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When Black Women Speak

“What would America be like if we loved black people as much as we love black culture?”

Amandla Stenberg[i]

“Mr. Vice President, I’m speaking”

Kamala Harris[ii]

It’s the summer of 2020, officer Derek Chauvin has murdered George Floyd and the Black Lives Matter Global Network Foundation (BLMGNF) is at the center of controversy. Founded by Alicia Garza, Opal Tometti and Patrisse Cullors in 2013, BLMGNF does not officially represent the social movement called Black Lives Matter but was instrumental in designing messaging campaigns. In particular, their “What We Believe” statement became a kind of rhetorical headquarters, influencing everything from curriculum design to a children’s activity book.[iii] The “What We Believe” statement sat quietly on the BLMGNF website for years until talk show host and NFL lineman Marcus Wiley spearheaded a backlash against the statement.  claiming it advocated for abolishing the nuclear family structure and erasing Black fathers.[iv]

Except that’s not what they said. In fact, the 36-word passage of “What We

Believe” that drew the ire of Wiley and so many others never used the word abolish. It also didn’t use any related transitive verbs, such as demolish and destroy. Transitive verbs are verbs that require an object, you must demolish something, destroy something In fact, the word that the statement used was disrupt, stating:“we disrupt the Western-prescribed nuclear family structure requirement.”[v] Disrupt is an intransitive verb that doesn’t imply the complete destruction of a target and it is very different, grammatically and politically, from demolish and destroy. But the distinction didn’t seem to matter to BLM opposition like Wiley. Sometime in September 2020, the BLMGNF website removed its “What We Believe” statement, replacing it with a shorter and more palatable “About Us” page.[vi]

The misreading of a single word may seem like simply the kind of general lazy reading that we all deal with nowadays in an age of constant stimuli and social media. But I want to insist differently. The collective misreading of the “What We Believe” statement in the summer of 2020 is one of so many instances when the speech of Black women has been ignored, mis-heard, or otherwise whitewashed in order to discipline the threat of Black women’s speech to the smooth operations of white hegemony. I have chosen the term white hegemony to describe my project as opposed to white privilege or white supremacy because I am interested in the implicit  or systemically ingrained ways that American audiences whitewash the speech of Black women. White hegemony is a mediating term between white supremacy/white power, which denote a conscious intention to oppress Black Americans if not re-enslave or massacre them, and white privilege, which denotes a kind of everyday naivete that can be corrected by awareness.[vii] White hegemony is not correctable through sheer awareness. It circulates through taken-for-granted assumptions about how language works, cliches that often seem to be beneficial to race relations, and pervasive myths that shore up the oppression of Black Americans in ways that often get missed by mainstream audiences (a label that, from this point on, will be assumed to already be saturated by white hegemony).

It’s the summer of 1998, Lauryn Hill is poised to release what will become one of the greatest hip-hop albums of all-time, The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill. During a pre-release interview with MTV, Hill told the reporter, “I would rather die than have a white person buy one of my albums.” America is outraged by Hill’s hypocrisy and anti-white racism.[viii] A caller to the Howard Stern Show took the interview viral, repeating other quotes from Hill including, “if I’d known white people were going to buy my last album, I never would have recorded it” and “I would rather have my children starve than have white people buy my albums.”

Except that’s not what she said. No evidence exists on MTV or otherwise that Hill said anything of the sort. In fact, Hill put in a call to The Howard Stern Show shortly after the rumors began circulating to rebut the supposed citations made by the previous caller. During a subsequent MTV interview, Hill remarked that, “a couple of years ago some kid had heard that I’d said that I didn’t want white people to buy my records, and that really, really hurt me a great deal because I like to think my music is really universal.”[ix] Just as Miseducation was bringing radical Black self-love to mainstream America in ways that Erykah Badu and Queen Latifah had only been able to do in small doses, its creator was busy apologizing to white people for something she never said.[x]

Hill’s ground-breaking rhythms and rhymesare exemplary of the radical and disruptive speech of Black women that threatens white hegemony so profoundly that it needs to be disciplined through viral mis-citation. I describe Miseducation as speech because it is a discourse, or collection of single texts, that disrupts or complicates norms and conventions of thought and belief. In casual use, speech as a verb usually means the act of talking, of saying words. As a noun, a speech is a public address of some kind, whether it’s an impromptu rant with a friend or a TED Talk. By those definitions, most of the speech explored in this book is not, in fact, speech. Many people find the term “communication” more suitable. But communication comes with definitional baggage that very much misses the point I am trying to make. Communication is a very new concept derived from modern social science and the proliferating media technologies. When we label things as communication or communicating, we carry along implicit expectations of homogeneity and sameness.[xi] Speech is the disruptor of communication, not one of many manifestations of it. Whereas communication aims for understanding and homogeneity, speech aims at radical heterogeneity, as opposed to what Ana Milena Ribero, has called “acceptable heterogeneity,” the inclusion of Black and brown people “into the US national imaginary, while hiding its promotion of policies and discourses that maintain discrimination.”[xii] Speech insists that the myth of communication is always a function of white hegemony, of an insistence on erasing racial difference. Speech re-inserts that difference into the heart of what it means to say anything. 

It’s the first of December 1955, soon-to-be civil rights icon Rosa Parks has been asked by her white bus driver whether she is going to obey the law and vacate her seat for an oncoming white passenger. You’ve likely heard this story many times. The dignified seamstress, worn out after a long day of work, was simply too tired to fight anymore and respectfully told the driver “No.” In the decades since, Parks has been memorialized as a woman who launched a revolution because she was exhausted. In fact, when Parks died in 1995 the theme across her memorials, from former-U.S. President Bill Clinton to NBC News anchor Brian Williams, was quietude and dignity for this elderly woman who exemplified civil disobedience.[xiii]

Except that’s not what she said. For years prior to her death, Parks corrected the narrative that she was old and tired that day on the bus. She wasn’t that old; she was only 42. And she didn’t happen upon a protest but had long worked as a freedom fighter in the NAACP and was specifically chosen on that day to launch the Montgomery Boycotts by refusing to give up her seat. Mostly importantly, Parks reminds readers in her 1992 autobiography, she wasn’t tired; “the only tired I was,” she writes, “was tired of giving in.” Yet, her story continues to be whitewashed for the version that “traps her on the bus” and “makes her meek” in the words of Jeanne Theoharis. “We miss who she was and what it took, and what she’s asking of us today.”[xiv]

Whereas Parks’s account of her protest centers speech, or disruption, the whitewashed version exemplifies communication with all of its associated values of effectiveness and efficiency. Launching an entire revolution in social justice without a single rude word, raised voice, or smashed window comports perfectly with the white hegemonic dream of a post-racial America that is magically achieved without any disruption or discomfort on the part of those who have wielded power for centuries. Effectiveness and efficiency are the gold standard for what communication should do. Mean what you say, achieve your intended outcome, do so without too much fluff—all of these aims are held up as the best a person can do when they are so-called communicating. We collectively praise efficiency, clarity, and conciseness. As I was researching this book, several people recommended that I look at the speech of Stacey Abrams because, on their view, she is a paragon of clarity and conciseness. Abrams served in the Georgia House of Representatives and was instrumental in flipping Georgia in the 2020 Presidential and Senate elections. But given all the work that Black women have done for America, we can do better than praising them for their effectiveness and efficiency as communicators. I certainly don’t think it’s wrong to do so, after all, Abrams considers herself a communicator wo values clarity.[xv] But when we consider the broader context of anti-Black racism in America, efficiency and effectiveness are often held up as justifications. After all, it is precisely in the name of efficiency that so many Black women’s bodies have been used, abused, and discarded throughout history.

It’s 1846, then 1847, then 1848, then 1849, a gynecologist named J. Marion Sims is perfecting surgical procedures that are still used in obstetrics and gynecology to this day.[xvi] He perfects those techniques on the bodies of enslaved Black women, volunteered by their slavers when they failed to perform the reproductive and capitalist labor that kept them alive.[xvii] With the exception of three names–Betsey, Lucy and Anarcha–Sims never recorded the names of the women he violated. Yet he insists in his autobiography these enslaved women on whom he experimented mostly unsuccessfully and entirely without anesthesia, “’clamoured’ for operations, insisting that he keep trying to cure their injuries.”[xviii] Lewis Wall, a contemporary defender of Sims, praises Sims’s perseverance, explaining that “it is not surprising that these patients, even though they were enslaved, would have jumped at the opportunity to have surgery.”[xix]

Except that’s not what they said. As Vanessa Norton Gamble explains, one cannot take recourse to a logic of consent in a system of violence built on the erasure of consent as a capacity of enslaved persons.[xx] “Even if an enslaved woman stated that she did not want to be operated on” writes Deirdre Cooper Owens, “once her owner granted permission to the surgeon to perform surgery, an operation occurred.”[xxi] If Sims’ biography is indeed a factual report of what happened, which is itself a big if, ‘clamouring’ could suggest infinite meanings, including the expression of pain in another register.  To borrow from Tara Green, Sims “hardly qualifies as a trustworthy translator of experience […] the captor cannot so easily interpret the purpose of” ‘clamouring.’ (31-32) And what of these injuries Sims was meant to cure? One can hardly point to ‘the’ injury suffered by an enslaved woman; her life is a series of injuries immune to surgical repair.

Although contemporary medical criticism denounces Sims’s barbarism as a product of its time, overwhelming evidence suggests that Sims’ racist logics are embedded in the fabric of modern American medicine.[xxii] Despite being the growing demographic in terms of political engagement, college degrees, and so-called upward social mobility, Black women have shown little improvement in their quality of life.[xxiii]  Eunice Omega gets right to the point, “Kamala Harris’s ascent doesn’t mean progress for Black women.”[xxiv] Black women continue to suffer disproportionately from high rates of preventable diseases including obesity, diabetes, hypertension, and heart failure.[xxv] The data on Black women’s health is but one stark indication of the toll that systemic racism continues to have on their physical, mental, and emotional wellbeing.[xxvi] As Terrie M. Williams puts it, “it just looks like we’re not hurting.” I am interested in another indication: despite being one of the most powerful groups of political and cultural production, the messages of Black women continue to be the most violently whitewashed.

Anarcha, Betsey, Lucy, Rosa, Lauryn, Patrice, Opal, Alicia, Kamala, Amanda–at the core of each of these violations of Black women is the unwillingness of white hegemony to listen. Certainly, there are differences. The rape, murder, and tortured suffered by the countless unnamed Black women for the sake of medical advancements that continue to disproportionately benefit white people are not equivalent to the damage done by misreading and misquotation. But I also wager that those differences are differences of degree and not kind. In other words, while they may range in severity, they share in common a fundamental connection between abusing the bodies of Black women and misusing their speech. Without equivocating the assault on Black women’s bodies with the attack on their words, there is an intimate connection between how popular discourse ignores, misquotes, or misreads the speech of Black women and the health disparities perpetuated by systemic racism. According to research by social psychologists Amanda K. Sesko and Monica Biernat, “statements said by a Black woman in a group discussion were least likely to be correctly attributed” as compared with participants from other demographic groups.[xxvii]


[i] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=O1KJRRSB_XA

[ii] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tXFqTGBty1w

[iii] Originally located at https://blacklivesmatter.com/what-we-believe/ the link now returns a 404 error although it continues to remain on hundreds of thousands of sites including web archives located at http://web.archive.org/web/20200822193504/https://blacklivesmatter.com/what-we-believe/, https://www.amazon.com/What-We-Believe-Principles-Activity/dp/1643794779

[iv] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=uno1oCW5RqM

[v] http://web.archive.org/web/20200822193504/https://blacklivesmatter.com/what-we-believe/

[vi] https://www.rev.com/blog/transcripts/jack-brewer-2020-rnc-speech-transcript

[vii] Ta-Nehisi Coates, “The First White President,” The Atlantic, October 2017, https://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2017/10/the-first-white-president-ta-nehisi-coates/537909/; Vann R. Newkirk II, “The Language of White Supremacy,” The Atlantic, October 6, 2017, https://www.theatlantic.com/politics/archive/2017/10/the-language-of-white-supremacy/542148/.

[viii] Joan Morgan, She Begat This: 20 Years of The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill (Atria Books, 2018).

[ix] “The Miselucidation of Lauryn Hill,” Snopes.com, November 3, 2000, https://www.snopes.com/fact-check/the-miselucidation-of-lauryn-hill/.

[x] La Marr Jurelle Bruce, “‘The People Inside My Head, Too’: Madness, Black Womanhood, and the Radical Performance of Lauryn Hill,” African American Review 45, no. 3 (2012): 371–89.

[xi] John Durham Peters, Speaking into the Air: A History of the Idea of Communication (University of Chicago Press, 1999), http://www.press.uchicago.edu/ucp/books/book/chicago/S/bo3656803.html.

[xii] Ana Milena Ribero, “Acceptable Heterogeneity: Brownwashing Rhetoric in President Obama’s Address on Immigration,” Present Tense 5, no. 2 (November 15, 2015), https://www.presenttensejournal.org/volume-5/acceptable-heterogeneity-brownwashing-rhetoric-in-president-obamas-address-on-immigration/.

[xiii] http://www.nbcnews.com/id/9817878/ns/nbc_nightly_news_with_brian_williams/t/remembering-remarkable-rosa-parks/#.XJPho4wpChA

[xiv] https://www.npr.org/2015/11/29/457627426/understanding-rosa-parks-as-a-life-long-freedom-fighter

[xv] https://www.rbradfordcommunications.com/news/2019/10/9/what-stacey-abrams-wants-you-to-know

[xvi] https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/abs/10.1177/0310057X20966606?journalCode=aica (cronin article has been requested)

[xvii] Deirdre Cooper Owens, Medical Bondage: Race, Gender, and the Origins of American Gynecology (University of Georgia Press, 2017), 92, https://www.amazon.com/Medical-Bondage-audiobook/dp/B07QT9RDQJ/ref=sr_1_1?dchild=1&keywords=medical+bondage&qid=1613311120&s=books&sr=1-1.

[xviii] L. L. Wall, “The Medical Ethics of Dr. J. Marion Sims: A Fresh Look at the Historical Record,” Journal of Medical Ethics 32, no. 6 (2006): 348.

[xix] Wall, 347–48.

[xx] “Remembering Anarcha, Lucy, and Betsey: The Mothers of Modern Gynecology,” Hidden Brain by NPR, February 7, 2017, https://www.npr.org/2017/02/07/513764158/remembering-anarcha-lucy-and-betsey-the-mothers-of-modern-gynecology.

[xxi] Owens, Medical Bondage: Race, Gender, and the Origins of American Gynecology, 93.

[xxii] Wall, “The Medical Ethics of Dr. J. Marion Sims.”

[xxiii] Richard V. Reeves and Katherine Guyot, “Black Women Are Earning More College Degrees, but That Alone Won’t Close Race Gaps,” Brookings (blog), December 4, 2017, https://www.brookings.edu/blog/social-mobility-memos/2017/12/04/black-women-are-earning-more-college-degrees-but-that-alone-wont-close-race-gaps/.

[xxiv] Eunice Omega, “Kamala Harris’s Ascent Doesn’t Mean Progress for Black Women,” ELLE, January 28, 2021, https://www.elle.com/culture/career-politics/a35340181/kamala-harris-black-women-progress/.

[xxv] Arline T. Geronimus et al., “Do US Black Women Experience Stress-Related Accelerated Biological Aging?,” Human Nature (Hawthorne, N.Y.) 21, no. 1 (March 10, 2010): 19–38, https://doi.org/10.1007/s12110-010-9078-0.

[xxvi] Tamara A. Baker et al., “Reconceptualizing Successful Aging Among Black Women and the Relevance of the Strong Black Woman Archetype,” The Gerontologist 55, no. 1 (February 1, 2015): 51–57, https://doi.org/10.1093/geront/gnu105.

[xxvii] http://www.metroboard.org/wp-content/uploads/2017/04/Sesko-Biernat-The-Invisibility-of-Black-Women.pdf

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rhetoriclee

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