Strong, Black, Female

I most sincerely doubt if any other race of women could have brought its fineness up through so devilish a fire.--W.E.B. DuBois

They became the linchpin between two of the most important social reform movements in American history: the struggles for black rights and women's rights.--Paula Giddings

Though known to be the glue that keeps the African-American community together, black women--their struggle and their importance--have historically been marginalized. Once again making history by themselves, black women gathered in Philadelphia this past Saturday for the Million Woman March. The event attracted hundreds of thousands of black women from all over the country in a powerful show of solidarity. But this coming together of black females has not received the media attention it deserves. The Million Man March, two years ago, was a highly publicized event, in part because it was sponsored by the controversial leader of the Nation of Islam, Louis Farrakan.

By contrast, the Million Woman March was organized entirely at the grass roots level and publicized by word of mouth and the Internet; but as a result, few people other than those who attended the event had even heard of it. It is further evidence of the resilience and strength of the female black community that so many women turned out to march in the drizzle, especially in the absence of extensive media coverage and powerful black American leaders.

Fourteen women from Harvard, including 12 Harvard-Radcliffe undergraduates boarded a Greyhound Friday night and headed for Philadelphia to display their proximity to the struggle black women face in America today. Sophomore Pforzheimer House resident from Miami and secretary of the Association of Black Radcliffe Women (ABRW), Edidiong N. Ikpe, and junior Leverett House resident from Brooklyn Oni J. Blackstock, shared their experience with me.

Why did you make the trip to Philadelphia this weekend?

ENI: I thought that this was something I needed to partake in, because first of all, it's a pioneer event in history...and second of all, I just felt like anything that involved black female unity or a group of women getting together to talk about our empowerment was important for me to be a part of.

OJB: It was just definitely my calling...there was no question when I heard of this that I would definitely go....It was a feeling of sisterhood, I knew it would be an overwhelming, intense experience....Just stepping out into Philadelphia and knowing I was there along with literally hundreds of thousands of black women, I just wanted to scream.

Were you bothered by the fact that the Million Woman March was not a highly publicized event? That very few people had heard of it?

ENI: Extremely bothered. I always see dual standards when it comes to things like this.... You see the men's issues dealing with black people publicized, [and not the women's]. And this aggravated me because I think that this was simply just as important. It was almost insulting because it was taking away from its importance.

Was the meaning of the March, to you, to send a message to the country about black female unity, or to be united as black women for black women?

ENNI: I would have to definitely say both.... You could even link the two: to send out a message to the nation in our unity.

OJB: I think it [spoke to] our role in society and what we have to bring to our communities.... A lot of people would say that our communities are in crisis, and we have to step forward to the challenge, and take responsibility, and say we're going to make our communities better.

ENI: And that we're very serious about it, and that's our message.

Black women have historically been seen as the backbone of the black community. What can you and the others who gathered in Philadelphia take back to your communities from this show of solidarity?

ENI: I can come back with a confidence that I'm not the only one with this struggle, and I'm not the only one who feels that we can make a difference in our community, in our country and furthermore, in our world.

How did being Harvard/Radcliffe undergraduate women inform your experience?

OJB: It felt let other women out there know that there are sisters at Ivy League universities who care about the same things that you care about. You may be a working-class mother in Bedford Stuyvesant, in Brooklyn, NY, and you may be working your butt off...but we care.... We're Harvard-Radcliffe women, but we care about the same things you care about because...we are all together in the same matter what level [we're] at.

ENI: I didn't really feel the impact of being a Harvard/Radcliffe woman. I sort of threw off my shell. I was just a woman, a black woman.

Do you have any criticisms of the March?

ENI: I wish a few more figures would have been there. I really, really looked forward to seeing someone like Maya Angelou or Oprah Winfrey; those two people, I felt, really should have been there.

Maybe you can describe the feeling you had while you were there.

ENI: We were [at the front]...and we were standing jam-packed, touching other women, we had no idea who they were, but they felt like aunties and cousins; these were my kin.... [While we sang the official Million Woman March song], we held hands.... And the feeling intense togetherness, of a shared experience even though we all came from different walks of life just went through every single person; joined by our hands, it just ran through us like a current. And, when I left that place, I felt, that I am not alone.

OJB: We were able to speak with people from Philadelphia, Detroit, Oklahoma...Young and old, middle-class, working-class, upper-class, we were all there for one common purpose.... We all looked different; people had dreads, braids, weaves; everyone looked so different, but yet, we were the same.... I wouldn't miss it for the world.... It's something I can tell my children about.

Does a single-sex show of solidarity have to be highly controversial in order to be extensively covered by the media? The Promise Keepers gathered in Washington last month and the press could not get enough of the potentially dangerous fundamentalist Christians; prior to the Million Man March, Farrakan had often been associated with a threatening militarism.

Why, because black women have been stable family and community leaders, whose determination has carried them through slavery, blatant and latent racism and the disintegration of the black nuclear family, do they not deserve applause and recognizance of their strength? The only explanation for the American people's and the media's neglect is that determination, resilience and steadfastness are traits that humble and humiliate those who do not possess them. The Million Woman March is an event that Americans--black, white, Chinese, Christian, Jewish--can learn from and should credit for helping to provide the hope of a better America.

Daniel M. Suleiman's column appears on alternate Mondays.