sara andreasson

Black women’s history month: 5 sheros to know

Image credit: @saraandreasson

From Stonewall Uprising frontrunners Marsha P. Johnson and Sylvia Rivera, to teen revolutionary Claudette Colvin, history’s list of incredible Black sheros is as endless as it is inspiring. Here are just a five of the fierce, vision board-worthy history-shapers you absolutely have to know (more) about:

Image credit: Getty Images

Barbara Smith

Barbara is one of America’s most authoritative activists, authors, and educators. Her unfaltering liberation work of the ’70s and beyond has played an undeniably pivotal role in the growth of the United States’ Black Feminism movement and continues to function as a framework for those fighting oppression today.

Her work began when the second wave feminist movement, the Black Nationalist Movement, and the Civil Rights Movement failed to acknowledge the needs of Black queer women. Instead of letting the exclusion sway her from her cause, she banded with other Black feminists to find inclusivity at the National Black Feminist Organization (NBFO), a group that worked to specifically address issues faced by Black women in America.

Marsha P. Johnson and Sylvia Rivera were charitable drag queens that lit up New York’s Greenwich Village with an intoxicating energy.

From there, Barbara (alongside her sister Beverly and Chicago activist Demita Frazier) started a regional chapter of NBFO in Boston, which later went on to become the Combahee River Collective (CRC) – one of the most radical and intersectional activist groups of its time.

Through the lens of Black lesbian experiences, the CRC brought into conversation the intersectionality of injustices, exploring everything from class warfare and homophobia, to the way white supremacy oppresses and otherises all minorities. They led fights against the violence of women, worked to desegregate Boston schools, and weaved Black feminism into the public consciousness, resultantly affirming lesbianism as a valid identity.

And in 1980, alongside friend and fellow Black lesbian writer Audre Lorde, Barbara founded Kitchen Table: Women of Color Press – the first American publisher established by Women of Colour for Women of Colour. I mean, can one person get anymore revolutionary? I think not.

Marsha P. Johnson and Sylvia Rivera

Marsha P. Johnson and Sylvia Rivera were charitable drag queens that lit up New York’s Greenwich Village with an intoxicating energy that would make any homophobic, cis-white male quiver in his painfully-straight boots.

They were prominent LGBTQ activists and community workers that took it upon themselves to take in members of the LGBTQ community that had nowhere else to go, having been ostracised by their families and straight society at large. They were instrumental figures in the Stonewall Uprising and fought tooth and heel when the police raided the The Stonewall Inn on Christopher Street in June of 1969.

To honour their activism and the Stonewall Uprising, a monument will be erected in Greenwich Village by 2021. The monument will be a first for the world’s transgender people – as honourary statues of LGBTQIA+ people are virtually non-existent across the globe. Perhaps this gesture will also lend true dimension to a movement that has been largely portrayed as one lead by white, gay males alone. #WhitewashingStrikesAgain

Image credit: @NAACP

Claudette Colvin

Everyone knows about Rosa Parks, but a fifteen-year-old named Claudette Colvin was arrested for not giving up her bus seat to a white person in Montgomery, Alabama almost ten months before Rosa’s famed refusal.

Claudette had been learning about Black leaders like Harriet Tubman and Sojourner Truth in school, as well as discussing the Jim Crow laws of the time. When asked why she refused to listen to the bus driver, Claudette said, “It felt like Sojourner Truth was on one side pushing me down, and Harriet Tubman was on the other side of me pushing me down. I couldn’t get up.”

KENYAN ECOLOGIST WANGARI MAATHAI was the first black woman to win the Nobel Peace Prize.

After being jailed for the incident without so much as a phone call to her family, Claudette found herself as one of four women standing in court to challenge the segregation laws in Montgomery and Alabama. You go, girl!

The only reason Rosa Parks is renowned in her place is because the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), and other Black organisations of the time, felt Rosa Parks would make a better icon for the movement than a teenager. Beyond being an adult, Rosa was already renowned and respected as the secretary of the NAACP.

In the book Still I Rise, Claudette said, “Being dragged off that bus was worth it just to see Barack Obama become president. So many others gave their lives and didn’t get to see it, and I thank God for letting me see it.”

Image credit: Wendy Stone/Corbis via Getty Images

Wangari Maathai

Say hello to the first black woman to win the Nobel Peace Prize, Kenyan ecologist Professor Wangari Maathai – and that wasn’t the only first Wangari claimed for herself. In 1971 she also became the first woman in east and central Africa to earn a PhD, and just a few years later she went on to be appointed her university’s first woman department chair.

Wangari was not only an exemplary academic – in a time that it was uncommon for women to be educated at all, no less – but a badass environmental and political activist that proved a force to be reckoned with. She never failed to make her political and environmental opinions known, even when they put her in grave danger. She was jailed, battered, and bruised by the police a number of times.

One such occasion was in 1989 when, along with her organisation: the Green Belt Movement, she staged a protest in Nairobi’s Uhuru Park to prevent the construction of Africa’s tallest skyscraper. Fortunately, her efforts garnered international attention and eventually saw her beloved Uhuru Park trees live on untouched.

Wangari was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 2004 for being a pioneer in “the fight to promote ecologically viable social, economic, and cultural development in Kenya and Africa.”

Wangari launched the Green Belt Movement not only to reforest her country, but because she was passionate about women empowerment. “Women needed income and they needed resources because theirs were being depleted,” Wangari explained to People magazine. “So we decided to solve both problems together.”

Proving to be incredibly successful, the movement went on to see the planting of more than 30 million trees in Kenya, providing roughly 30 000 women with much needed skills and opportunities. 

Wangari was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 2004 for being a pioneer in “the fight to promote ecologically viable social, economic, and cultural development in Kenya and Africa” and was also recognised as Time Magazine‘s “Hero of the Planet.” *cries in awe because Wangari is #LifeGoals*

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