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Women have been a powerful (and largely underappreciated) force in the movement for Black equality in the United States. The Black Power Movement is no exception to that trend. Today, we'll learn about how women contributed to several organizations, including the Black Panthers. We'll also explore how the Black Arts Movement served as a way for women to empower Black People through creative output.

Clint's book, How the Word is Passed is available now! https://bookshop.org/books/how-the-word-is-passed-a-reckoning-with-the-history-of-slavery-across-america/9780316492935

VIDEO SOURCES
● Cheryl Clarke, “After Mecca”: Women Poets and the Black Arts Movement (New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 2004).
● Ashley D. Farmer, Remaking Black Power: How Black Women Transformed an Era (Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina Press, 2018).
● Peniel E. Joseph ed., The Black Power Movement: Rethinking the Civil Rights-Black Power Era (New York: Routledge, 2006).
Robyn C. Spencer, The Revolution has Come: Black Power, Gender, and the Black Panther Party in Oakland (Durham: Duke University Press, 2016).
https://atlantablackstar.com/2015/03/26/8-black-panther-party-programs-that-were-more-empowering-than-federal-government-programs/
https://spartacus-educational.com/USACnewtonF.htm


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Hi, I'm Clint Smith and this is Crash Course Black American History!

One theme we've seen throughout this series is that women were, and are, some of the most important people in the movement for equality. There is a long lineage of Black women freedom fighters that extend from slavery, through reconstruction, through Jim Crow, through the civil rights movement.

Folks like Harriet Tubman, Mary Church Terrell, Ida B. Wells, Rosa Parks, Claudette Colvin, Zora Neale Hurston, Fannie Lou Hamer, Ella Baker, Daisy Bates the list goes on and on. But that work didn't end with the Civil Rights Movement.

Black women continued to lead this fight even when they weren't at the center of attention. The Black Power movement is usually characterized by what men did, but today we're going to specifically highlight the roles that Black women played in that space and how their work helped to bring us to where we are today. Let's start the show!

(Intro Music)

Listen, the role of women in activism is imperative to acknowledge. It’s not just some "inclusivity" thing we do just because we think we're supposed to do it. We bring it up because it reflects what /actually/ happened. Black women were at the forefront of community organizing and Black thought, both before and after the Civil Rights Movement.

The women of the Black Power movement, brought to light the significance of what we call "intersectionality," which is a way of saying that women experience the world differently than men do because of misogyny and gender discrimination, and then if you multiply that by the consequences of being a Black woman, then you often find that the world treats you even worse. And intersectionality also applies to all different parts of identity including sexual orientation, nationality, and socioeconomic status.

The Black Power movement was a global activist movement that involved three essential pillars: Black community control, Black self-determination, and Black self-defense.

Black Power has historically been characterized as being anti-white. But that's not really the case. The Black Power movement was an outgrowth of Black nationalist thought that privileged self-determination and pride, but was not inherently racist in its scope. It recognized the role of white supremacy in everyday society, and essentially encouraged Black people to create spaces for themselves in a society that was constantly excluding them from its services, resources, and institutions. Inspired by folks like Malcolm X, the Black Power movement encouraged Black people to stop worrying about inclusion and start creating spaces for themselves.

The idea of Black Power was not a new phenomenon, but it did become more popular during the 1960's. Its popularization stemmed from the decolonization of the African continent, disillusionment with the shortcomings of the Civil Rights Movement, and a recognition of the decades-long trauma of Jim Crow. Many Black Americans were struggling to find social and economic stability after generations of state-sanctioned segregation.

While many believe that the Civil Rights Movement did /formally/ end Jim Crow, one of the major critiques of the movement and its legislative victories, like the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the Voting Rights Act of 1965, and the Fair Housing Act of 1968, was that it did not adequately address issues of poverty, housing inequality, unemployment, over-policing, and a lack of educational resources. And these are all things that disproportionately impacted Black communities.

And while the Black Power movement was a political phenomenon, it was also a cultural one. It provided a space for Black Americans looking for validation of their culture, affirmation of their dignity, acknowledgement of their beauty and intelligence, and a collective assertion of pride in a world that often devalued them.

Many organizations within the Black Power movement have been framed as male-dominated and sexist. And in many ways, this is true. These organizations weren’t perfect by any means. Sexism did manifest itself, both structurally and interpersonally, and it should be acknowledged and taken seriously.

At the same time, it's also true that women were present, vocal, and influential in the ranks of all of these organizations, just as they were during the Civil Rights Movement and are in today's Black Lives Matter movement. Again, both can be true, and it's always important for us to sit with that complexity, not run away from it.

Many women joined these organizations in order to push the men to be more thoughtful and equitable with regard to sex and gender. And the organizations were better for it. The women members were the ones who pushed the groups in the direction of a more radical interpretation of what it means work towards full liberation, for /all/ Black people, not just Black men.

So let's talk about the role of Black women in one of these organizations, the Black Panther Party, here in the Thought Bubble.

The Black Panther Party, originally known as the Black Panther Party for Self-Defense, was founded by Huey Newton and Bobby Seale in October 1966 in Oakland, California. The first female member was J. Tarika Lewis. She was a 16-year-old high school student when she joined the party in 1967. She participated in their political education classes, attended rallies, and was an artist for their newspaper. She played an integral role in shaping how the Black Panther Party was publicly viewed, as well as how they viewed themselves.

As the party grew, more women joined. Some of the most notable women were Kathleen Cleaver, Ericka Huggins, and Elaine Brown.

Kathleen Cleaver was a former member of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, commonly known as SNCC [pronounced /snɪk/]. Cleaver was the communications secretary and the first female member of the Black Panther's main decision-making body. Ericka Huggins had multiple leadership roles - becoming a leader in the Los Angeles chapter and founding the chapter in New Haven, Connecticut.

Elaine Brown was appointed the new leader of the entire Black Panther Party in 1974, after Huey Newton fled prosecution to Cuba. Even though she faced quite a bit of sexism during her tenure, she led the party for three years and also established the Black Panther Party's Liberation School. Thanks Thought Bubble.

Needless to say, women were a huge part of the Black Panther Party and the Black Power Movement more broadly. And that wasn't all of them. There was Charlotte Hill O'Neal, a musician, poet, and artist who was a major figure in the International Section of the Black Panther Party. There was Assata Shakur who led the Black Panther Party in Harlem. She was later charged with killing a police officer in 1973 and fled to Cuba where she maintains her innocence. And of course, there's Angela Davis, who remains incredibly influential through her speaking and writing, and as a mentor for young activists today.

Women ultimately composed two-thirds of Black Panther Party membership across 40 chapters. And their influence within the organization continued to grow. Many of the head editors of the Black Panther Party's newspaper were women. And many of these women pushed the Panthers to include childcare centers for each local chapter.

Black women weren't only involved in political organizations tied to the Black Power Movement, but also artistic and cultural ones. In these spaces, Black women writers and artists used Black Power ideologies to help express themselves. Through music, literature, and theater Black women told stories of their lived experiences and outlined how they shaped their political philosophies. Much of this was done through the Black Arts Movement.

The Black Arts Movement lasted from 1965 until about 1975. It was founded by the writer Leroi Jones, who was later known as Amiri Baraka. He also founded the Black Arts Repertory Theater/School.

Many of the women who produced art during this period were known as cultural naturalists. Cultural naturalists used culture – through poetry, novels, visual arts, and theater – to affirm community, promote Black consciousness and to achieve liberation. If you read any poetry during your high school literature courses, you may have heard of some of these poets.

For example, Maya Angelou's work grew out of the Black Arts Movement. Her most famous work, "I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings," is an autobiography of her childhood which addresses themes of Black girlhood, femininity, racism, and trauma.

There was also the play entitled, "For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide / When the Rainbow Is Enuf" by Ntozake Shange, who was influenced by the Black Arts Movement as well.

Poet and writer Sonia Sanchez was another major contributor to the movement. Two of her most important collections of poetry were "Homecoming" and "We a BaddDDD People." Her work focused on the highs and lows in the lives of everyday Black women.

Audre Lorde was another important contributor to this movement. She wrote many books during this period, including "The First Cities," "Cable to Rage," and "From a Land Where Other People Live." Her books address many topics: her Blackness, her identity as a woman, her identity as a lesbian, and motherhood.

Nikki Giovanni is one of the most famous poets to come out of this period. Dubbed "The Poet of the Black Revolution," some of the most important works she contributed to the movement were the poetry collections "Black Feeling," "Black Talk," "Black Judgment," and "Re: Creation." I feel lucky to have been able to talk to Ms. Giovanni about her work and how so much of the work she did makes the work that I do possible.

All of these women paved the way for even more exploration of Black liberation and the nuance of Black women's experiences in literature. Much of the work produced by women in the Black Arts Movement focused on power and agency through the feminist lens to tell the story of Black women in America.

Even though the 1960s and 70s can sometimes be thought of as an era in which women were rarely more than secretaries, typists, assistants, and homemakers, the women of the Black Power Movement redefined and rejected that notion. These women shaped the trajectory of the fight for inequality not just in the Black power movement, but in the feminist and gay rights movements as well. And not only did they lead across these movements, but they forced them to become even more radical, by decentering the experiences of just men to create space for the experiences of women and LGBTQ communities.

But again, this was not new and it would not be the last time. Black women have been at the forefront of social movements throughout American history and there is no doubt that they will continue to be. Thanks for watching! I'll see you next time.

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