February is Black History Month, and here at PLEN we have celebrated by spotlighting influential Black women throughout history. As Black History Month comes to a close, we are taking some time to reflect on these women and their societal, political, and cultural contributions.
The idea of Black History Month was created by Carter G Woodson in 1915, only half a century after the abolition of slavery in the United States. Woodson intended to create a week to research, promote, and honor the achievements of Black Americans. Over time, fueled by the Civil Rights Movement, this evolved into a full month. February was chosen, to coincide with the birthdays of Abraham Lincoln and Fredrick Douglass, as well as the foundation of the NAACP. It has further developed to include a yearly theme, this year’s being “Black Health and Wellness,” to explore the contributions made to the medical community by Black Americans and people of African descent.
Throughout Black History Month, PLEN featured four influential Black voices. In this article, we will revisit these women, as well as give additional information and current material to continue education beyond Black History Month.
WEEK ONE: Shirley chisholm
Our first feature was Shirley Chisholm. Shirley Chisholm was born in Brooklyn, New York to a factory laborer from Guyana, and a seamstress from Barbados. After earning high grades all through school, she was accepted to and graduated cum laude from Brooklyn College with a BA in sociology. After spending years as an educator, she was called to policy and was elected to the New York State legislature. Chisholm made history in 1968 as the first African American woman in Congress, and again in 1972, when she became the first woman and African American to seek the nomination for president of the United States from one of the two major political parties.
Her legacy carries on in many ways, one of which being her signature color: purple! Indeed, her signature purple has appeared in past inaugurations, worn by Jill Biden, Kamala Harris, and Michelle Obama. Her motto and title of her autobiography, Unbought and Unbossed, illustrates her outspoken advocacy for women and racial justice during her seven terms in the U.S. House of Representatives.
week two: toni morrison
Next, we turned our focus to renowned author, Toni Morrison. Although Morrison grew up in semi integrated Lorain, Ohio, she was subjected to discrimination, and even acts of violence in her adolescence. She turned her focus towards her studies and excelled from a young age. Toni Morrison attended Howard University and through her time touring with their theater program encountered more discrimination. Nonetheless, her time there influenced some of her later works. Morrison began her career teaching at Southern Texas University and eventually returned to teach at her alma mater, Howard University. At the age of 39, Morrison published her first novel, The Bluest Eye, earning her national recognition. She went on to publish nine more novels, one of which was adapted to film. Toni Morrison is noted for her examination of Black experience, particularly Black female experience, within the Black community. Her novels often focus on a character’s journey to find themself and their own cultural identity.
Throughout her career, Morrison was vocal about politics, racial justice, and gender equality. She received countless awards, including the Nobel Prize for Literature (1993), the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction (1988), and the Presidential Medal of Freedom (2012). Her legacy lives on through her works and her documentary, Toni Morrison: The Pieces I Am, to inspire young writers and change makers.
week three: marsha p johnson
Next, we learned about queer icon, Marsha P Johnson. Marsha P Johnson was born in Elizabeth, New Jersey in 1945. Though assigned male at birth, Johnson always felt most comfortable wearing women’s clothes. Because of this she was discriminated against, and even encountered sexual violence. After graduating high school, she moved to New York City and began living exclusively as a woman, dressing in traditionally female attire and using she/her pronouns. Though historians and close friends now describe her as a transgender woman, when Marsha was asked questions about her gender, her response was “Pay it no mind,” which is where the “P” in her name is derived from. She was thrown into the public eye as the driving force behind the Stonewall Riots and the subsequent new wave of the LGBTQ+ rights movement. She spent her life advocating for LGBTQ+ youth, particularly youth experiencing homelessness by establishing one of the country's first safe spaces for transgender and homeless youth STAR.
Marsha P Johnson is remembered today in many ways. The investigation of her death, which had been ruled a suicide, was reopened in 2012, as many believed she was not suicidal and was actually the victim of a hate crime. Additionally, she is finally receiving recognition from her home, New York City, where there are plans to create a statue honoring her and rename a waterfront in her honor. Johnson is honored as a Stonewall pioneer, a drag queen, an Andy Warhol model, an actress, and a revolutionary trans activist.
week four: Kimberlé crenshaw
Finally, we studied scholar and writer, Kimberlé Crenshaw. Kimberlé Crenshaw was born in Canton, Ohio and attended Canton McKinley High School, where she thrived academically. After graduating, she went on to attend Cornell University, earning a bachelor’s degree in government and Africana studies. This is where she began to note the separation between race and gender in education. Crenshaw received her JD from Harvard Law School, and her LL.M. from University of Wisconsin Law School. Soon after, she began her work pioneering Critical Race Theory. She continued her work at Columbia Law School, earning worldwide recognition for her work with gender and race. Crenshaw’s work has been foundational in our understanding of “intersectionality,” a term she coined to describe the double bind of simultaneous racial and gender prejudice. Crenshaw’s groundbreaking work on intersectionality was influential in the drafting of the equality clause in the South African Constitution. She authored the background paper on race and gender discrimination for the United Nations’ World Conference on Racism in 2001, served as the rapporteur for the conference’s expert group on gender and race discrimination, and coordinated NGO efforts to ensure the inclusion of gender in the WCAR Conference Declaration.
She is a living legend who is still active in her field. Ms. Magazine named her the “No. 1 Most Inspiring Feminist” (2015), and she received the Outstanding Scholar Award for Fellows of the American Bar Foundation (2016). She continuously puts out her writings and talks, primarily revolving around civil rights, intersectionality, feminist legal theory and the law.
At its genesis, Black History Month was a week of research and reflection on the accomplishments of Black Americans. Presently, the month-long celebration of Black history, culture, and influence in all sectors, is more important than ever. Black History Month is an opportunity for education and remembrance of the important Black folks who though often neglected and forgotten, are crucial parts of American history. As Lonnie G. Bunch III, Director of the Smithsonian Institution said at the opening of the Washington D.C.'s National Museum of African American History and Culture in 2016: “There is no more powerful force than a people steeped in their history. And there is no higher cause than honoring our struggle and ancestors by remembering."
- The Bluest Eye, Toni Morrison
- A Mercy, Toni Morrison
- On Intersectionality: Essential Writings, Kimberlé Crenshaw
- The Urgency of Intersectionality, Kimberlé Crenshaw
- Speech at Howard University, Shirley Chisholm
- Making Gay History: Marsha P Johnson & Randy Wicker, Podcast S2 E1
- The Death and Life of Marsha P Johnson, Documentary
- Chisholm ‘72: Unbought and Unbossed, Documentary
- Toni Morrison: The Pieces I Am, Documentary