her local NAACP chapter, Rosa contemplated the future of the revolution daily. There she read about Claudette Colvin, a female civil rights pioneer. Colvin was only fifteen years old when she refused to give up her seat for the comfort of white men. Her story spread across Montgomery, and it was with this story in mind that Parks, faced with the same racist request, decided to give the NAACP their second Supreme Court case, one that garnered national attention and brought about a verdict that determined bus segregation to be unconstitutional.
Using this story Harris-Perry reveals the sexist view enforced upon black female activists of the time. Their work is seen as less important than that of their male counterparts. What many fail to recognize is that Rosa should be celebrated not because she was at the right place at the right time, but rather because she was an experienced activist who knew the gravity of her resistance and had an organized team behind her to rally the masses. Rosa even went on to say, “I was not tired physically, or no more tired than I usually was at the end of a working day…. No, the only tired I was, was tired of giving in.”
We must realize that the civil rights movement did not begin when the mainstream media and whitewashed textbooks finally acknowledged the black community’s struggle. Activists like Rosa Parks were fighting for years against white supremacy and segregation before anyone took notice, highlighting the idea of the appropriated American narrative of the civil rights movement. In exposing the real stories of this historical movement, Harris-Perry’s speech offered a new role model for all ages. She said that modern activists need to harness the strength that black women embody. In addition to this assertion we, the authors, hope that white students understand that this does not mean that anyone can culturally appropriate the black community, or act like they live their struggle. However, society can acknowledge that a community is struggling and therefore take action to uplift voices without having to experience the same hardships. As we understand her message, Harris-Perry wants us to be as resilient as black women, to be as brave, outspoken, and unmovable as they have been and will continue to be.