Docking to the first great personality, Septima Poinsette

Docking on to this thought, I argue that Black Women
had a much greater influence in the Civil Rights Movement (1954-1968) and in
the Black Power Movement (early 1960s to 1980s) than media representation of
the time would suggest.

For this, I am going to take three famous, outstanding
women who succeeded in their work as black feminists, who deserve to be
mentioned in particular historical contexts, and who however went a long way
towards achieving a powerful level of freedom for all women. Here a special
focus will be on Septima Poinsette Clark, Angela Davis and Gloria Jean Watkins aka
Bell Hooks. Those three women did and still do bring a change, especially in the
course of history, in society’s thinking and in stereotypical believes towards
women and feminism. All of them are feminists, activists and in some form
educators, e.g. as teachers or authors, and they showed great courage while fighting
for equal rights.

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When it comes to the first great personality, Septima
Poinsette Clark, one has to mention that she was born in South Caroline in
1898. At this time, South Caroline experienced rigid segregation and separation
based on social class was unexceptional. On behalf of the strict separation, in
Charleston (South Caroline) there was no high school for black children at that
time, not to mention not one single black teacher – not until 1914. Clark
managed to graduate despite financial problems and even got a Bachelor’s and
Master’s degree. After that, she began to work as a school teacher and educator
on John’s Island – a time where racism became a personal concern, as Wynn/Smith
(99) state “she saw racism first hand in 1916 on Johns Island near Charleston,
South Carolina, where she thaught school and witnessed vast discrepancies
between school for whites and those for black.” Racism that she experienced
personally and that she had seen being experienced by others, affected herself
and her further path of life. With the help of her education and her
proficiency, she became one of the most important figures when it comes to
literacy, voting and civil rights. One of her first political victories was
after joining the NAACP, the National Association for the Advancement of
Colored People, which was a civil rights organisation fighting for equal rights
on different areas, e.g. social, educational and political equality, and
fighting against race discrimination. With the help of the NAACP, Clark started
a petition that should allow black teachers to become principals. Despite her
principle’s command to stay away from the NAACP and any political activity, she
achieved the political permission in 1920. As we can see, even her very first
steps towards fighting for equal rights, were hard and full with people trying
to prevent her from doing it. However, Clark held on her way and in 1952 “she
began her affiliation with Highlander Folk School in Monteagle, Tennessee,
where she attended an interracial institute in two consecutive summers. The
school became well known for its interracial programs, attracting civil rights
workers from across the South.” (Wynn/Smith, 99). The school’s program expanded
and Clark worked on building it up for several years. Her work also included
collaboration with other civil rights groups, e.g. the Student Non-Violent
Coordinating Committee (SNCC). However, Clark did not stop her work when she
retired, but continued with lecturing especially on women’s rights.

Clark we have
to owe it that many African-Americans were empowered through her citizenship
schools and that many of them registered to vote. Unfortunately, we often only
hear the names of male activists from this time. Nevertheless, we can see by
the example of Septima Clark, there were (and still are) female activists
making their own contribution to the African-American Civil Rights Movement
from 1954-1968.

The second person I would like to introduce is Angela
Davis. She was born in 1944 in Birmingham, Alabama. First attempting a
segregated black elementary school and high school in Birmingham, she went to
Brandeis University in Massachusetts and to the University of Frankfurt – she
graduated in 1965. Davis was not only a feminist or activist, but also an
author. Her bibliography includes famous works like “Women, Race, & Class”
and “The Meaning of Freedom: And Other Difficult Dialogues”. One of her essays,
“‘Reflections on the Black Woman’s Role in the Community of Slaves,’ written
while she was in prison on false charges of conspiracy and murder (she was
acquitted in 1972), is an early example of black feminist discourse”, as Davis
states (199). In her essay, she focuses on many important things from the past
that had a great impact on today’s situation within the black community, on the
current stigma of matriarchs and on contemporary educational issues black woman
have to face. Concerning black matriarchy, Davis states:


Lingering beneath the notion of the black matriarch is
an unspoken indictment of our female forebears as having actively assented to
slavery. The notorious cliché, the ’emasculating female,’ has its roots in the
fallacious inference that, in playing a central part in the slave ‘family,’ the
black woman related to the slaveholding class as collaborator. Nothing could be
further from the truth. In the most fundamental sense, the slave system did not
– and could not – engender and recognize a matriarchal family structure.
Inherent in the very concept of the matriarchy is ‘power’. It would have been
exceedingly risky for the slaveholding class to openly acknowledge symbols of
authority – female symbols no less than male. (Davis, 201).


In this
specific part of her reflection, she writes about the cliché of the
’emasculating female’. Without her written work, to be honest, I would have never
thought about that cliché – and how wrong it actually is. It is not true, that
black women were collaborators of their oppressors simply because they did not
seem to fight physically against their oppression. Women and men had the same
status in the community of slaves – their masters owned them both. They both
had to work, their human rights were restricted and their lives were confined
to a small level of humanity. For this reason, one can say that Davis is right
and that obviously neither the men nor the women ‘acknowledge symbols of

As Davis focuses on slavery times, it is no wonder
that she adds the crucial function of women in slavery for the whole community
in order to survive. “It was the woman who was charged with keeping the ‘home’
in order.” (Davis, 204) and “domestic labor was the only meaningful labor for
the slave community as a whole (discounting as negligible the exceptional
situations where slaves received some pay for their work) (Davis, 205). Women
were working in the household – which was the only important labour – and
resulting from it, the resistance of women came into play. Since they were
working in the master’s house, they had the possibility to offer resistance by
poisoning food and/or set their houses on fire. This example shows that women
may not be able to offer physical resistance, but had other ways to do so. This
fact is often neglected, but women have the ability to fight back in other

Here I would like to emphasize the fact, that “the
sheer force of things rendered her equal the man” (Davis, 205). When it comes
to slavery, all humans are the same – no one deserves it and no one should make
this experience, neither then nor now. Slavery is a matter of any gender, since
for the slave masters’ benefits; it was the best to deny black men a higher or
privileged position then the black women. As they all had to work the same for
the master, equality in terms of slavery was given – even if it sounds
dramatically and traumatizing.

By contemporary terms, many of those facts have
changed, nevertheless, some are for the most part true even today – the black
woman as the housekeeper and mother, the more privileged man and the unequal
payments for same workload. Yet, the most crucial thing that has not changed is
one that Davis has experienced on first hand: accessibility of education or
educational material. “The chief problem I encountered stemmed from the
conditions of my incarceration: opportunities for researching the issue I
wanted to explore were extremely limited” (Davis, 200). Access to education is
still an enormous problem that black communities and other minority groups have
to face. On the one hand, one part of this issue results from a lack of variety
and cultural ability in the teaching workforce. On the other hand, others are
caused by missing suitable and proper support and/or resource.

As Davis collaborated with the Black Panther Party, a
socialist organization, and was an active figure in the Civil Rights Movement,
she equally stood up for freedom, equality and liberty as the men of this time did.

Finally yet importantly, another social activist that
I would like to mention because of her great impact on the course of history:
Gloria Jean Watkins also known as Bell Hooks. Born in 1952 in Kentucky, Hooks
also attempted a segregated school. She got her Bachelor’s degree from the Stanford
University and her MA degree from the University of Wisconsin. Hooks is known
as a female activist who does not only fight for equal civil rights for men and
women, but who also pioneered the issues concerning race, sexuality and gender.
One of her first books “Ain’t I a Woman?: Black Women and Feminism” from 1981,
which was titled after the speech “Ain’t I a Woman?” by Sojourner Truth, was
one of the first to focus racism and sexism on black women. Furthermore, as
well as Davis, Hooks analyses the effect of slavery on those forms of
discrimination towards black women, too. Another outstanding topic Hook is
dealing with is the disapproval and opposition towards female activist during
the Civil Rights Movement, who wanted to achieve equal rights for everyone. Overall,
one could say that Hooks is an impressive author best known for perceptions of
black women in the United States. One of her works, “Selling Hot Pussy –
Representation of Black Female Sexuality in the Cultural Marketplace”, which I
would like to present, is about the representation of black women to popular
culture and how American slavery contributed to some stereotypical images of
the black women’s sexuality.

The greatest issue that Hooks mentions is as follows
“Since black female sexuality has been represented in racist/sexist iconography
as more free and liberated, many black women singer, irrespective of the
quality of their voices, have cultivated an image which suggests they are
sexually available and licentious.” (1992, 65). In order to concretise her
words, she takes the famous singer Tina Turner and others women as an example.


Although contemporary thinking about black female
bodies does not attempt to read the body as a sign of ‘natural’ racial
inferiority, the fascination with black ‘butts’ continues. In the sexual
iconography of the traditional black pornographic imagination, the protruding
butt is seen as an indication of a heightened sexuality. (1992, 63)


She analyses
(and in some way criticises) the commercialisation of black women by using body
parts in music videos, movies and other media channels. For her, the body parts
mentioned explicitly, are female parts that men are generally attracted to.
When black women who work in public state that they are liberated, they simply
use this techniques in order to achieve and gain popularity – the way of making

In addition, Hooks also deals with racism within the
black community in her work “Black Beauty and Black Power – Internalized
Power”. In this piece, she relates racism to beauty, and how stereotypical
attitudes towards white supremacy influenced (unconsciously) the way black
women see themselves in the black community. Hooks claims, “reconstructions, etc.,
know that racist white folks often treated lighter-skinned black folks better
than their darker counterparts and that this pattern was mirrored in black
social relation” (1996, 120). For this reason, black women wanted to have
lighter skin colour, straight hair and other things that seems to be
appreciated by the white community. As a result, black men started being more
attracted to light-skinned black women with straight hair. Fortunately, a
“large number of black women stopped chemically straightening our hair since
there was no longer any negative stigma attached to wearing one’s hair with its
natural texture” (1996. 122). With this, also men’s perception started to
change. However, those are only a few issues that Hook focuses on, which are
nevertheless as important as any other issue the black community and/or black
women have to face. Hooks words aspire to rise everyone’s consciousness and to
keep the world changing in order to become a better place.

Finally, as we can see not only men have contributed
important acts to the time of the Civil Rights Movement and the Black Power
Movement, but also women did! I dare to say that the thesis, that women
are/were underrepresented in media at that time, is true. Nevertheless, there
are big names like Clark, Davis, Hooks and a lot more, that show us the
possible force of women. Black men like Malcolm X and Martin Luther King Jr
where and still are great figures in history, but we must not forget the female
side – black women who had the courage to fight for equal rights despite any


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