WCC: Ain’t I a Woman? Black Women, Decency, and Public Spaces

Even with Beyoncé taking over the universe with over 1 million copies of her self-titled fifth solo album sold in one week, black women continue to struggle with recognition and respect in public spaces.

This isn’t a new thing. Women’s rights activist Sojourner Truth delivered her iconic “Ain’t I a Woman” speech in 1851 at the Women’s Rights Convention in Akron, Ohio dealing with this very issue. Her simple inquisition underscored the need for black women to become a part of mainstream gender conversations.

“That man over there says that women need to be helped into carriages, and lifted over ditches, and to have the best place everywhere. Nobody ever helps me into carriages, or over mud-puddles, or gives me any best place! And ain’t I a woman? Look at me! Look at my arm! I have ploughed and planted, and gathered into barns, and no man could head me! And ain’t I a woman? I could work as much and eat as much as a man – when I could get it – and bear the lash as well! And ain’t I a woman? I have borne thirteen children, and seen most all sold off to slavery, and when I cried out with my mother’s grief, none but Jesus heard me! And ain’t I a woman?”

One would assume we’d be past this basic question over a century and a half later. But, truth is, we aren’t. Black women continue to face struggles with being recognized as the loving mothers, daughters, sisters, and aunts that they are. In public spaces, we are often judged and, sometimes, punished because of one-dimensional images in the mainstream psyche which outshine our true personae. I talk about the feelings arising from this treatment in a piece about being a black mother in Orange County, CA.

What is often most interesting about this differentially unhelpful treatment is how others in public spaces seem to “code switch” in an adverse way. In the black community, code switching denotes the process wherein black people change their vernacular, conversational content or other social cues in order to adapt to diverse social situations with non-black people.

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