Black women rarely get to be heroes. We are too often viewed as problems. Too black. Too big. Too strong. Too sexual. Too brazen. Too poor. Too single. Too much. Black women got problems. But we are not problems. We are alright.
She appeared as if she saw a signal in the sky from a weary nation.
Last Saturday, Brittany “Bree” Newsome appeared underneath a Confederate battle flag—still flying in its government-ordained spot near the South Carolina state capitol following the massacre of nine black people by a white supremacist. Armed with climbing gear and scripture (Psalm 21:1–“The Lord is my light and my salvation, whom shall I fear?”), Newsome scaled the flag pole and snatched down the symbol of racism, violence and oppression. She smiled as she was handcuffed and arrested.
Racism wasn’t vanquished, of course. Still, Superman ain’t got nothin’ on Bree Newsome, who gave a battle-plagued people an act of heroism to believe in when it seemed the villains were winning.
And I love that a black woman did this.
For three years, I interviewed more than 100 black women for my book, The Sisters Are Alright: Changing the Broken Narrative of Black Women in America. Those women reaffirmed what I already knew. Black women rarely get to be heroes. In the public consciousness—even in our own communities—we are too often viewed as problems. Too black. Too big. Too strong. Too sexual. Too brazen. Too poor. Too single. Too much. Black women got problems. But we are not problems. We are alright.
Six black women died in Charleston because African-American female lives were meaningless to a man who claimed to be defending the honor of America’s white women. (Swallow that hypocrisy.) But one black woman became a folk hero in Charleston by showing that a black, strong and brazen woman is a hell of a thing to be. A damned wonderful thing.
There is an illustration of Newsome that has become popular online. It shows the activist rendered as a black Wonder Woman, strong legs wrapped about a flag pole, battle flag held high in a clenched fist, locks flying. It makes me think of something a woman I interviewed for Sisters said about overcoming in the face of hostility. Deesha Philyaw’s message to black women was this:
“Tell them, as Troy Maxson told his son in August Wilson’s Fences, ‘Don’t go through life worried about whether someone likes you. You best be concerned that they do right by you. Let folks perceive you however they want — Jezebel, angry black woman, welfare queen — as long as they get the hell out of the way and let you do your thing. Stop looking for approval and permission from people who hate you and want to see you fail.”
For her part, Newsome told Blue Nation Review, “The day after the massacre I was asked what the next step was and I said I didn’t know. We’ve been here before and here we are again: black people slain simply for being black; an attack on the black church as a place of spiritual refuge and community organization. I refuse to be ruled by fear. How can America be free and be ruled by fear? How can anyone be?”
She said, “I removed the flag not only in defiance of those who enslaved my ancestors in the southern United States, but also in defiance of the oppression that continues against black people globally in 2015, including the ongoing ethnic cleansing in the Dominican Republic. I did it in solidarity with the South African students who toppled a statue of the white supremacist, colonialist Cecil Rhodes. I did it for all the fierce black women on the front lines of the movement and for all the little black girls who are watching us. I did it because I am free.”
America does not love us. Our people don’t always love us. They call us “THOTs.” They tell us we are emasculating. They say we are bad mothers and bad partners. They forget to say our names when we die in the streets like black men. But the heroism of sister Bree Newsome is a lesson for those still asleep.
Black women are here. We are fighting. We are alright. Get out of our way.
Tamara Winfrey-Harris specializes in the intersection of race and gender with current events, politics, and pop culture. Her work has appeared in The New York Times, Ms., Bitch, Salon and other media. She is the author of the new book, The Sisters Are Alright: Changing the Broken Narrative of Black Women in America.