The gifts her ancestors gave

The Women’s March and black erasure

“One marcher from Chicago, Cheryl Thomas-Porter, summed up the communitarian, participatory, and engaged nature of the march in an interview with CNN: ‘This march is us. We made this march. … The march is the contribution of every single woman of African descent.’” Above: marchers gathered on the Benjamin Franklin Parkway on October 25, 1997, for the Million Woman March in Philadelphia.

Feminista Jones opened her speech at the January 21, 2017, Philadelphia Women’s March by reminding the crowd that the erasure of black women’s voices by white feminism is antithetical to feminism itself: “I am a black feminist, and they need to have at least one of them in this space, cause y’all don’t have feminism without us.” Jones — a Philadelphia-based activist, social worker, and writer whose work revolves around poverty alleviation, the fight against hunger, sex positivity, and mental health advocacy — had been early to point out that the Philadelphia march organizing team was made up almost exclusively of white women from the suburbs, tweeting on January 6, “YOU CANNOT HAVE A WOMENS MARCH IN PHILADELPHIA AND NOT HAVE A SINGLE BLACK WOMAN ON THE ORGANIZING TEAM.” Jones’s tweet referred to the historical precedent set by the Million Woman March in Philadelphia in October 1997, an organizing effort that brought thousands of black women to Philadelphia to fight for their autonomy — an effort, she noted on Twitter, that has been “all but erased from history.”

References to the Million Woman March are absent, for instance, from two major histories of the feminist movement: Ruth Rosen’s The World Split Open: How the Modern Women’s Movement Changed America (2000, revised in 2006) and Estelle Freedman’s No Turning Back: The History of Feminism and the Future of Women (2003). A handful of academic texts on feminist organizing and race include details on the march, but the march is seldom cited in writing by feminists who do not explicitly study black history. The press, which made little of the march in 1997 despite its high attendance — median crowd estimates numbered over a million — certainly forgot the name “Million Woman March” until it was co-opted by white Facebook organizers who initially called the 2017 event “Million Women March.” It was only after criticism by black feminists such as Brittany T. Oliver, director of Not Without Black Women, and Phile Chionesu, an organizer of the 1997 march, that the 2017 march was renamed the Women’s March on Washington, in an homage to Martin Luther King Jr.’s 1963 march for racial equality. Vanessa Wruble describes selecting the new name in a passage in Together We Rise: Behind the Scenes at the Protest Heard Around the World, a commemorative book compiled in January 2018 by march organizers, Condé Nast, and Glamour magazine editor-in-chief  Cindi Leive:

There was an uproar about what some people were calling the march at first. They had called it the Million Woman March — being ignorant of the 1997 Million Woman March in Philadelphia, which had focused on uniting and empowering women of color in America. That was one reason why the march was immediately a lightning rod for race dynamics. What we were hearing was basically, “Black women, you should not march with these white women, and this is why.” And then it was like, oops, a bunch of ignorant white women have reappropriated this name that black women used in the past. It was a huge controversy. I reached out to the march group and said, “The name needs to be changed ASAP.” Of course, it was not done out of anything but lack of awareness. And I said, “Let’s call it the Women’s March on Washington.” Basically, as an homage to the 1963 March on Washington we all think of when we hear the phrase.[1]

What Wruble characterizes as naïve oversight somehow becomes an homage to King’s legacy; the Million Woman March is not mentioned further in Together We Rise, whether as part of the legacy of the Civil Rights movement or as a precedent of any kind (the Women’s March website likewise describes the January 2017 march as “grounded in the nonviolent ideology of the Civil Rights movement”). Wruble’s language is typical of the dismissive nature so common in white feminist acts of erasure: an appropriation is characterized as a minor mistake (“oops”), something “of course … not done out of anything but lack of awareness.”

That “lack of awareness” did not go unnoticed, however, by Phile Chionesu, who had already announced there would be a twentieth-anniversary Million Woman March event in Philadelphia in October 2017. The Women’s March appropriation of the 1997 name threatened to divert attention from the October event and confuse attendees. The hasty renaming and reorganization of the national Women’s March leadership were particularly frustrating to activists given the thoughtful, yearlong organizing by Chionesu and her Million Woman March cofounder, Asia Coney, in 1997.

Chionesu, a local business owner, and Coney, a housing activist, planned the original Million Woman March after reflecting on the 1995 Million Man March in Washington, DC, which Louis Farrakhan organized as a show of unity among African American men. Chionesu and Coney invited black women from across the US to join them in Philadelphia to call for independent black schools, solidarity with black women in prison, support for black youth centers, the fight for fair housing, and an indictment of CIA-sponsored cocaine trafficking into black communities and the race-based war on drugs. Although some of their efforts were inspired by the Million Man March, Chionesu and Coney made significant revisions to the 1995 model, shifting the focus of protest from personal repentance by black families for black suffering to a critique of systems of structural oppression. According to sociologist Belinda Robnett, the Million Man March focused not on society at large, but the home:

The Million Man March … caused an enormous amount of controversy among African Americans, not only because it was initiated by Louis Farrakhan, the controversial, anti-Semitic leader of the Nation of Islam, but also because women were asked not to attend. Instead, they were to remain at home, pray, and teach their children family values.[2]

In addition to beseeching women to stay home, the Million Man March called on black men as individuals to atone to their families and take personal responsibility for the suffering of black communities. This patriarchal, traditionalist mode of community action did not transfer to the Million Woman March. While the Million Woman March mission statement did include rhetoric around “regain[ing] the proper direction of our family structure,” organizers emphasized empowered matriarchal lineages — a popular slogan for the march was “Great Grandmother taught Grandmother, Grandmother taught Mother, Mother taught Me, I will teach YOU.” The onus of repairing the community was not, however, on these lineages, but on the institutions that had failed black women; the Million Woman March organizers did not resort to what Samuel Farber calls “‘blaming the victim’ political style,”[3] but “placed the emphasis on the failure of society[,] such as the prison system, the poor education system and the CIA.”[4]

The 1997 Million Woman March thus eschewed local and national patriarchal groups that would divert focus from the people central to the ethos of the march; Chionesu and Coney deliberately refused to rely on existing civil rights organizations to draw crowds, determined to create a space exclusively for black women. Without the networks that existing civil rights organizations would have guaranteed, their approach was by necessity and design grassroots, conducted outside traditional organizing structures. As Robnett notes, Chionesu and Coney’s march inaugurated a radically grassroots model for African American organizing:

[Chionesu and Coney] shook up the status quo by ignoring conventional methods of march organization. They did not work through the traditional high-profile groups, the NAACP, Southern Christian Leadership Conference, the Nation of Islam, or labor unions. This was, in fact, the first large-scale African American mobilization not organized through male-dominated, national organizations.[5]

As was reported in thePhiladelphia Tribune, these organizing tactics drew some amount of ire: “local Black officials endorsed the march, but complained that the organizers divided the community by excluding prominent names from the program … neither the NAACP nor any leading Black official from city government was invited to speak.” Instead, Chionesu and Coney invited cultural leaders who were lower-profile but who were more specifically invested in empowering black women: speakers included Sistah Soulja, Jada Pinkett Smith, Malcom X’s daughters Attallah and Ilyasah Shabazz, Winnie Madikizela-Mandela, and Dorothy Height. Assata Shakur sent a message of solidarity from her exile in Cuba. Congresswoman Maxine Waters delivered a speech condemning the CIA’s role in the crack trade and emphasizing that “black women had no need to atone but instead should use their power to counter negative public policy.”[6] Waters’s invocation of the power of black women likely resonated given the massive crowds in attendance: though city officials favored a conservative estimate of 500,000 attendees,  organizers estimated that there were up to 2.1 million marchers in Philadelphia that day.[7]

The high attendance and organizational success of the 1997 march were significant not only because the march took place without going through the male-dominated channels Robnett cites above, but also because organizing efforts were ignored by media outlets in the months preceding the march. Anna Everett, whose book Digital Diaspora: A Race for Cyberspace analyzes black engagement in early internet communications, remarks that organizers attempted to spread word of the march through “‘conventional’ promotional protocols” such as press conferences, but were met with “deliberate avoidance of the newsworthiness of the Million Woman March, until it was well underway.”[8] This avoidance necessitated an innovative communitarian information exchange between black women through informal networks. Everett writes that computer-savvy black women in the early internet age printed and Xeroxed information from the Million Woman March website in order to spread word of the march to black women without access to computers: “By making virtual computers available to black women who ‘weren’t online yet,’ march supporters with access to actual Internet technology, either through their jobs or in-home Internet service providers (ISPs) effectively transformed low-tech, sixties-era mimeograph activism into high-tech, new-millennial digital news and information flows.”[9] Everett places the use of workplace computer access to expand solidarity efforts within a larger history of “poor people’s strategies of resistance”;[10] in other words, the Million Woman March’s organizing practices were centered around the working class.

The people-centric organizing of the Million Woman March was meaningfully felt by its attendees. One marcher from Chicago, Cheryl Thomas-Porter, summed up the communitarian, participatory, and engaged nature of the march in an interview with CNN: “This march is us. We made this march. … The march is the contribution of every single woman of African descent.” Thomas-Porter, like other satellite organizers for the march, traveled to Philadelphia with the knowledge that black women across the nation built the Million Woman March; that their labor was centered and central to the movement; and that the march was specifically for them. For a demographic of women excluded from both mainstream feminist and mainstream black activist discourse, this march was something they could take full ownership of. In 2017, who the Women’s March was for — and who would feel enfranchised by it — was a question that could not be so clearly answered.

I didn’t want to go to the Women’s March in Philly. The majority-white organizing team promised to replicate the problems faced by the Washington march: lack of clear and actionable goals against white supremacist heteropatriarchy, a reductionist idea of women in terms of “pink” and “pussy,” the erasure of sex worker advocacy from official platforms, and an overall feeling that the march was destined to be a parade of cis, white, straight women with the least to lose, among us, under the new administration. Learning about the erasure of the historical labor of black women from Feminista Jones’s Twitter feed was, for a while, reason enough for me and my peers — many of whom had been participating in radical local actions — not to go. I ended up marching because a friend told me the Philadelphia Women’s Center contingent would be marching expressly for abortion access, and because the inclusion of activists like Jones at the last minute comforted me about my complicity. Marching with the Women’s Center seemed like an entry point for me to radicalize from within the march, to try to subvert an event that considered the demographic reality of Philadelphia — a majority black and brown city — only as an afterthought. I was one of many younger cis white women who considered themselves to be doing the very same thing. Carrying a protest sign that read “fuck your white supremacist heteropatriarchy” in an effort to make my systemic qualms as specific as possible, I was eager to learn more about the Women’s Center and the Women’s Medical Fund, the latter of which would boycott the one-year anniversary march in 2018 for its increased police presence. When an older white woman looked at the word “fuck” on my sign, scowled, and said “you know there are children here,” I felt a sense of pride that I had offended white feminism at the year’s largest white feminist event. I imagined she was one of the “former armchair revolutionaries”[11] the national Women’s March team was so fond of touting, and wondered if she saw that our contingent included the children of Women’s Center staffers — children who probably knew what abortion was and posed for photos with their middle fingers up. That same woman later marched up next to me and complimented the moon phases patch on my jacket. When the marching ended, it didn’t take long for me to tire of the atmosphere of the march; it felt disingenuous, corny, weirdly celebratory and, after a while, a little futile. What were we accomplishing, parading through the streets with the permission of the city and its police? This is what an event that, like its DC counterpart, was “promoted as a ‘march’ or a ‘rally,’ but emphatically not a ‘protest’”[12] — an event that was conceived and run “kind of like a viral start-up”[13] — was designed to do: bolster spirits, “make history” in some ambiguous way, comfort white women who felt guilty that 53 percent of them had elected Trump to office. Subvert little and overlook the more radical precedents of Philly activism; forget the black women who in 1997 originated “the whole idea of women marching in solidarity.”[14] I left early and missed Jones’s speech.

Listening to Jones’s speech in the weeks that followed the march made me feel better about attending — the speech did important remedial work. Jones punctuated her Women’s March speech by invoking the words of her predecessors: Harriet Tubman, Ida B. Wells, Marsha P. Johnson, Sojourner Truth, Angela Davis, Betty Shabazz. After indicting the white feminism that contributed to Trump’s election (and the Women’s March itself), Jones presented the powerful words of black feminists before her as a reminder that her fight was not new. Repeating the words of black visionaries in such succession allowed Jones to drive home the histories that white feminism refuses or forgets to hear, highlighting the sheer multitude of contributions to feminism and resistance that black women have made since the inception of the US. In a march organized in erasure, Jones made sure black women’s words and work were present.

A month before the Philly march, I saw Camara Brown do the same work of poetic-political repetition in her performance of the poem “Still.” In speech contortions reminiscent of Tracie Morris’s “Afrika,” Brown builds from Maya Angelou’s line “I am the dream and the hope of the slave,” from “Still I Rise”:

I am the hope & dream of a slave
slave a of dream & hope the am I
am the hope & dream of a slave
a of dream & hope the am I am
the hope & dream of a slave a of
dream & hope the am I slave a
of dream & hope the I am the hope

The poem is one that demands to be heard aloud; when I saw it performed it was part of a spoken word performance. In a show that called for audience participation — snaps, claps, stomps, murmured agreements — Brown’s poem left the room dead silent. For me, the silence was indicative of the power of Brown’s performance: as “hope” gave way to “rope” to “rape,” “dream” to “scream” and both, finally, to the whispered “am I hope? am I dream?,” Brown’s changes in volume, grit, and fevered speed reflected the trauma of the black experience in the US. Articulate and inarticulate, Brown became pure rage, bitterness, exhaustion: hope and dream. As Morris reflects the fracturing of language and culture implicit in African diaspora through stuttered rewording, Brown breaks Angelou’s language down to the burden, the triumph, the complexity of being the hope and dream of the slave.

In the wake of the women’s march, “Still” becomes so much more revelatory than any thinkpiece a white woman has written about her fellow white women and their mistakes and complicity. Where white women repeat their history of self-flagellation, white guilt, without reparation or real solidarity, Brown repeats a more compelling history: the black (poetic) writer as a guide for direct action. Through “Still,” she expresses the unreasonable expectations that black women are held to in a white narrative: she becomes “a slave a salve” through generations of linguistic mutation. That black women should be the salve to white feminism’s problems; that Brown’s speaker is the “dream of a woman,” an ancestor lumped, as Jones’s Tubman, Truth, Wells, were lumped, in the white imagination as feminist devoid of the context of blackness, as if all women share the same experience, as if each descendent of slaves does not carry with them the trauma of a country founded on white supremacy. By repeating Angelou’s words until the audience truly hears them — every connotation they can carry — Brown refuses a white narrative, crafting a message distinctly black, distinctly womanist. No one can misread Angelou’s words in their reincarnation in “Still,” nor co-opt them for white revisions of feminism. This might serve as a useful model for organizing, a more helpful cue for white women than empty calls to “listen to black women” — what would it look like to create a space, as in Brown’s work, where white narrative histories of feminism and civil rights are confronted, disassembled, dismantled to the point where they practically disappear? Until there is no possible way of misreading or erasing the contribution of black women to “the dream of a woman” in feminism? I think back to the “alternative media options” that Million Woman March participants used as a “refusal of racialized invisibility,”[15] and how poetry such as Brown’s might function as an alternative media option, how it might instruct white women to hear.

Brown inherits what Angelou writes; Angelou looks, too, to “the gifts that [her] ancestors gave.” Jones, at the Women’s March, reminds white cis straight women before calling on her black feminist predecessors: “we have given you the blueprint and watched you instead build your castles in sand.” In reading the Women’s March, its successes and failings in Philly, I think about the inheritance of “Still” and how a more conscious look to the Million Woman March might have created a different march, more reflective of Philly’s history, its black feminist history, not as an afterthought but a foundation. As Assata Shakur’s words were read at the Million Woman March, so were they read at the Women’s March: Jones is emphatic in her repetition of Shakur’s call to action, “It is our duty to fight for our freedom.” What Jones omits under time constraints is the remainder of Shakur’s chant: “It is our duty to fight for our freedom. / It is our duty to win. / We must love and support each other. / We have nothing to lose but our chains.” Shakur’s chains recall Brown’s “rope,” which emerges from Angelou’s slave, but through repetition and revisitation falls by the wayside, until it is no longer present at all, a liberatory vision to cling to.

1. The Women’s March Organizers and Condé Nast, Together We Rise: Behind the Scenes at the Protest Heard Around the World (New York: Dey Street, 2018), 37. A series of interviews on the discussion surrounding the appropriation of the 1997 march name appears in Together We Rise as a ten-page section titled “What’s in a Name? Everything.” The subtitle for the section is composed largely in passive voice, and does not name individual organizers or critics, describing the debate this way: “The Women’s March faced one of its earliest challenges when a wave of online criticism about the appropriation of the name ‘Million Woman March’ threatened to put an end to the participation of African American women” (35). Wruble, who is white, takes credit for the new name in the passage quoted above, but the section in Together We Rise explains that newly recruited black organizer Tamika Mallory reached out to Bernice King, daughter of Martin Luther King Jr., for permission to use the name to avoid further controversy.

2. Belinda Robnett, “Political Mobilization: African American Gendered Repertoires,” in The US Women’s Movement in Global Perspective, ed. Lee Ann Banaszak (Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, Inc., 2006), 127.

3. Samuel Farber, “Social Decay and Class in African-American Struggle: The Black Panthers Reconsidered,” Against the Current XI, no. 4 (September/October 1996), 22. Qtd. in Horace Campbell, “The Million Woman March,” Agenda: Empowering Women for Gender Equity, no. 35 (1997): 87.

4. Campbell, 87.

5. Robnett, 128.

6. Robnett, 128.

7. See “Million Woman March Fills Philadelphia Streets,” October 25, 1997. Disparities between crowd estimates by the press and the organizers/attendees are also discussed by Anna Everett in, Digital Diaspora: A Race for Cyberspace (Albany: State University of New York Press, 2009), 72.

8. Everett, Digital Diaspora,72, 52.

9. Everett, 58.

10. Everett, 58.

11. Together We Rise, 16.

12. Emily Crockett, “The ‘Women’s March on Washington,’ Explained,” Vox, January 21, 2017.

13. Bob Bland in Together We Rise, 34.

14. Melissa Romero, “The Original Women’s March Took Place in Philly 20 Years Ago,” Curbed Philadelphia, January 19, 2017.

15. Robnett, 59.