What Southern Black Women Can Teach Us (And The Country) About Ourselves

Photo: Astrid Stawiarz/Getty Images.
It was Angela Davis who reminded us that “when Black women win victories, it’s a boost for virtually every segment of society.” It says a lot that Dr. Davis had the foresight to build a politic that benefits everyone while centering the most marginalized. In my opinion, it is her Southern roots that have prepared her to so easily diagnose the problems with American society while visioning something better. I’ve observed this same clarity and prowess in other Black daughters of the South. It’s Women’s History Month, a time when we are celebrating and remembering the feminist contributions of women in this country, and it’s Black Southern women who continue to teach us what true feminism is. So, that begs the question: what is it that they know that the rest of us don’t? What can Southern Black women teach this nation about the pursuit of equity?
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To answer these and other questions, I sat down with Dr. Imani Perry, professor of African American Studies at Princeton University and instant New York Times bestselling author of South to America: A Journey Below the Mason-Dixon to Understand the Soul of a Nation. In her most recent book, Dr. Perry makes the case that while many consider the Deep South to be the most backwards part of 21st century America, the region has the most to teach us about ourselves and our commitments to justice. In writing this book, Dr. Perry makes it clear that she is not sugarcoating the history of the area, but rather honoring all there is to love and learn — especially from the Black Americans who call it home. 
“It is my people and traditions that moved the world with song and inspired the world with freedom dreams,” Dr. Perry recalls. “[In the South], there’s a protective sensibility in terms of navigating the world and its racism. You learn and are socialized to have skepticism in order to be prepared.” When most Americans comment on the South in relation to other parts of the country, there’s this idea that leaving is a relief. While this feeling is righteous considering the onslaught of disenfranchisement — especially when women, the LGBTQ+ community, and people of color are concerned — there’s also so much to honor about why many stayed. 

Black women and girls in the South forged a counter narrative and offered tools and institutions that could provide something different than what white supremacy would. The South and my Southern family offered me armor that I walk through the world with.

dr. imani perry
By the turn of the 21st century, more than half of all Black Americans still lived in the South. Dr. Perry’s family is a reflection of this. “I don’t come from a Great Migration family. The majority of my family still lives in the South. In general, most people didn’t leave. After I left the South I missed that community.” Many Black women who went on to make names for themselves nationally and even globally can say the same: Angela Davis, Eartha Kitt, Rosa Parks, Fannie Lou Hamer, and Ella Baker, just to name a few. There’s a common wisdom that comes from being a Black daughter of the South. Dr. Perry, who was born in Birmingham,  shared that this attitude can be mined down into three core points: 
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Strength of self in the face of environments built to wring them dry
To speak to this quality, Dr. Perry tells me the story of her ancestor, Easter, who was born sometime around 1769 — five years before the Declaration of Independence was signed. What did it mean for her to exist before the nation was formally established and yet not considered at all in its inception story beyond her economic and reproductive abilities? How does a Black woman like Easter not only survive but also thrive and bring future generations into the world? She had to create a deeply grounded sense of self; one that is dignified and insulated from others’ motivations. Dr. Perry is careful to ensure I don’t perceive her words to be an affirmation of respectability politics. “She believed in her own excellence… Angela Davis provides a window into this. She was a radical leftist, organizer, and at certain points a fugitive. When you think about the image we have of a radical organizer but then you listen to Angela speak so crisply and [you see] her posture… It's so Alabama.”
Awareness of the power in intergenerational relationships and regular access to community elders
We compliment young people who seem wise beyond their years by telling them that they have an “old soul.” In likening these attributes to one’s proximity to elders, we are attaching a high-value to where intergenerational relationships can lead us. This is another feature very common in southern Black society that other parts of the country take for granted. “One thing we don't talk about enough,” posits Dr. Perry, “is that people have to be transient in urban environments whether due to gentrification, economic instability, etc. Elders aren’t always in their homes as they age which disrupts the relationship sustaining and multigenerational ties that create deep trust and respect are lost.” 
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Dr. Perry recalls that even when living up North she was all but required to tend to her southern elders. As a young person living in the Boston area near Bob Moses, a key leader of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), Dr. Perry was called upon to take older visitors of the Moses household on walks. On several occasions, that also included renowned activist and North Carolina native Ella Baker. Many people would now pay for access to Ella Baker’s raw thoughts but at the time it was a rite of passage to serve as an almost-adjutant to the older women who needed assistance navigating nearby parks. In adhering to the requests of her elders, Dr. Perry was offered a front row seat to priceless oral history and community organizing traditions not unlike her experiences growing up in Alabama. It never felt like a chore. With higher home ownership rates across the South, people can stay put for far longer which allows community ties to take root in deep and organic ways. 

What is possible if we learn from Black women in the South instead of demonizing the entire area? We might get more honest about what is holding us back collectively and have more daring conversations about what equity will cost this nation.

brea baker
The young people who benefit from that upbringing eventually become elders in their own right passing on the stories and lessons they received from those before them. They also gain a strategic head start in knowing who they are and tuning out the noise of racism. Let me be clear: individual coping mechanisms do not exclude us from facing systemic injustices. However, we can guard against and cushion ourselves from the daily microaggressions wielded against us. “Given the layered forms of violence present, Black women and girls in the South forged a counter narrative and offered tools and institutions that could provide something different than what white supremacy would. The South and my Southern family offered me armor that I walk through the world with,” Dr. Perry shares. She also recalled the earliest memory of being referred to by a racial slur, which happened up North in Massachusetts. At just six years old, she remembers being mostly unfazed even though she knew the racist epithet used was wrong. Years later when the same happened in high school, Dr. Perry watched as her friends began to cry and she genuinely couldn’t understand why. “This isn’t to downplay the emotional toll it takes but I had been so socialized into understanding that racism was a moral failing on their part. I associate my refusal to internalize white supremacy so much with my Southern roots.” 
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Foundation in affirming spaces 
Southern Black women have seen the most evil parts of this nation face-to-face and lived to see another day. They’ve gone toe-to-toe with misogynoir to build a better society than they received. This is community care in practice that has trained up a child to survive the world long enough to change it. As Women’s History Month comes to a close, we can all double down on our commitments to intersectional approaches to feminism and social justice work as a whole. 
Dr. Perry dropped the mic during our interview when she reiterated the legacy of her foremothers: “If you look at a Rosa Parks who organized against sexual violence long before the bus boycott or Fannie Lou Hamer who rallied against forced hysterectomies… their stories and work show us that when we talk about patriarchy and gender, we’re not just talking about attitudes but really exploitation where you are more vulnerable to intrusion and theft,” she says. “When you start with the traditions and experiences of Black women in the South, you are forced to understand on a much deeper level what patriarchy is and how people are sorted based on how much protection they will receive. It’s an ethical commitment not only to addressing personal instances of sexism but also systemic ones.”
What is possible if we learn from Black women in the South instead of demonizing the entire area? We might get more honest about what is holding us back collectively and have more daring conversations about what equity will cost this nation. We might save a lot of time and energy breaking cycles of violence that have centered those with the least to lose. Until then, I’ll be somewhere tuning out the distractions of white supremacy, listening to my elders, and building better tables rather than settling for the ones we’ve been offered. If you follow the lead of Black women, you may find yourself doing the same.

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