Swing Low, White Women

Twitter/Corey Townsend

At the 2017 Women’s March in Madison, Wisconsin, I carried a sign that read “I AM A WOMAN’S RIGHTS. –Sojourner Truth, 1851” I was citing an account of a speech Truth gave at the first National Woman’s Rights Convention, as it was recorded in the Anti-Slavery Bugle, an essay I often teach in courses on nineteenth-century African American women’s writing. Given mainstream white feminism’s habitual marginalization of nonwhite women’s voices, I deliberately chose to carry the words of a woman of color and to gesture towards black women’s long history of contributing to U.S. feminist discourse. I’d written the letters out in block form, mimicking the iconic “I AM A MAN” signs of the 1968 Memphis Sanitation Worker’s Strike. The comparison reminded me not only of the history of civil rights protest in the U.S. between Truth’s moment and my own, but also of Truth’s challenge to gender stereotypes. In this speech and others, she referred to her own physical size and strength. Truth was six feet tall and spoke and sang with a deep voice; on at least one occasion of her public speech on women’s rights, she was heckled by the crowd and accused of being a man.

As I stood with my sign last year, a middle-aged white woman stopped marching, turned around, and approached me. She called out, smiling, “You know, what Sojourner Truth ACTUALLY said was ‘Ain’t I a Woman?’” She was referring to an alternate version of the speech I had quoted, published by Frances Gage in the New York paper The Independent and the National Anti-Slavery Standard over a decade later, in 1863. I’ve taught this version, as well. While there were many things I might have said to this stranger, I instead smiled and directed her to the correct citation. This white woman clearly thought that she knew more about Sojourner Truth than a black woman holding a sign quoting her did, and this fact was not lost on me. Whatever I might have to say, she was more interested in explaining than listening.

After this year’s march a picture has been shared repeatedly on Facebook and Twitter showing a statue of Harriet Tubman wearing a bright pink pussy hat. The statue is Alison Saar’s Harriet Tubman Memorial in Harlem, “Swing Low,” located at the intersection of Frederick Douglass Boulevard, West 122nd Street, and St. Nicholas Avenue, called the “Harriet Tubman Triangle.” As various people shared the image, the response from Black Twitter was a predictably hilarious clapback. While the most resounding message here was simply “No” (repeated in meme form) some people offered nuanced explanations of their complaints. Put simply, this merger of Tubman’s image with the (highlycritiqued) marker of a problematically exclusive movement reeks of appropriation rather than actual engagement. Not unlike the moment when I was whitesplained about Sojourner Truth.

An attempt to vest a nineteenth-century radical black woman with the accoutrement of twenty-first century mainstream white feminism misses the mark by evoking a false comparison. The statue of Tubman depicts her in the act of one of her several emancipatory journeys. In her dress we see embedded the faces of enslaved people she helped to free, at personal risk to herself. Behind her are the “roots of slavery” attempting to drag her back. Women’s March attendees generally occupy a place that is safe enough that they voluntarily bring their children with them. The vast majority of participants (myself included) are privileged in one or more ways, and extremely so by comparison. While not explicit, the image brings up the comparison of white women’s oppression to slavery – an argument resurrected from white liberalism’s antislavery past. Then and now, the too-easy comparison of Tubman’s struggle to that of free white women elides black women’s presence and activism.

The pink hat, then, is foisted upon the statue of Tubman in a kind of cutesy, ahistorical juxtaposition that seeks to obscure the many ways the Women’s March (and its accompanying brand of white feminism) have largely failed to acknowledge the lives of a broader community by adopting an intersectional feminism. On its face, the action stands as a grandiose and misplaced argument about what most participants were doing here. When one 2018 attendee claims in her sign, “If Hilary was president we would all be at brunch right now,” women of color know who the “we” here is and wonder how deliberate that “we” is in imagining that a white woman president would miraculously leave nothing left to protest. The shortcomings of the Women’s March vary by locale and in some places women of color were prominent. But elsewhere those shortcomings range from de-centering, omitting, and silencing women of color’s voices to the prioritization of biological sex and subsequent exclusion of transgender women to individual accounts of microaggression like the one I encountered last year. And they are utterly, utterly unsurprising to women of color in 2018.

This problem is not a new one, but it is one that must be overcome if a truly transformative and inclusive feminist movement is to defeat the very oppressions at which it takes aim. In 1867, the American Equal Rights Association, an organization that had advocated for voting rights for both African Americans and women, split over debates regarding the proposed Fifteenth Amendment. The split put the ugly racism of mainstream white feminism on full display. The Fifteenth Amendment, declaring that “The right of citizens of the United States to vote shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any State on account of race, color, or previous condition of servitude,” was ratified in February of 1870. In the years after, prominent black women such as Sojourner Truth, Charlotte Forten, Frances Ellen Watkins Harper, Lottie Rollin, and Mary Ann Shadd Cary (and many more) continued to fight for women’s suffrage, but the next century was dominated by a historical narrative of feminist history in which all the women were white.

When I teach college courses in early African American women’s writing, I ask my students which black women who lived before 1900 they can name. Almost every time, they can (collectively) come up with only two: Sojourner Truth and Harriet Tubman. Further, they know almost nothing about either of these people beyond their names. This is not my students’ failing, of course, but the failing of a larger educational system in which the wealth of black women’s knowledge is systematically devalued. I love teaching these courses because courses in African American literature of any period were not only entirely unavailable to me until I was well into graduate school, but I did not even know they were possible.

What would it look like for large populations of white women to know black women’s names? To know black women’s activist history, to learn from it, and to apply it to our current situation? Would this lead them to acknowledge black and brown voices and other intersectional perspectives that do not match their own in the present? Would understanding the past failures of white feminism drive them to take a different course – to listen to leaders otherwise minimalized in the radical margins? The queer-of-color feminism that marks the most hopeful avenues toward equity in the twenty-first century have their roots in the kinds of intersectionality in which women like Truth and Tubman and others participated long before the term was coined. What would it take for a majority of white feminists to listen?

–Brigitte Fielder is writing a book about how interracial kinship relations inform and revise white womanhood in nineteenth-century American literatures.