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BHM 2021 Guest Contributor Post: Beyond the Backbone By Krystal Leaphart


Black women did it again. We collectively voted against blatant white supremacy in the highest office of the land. We collectively voted to reject fascism. We voted for ourselves and our communities. And we collectively voted to move this country forward.


In the midst of a global pandemic and unprecedented[1] attempts to suppress the Black vote, Black women overperformed[2] our predicted turnout in the election and delivered victories in all levels of government. Because of our recent voting records, some people refer to Black women as the “Backbone of the Democratic Party.” This nickname attempts to acknowledge the ways that Black women vote for and organize on behalf of candidates, who are usually Democrats, at a more consistent rate than any other group. Because of our performance, there has also been an outpouring of “thank-yous” being given to Black women for our most recent voting patterns.


These words of gratitude may come from a sincere place. After all, this public acknowledgment of Black women's contributions to our political process comes in the midst of the Black Lives Matter movement, the ‘Me Too’ movement, and a re-energized women's movement. Black women have always been at the forefront of leading movements like this to affect change. Whether it was suffrage[3], civil rights[4], or human rights, Black women have been central to collective progress. Unfortunately, history tends to erase the organizing work of Black women, especially when that work is in service of themselves. Black women vote foremost for themselves[5] and their families, yet this notion that we vote to “save the country” only reiterates the idea that we do our work solely in service of this nation. This is why labeling Black women as the “backbone” of democracy and simply being told “thank you” for our voting record are not sufficient ways to honor what Black women mean to our democracy.

The backbone is one of the most vital parts of the human body. It serves as the body’s main support structure and is the reason we are able to move. By sending important messages to our organs and connecting all of the other parts of our bodies together, the backbone is the reason we are able to function. With that, it makes some sense why Black women are referred to as the backbone. Black women carry elections, organize their communities and do more work with fewer resources[6]. But, if the backbone is so important, why doesn't our political system do more to take care of one of its most vital parts, Black women? It's clear that Black women serve as one of the strongest forces in Democratic politics, yet our efforts have not yet yielded targeted solutions to the problems that Black women and girls face across the country. If Black women are expected to continue to serve in this way, political parties, elected officials, and stakeholders must begin to center the needs of all Black women and girls.



Imagine if Black women were treated as one of the most vital parts of our democracy? There would be a collective acknowledgment of all the disparities that exist for Black women living in the margins of racism and sexism. The wage gap and school push out of Black girls would be central to political agendas. Reproductive justice would be the lens that is used to address issues like Black maternal mortality, reproductive illness, and preventative care. The hundreds of Black women that run for public office with a Black women's agenda would have all the support they need to win. There would be an intentional agenda to help other Black people at the center of numerous margins, including Black trans women, Black women with disabilities, and Black immigrant women. The lives of Black women and girls would be sacred and worth protecting.

In addition to the backbone nickname, thanking Black women for our voting patterns has been a popular sentiment[7], especially on social media. One can assume that the “thank-yous” are for our commitment to progress, for turning out and “saving the country”, yet again. While it is understood why folks are thanking Black women for our work, the action itself seems late in comparison to the centuries of labor without proper thank you, and more importantly proper power.[8]


Black women have always been civically engaged, even as one of the last groups of people that were able to lawfully vote. [9] Black suffragists and feminists fought for the end of slavery, advocated for what we now call reproductive justice and the right to vote. More recently, Black women organized and theorized Intersectionality[10], Identity Politics[11], and numerous other essential concepts for the country that works for all people. A lot of the work that was done are blueprints for this current moment.


As people move towards recognizing this work, there are many tangible ways that folks can thank Black women beyond shoutouts. We can thank Black women by expanding access to the ballot, donating to organizations that are led by and center Black women, and addressing our internalized misogynoir, which is the misogyny towards Black women. We can also thank Black women by learning and instituting historic and contemporary Black feminist policy suggestions, support the work of Black women and center the needs of Black women, femmes, and girls.

In conclusion, folks should ask two important questions. The first one is what happens when you do not take care of your backbone? One could assume that the backbone would be worn out and lose its ability to properly function. This has been the case for many Black women who are working for progressive causes and are not sufficiently supported[12]. The second question is what happens when folks wait too long to thank you for your efforts? More than likely, folks will get tired of feeling undervalued and unappreciated.




When Black women are tired of doing this kind of work, what will that mean for our democracy? What would happen if Black women collectively decide to stop being the “backbone”, regardless of all the recent “thank-yous”.


Now, considering that Black women are still running for office in record numbers[13], voting in unprecedented numbers and organizing some of the most successful contemporary movements[14][15], it is clear that Black women still see value in civic engagement. But how much longer? I believe it will depend on how key players respond to misogynoir in our political systems.


As we move toward appreciating Black women for this work, it is vital that we don't continue to make the mistake of using Black women's labor to “save the country” as a whole without addressing the specific ways that Black women suffer at the hands of the same country they are expected to save.


As our country moves toward a political ecosystem that appreciates the role that Black women play in our democracy, everyone must move towards showing up for Black women and girls, the way that we show up for everyone else. Now is the time for folks to act for the betterment of all Black women.


--

Krystal Leaphart is a leader, advocate, and servant.



References

  1. Black Voters Won’t Forget Suppression Efforts In 2020 Presidential Election | NewsOne

  2. “Lifting As We Climb” Black Women Lead Voter Turnout Despite Barriers – Nielsen

  3. 5 Essential Black Figures In The Women’s Suffrage Movement (wgbh.org)

  4. Freedom Now! Student Work - Tiffany Joseph (brown.edu)

  5. Why Black Women Vote – InsideSources

  6. Black Women Are A Political Organizing Force. They’re Not Unicorns. | HuffPost

  7. After Alabama: Say 'thank you' to black women, and mean it | TheHill

  8. Black Women, Still Underrepresented in American Politics, Show Continued Gains | Rutgers University

  9. When Did Black Women Get the Right to Vote? Suffrage History | Time

  10. Mapping the margins Intersectionality, Identity Politics and Violence Against Women of Color

  11. The Combahee River Collective Statement

  12. Career Decisions: When to Walk Away and When to Fight for Our Space by Na'ilah Amaru (thebgguide.com)

  13. US sees record number of Black women running for Congress in 2020 | US Elections 2020 News | Al Jazeera

  14. Black Lives Matter May Be the Largest Movement in U.S. History - The New York Times (nytimes.com)

  15. Women's March against Donald Trump is the largest day of protests in US history, say political scientists | The Independent | The Independent


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