It’s officially Black History Month and this means that across North America, we will hear the tried and true tales of many prominent children of the African Diaspora. There are, however, names that even the Black community to a large extent have forgotten. Perhaps it’s because some of these names reveal a history that at times seems too painful to confront, or perhaps it’s because we have invested so much in a gender based narrative of suffering that we have turned our back on the women who were lynched.
For far too long, race based violence is something that has been constructed as happening solely to Black men, though we know that women have been subjected to police violence, rape, and lynching. The names of these forgotten women have been glossed over to uplift Black masculinity, as the symbol of victimhood behind the crimes that we have suffered as a people, while black women have been constructed as ancillary victims through our relationships with Black men and boys.
Black life has always been cheap in a patriarchal white supremacist state but the lives of Black women have historically been universally devalued because, as women of colour, we occupy two marginalizations that interact to our detriment.
Lashawnda Crowe Storm is an Indianapolis artist and leader of The Lynch Quilt Project. Along with several other women, Lashawnda has taken a post card of the only surviving image to date of the lynching of a Black woman into a quilt.
“I took an actual lynching post card of the woman. Her name is Laura Nelson and she was murdered in Okemah, Oklahoma in 1911. We were able to take the postcard which probably only 4×6 and blow it up to an actual life size woman, cause it’s my perception that it’s very easy to digest something like this when it’s little and it’s manageable, and you put it in a little book, and you can put it somewhere and you can walk away from it. It’s very different when you encounter this. Here is a woman who I have made as close to my height as possible which is 5’8, and then it becomes a real woman. It changes the dialogue in many ways because then you have to focus on the fact that wow this is a woman and you can see in the photograph that she was married, so then what does that mean? Did she lose her family?”
As you might well imagine, this quilt has elicited a myriad of responses. Some feel that we should move past this horrible history and focus on the present, while others wonder how they would respond to the image of Laura Nelson if she was a white woman. This quilt elevates the life and death of Laura Nelson from obscurity. through the discomfort it causes to all who see it, or hear about it. The sad truth is that Mrs. Nelson was but one of many Black women who have been lynched. And this leaves me wondering who will give voice to their stories.
It’s been 102 years since the murder of Laura Nelson, and though lynching is no longer a common place practice, black women are still subject to violence on a daily basis because of our race and gender. Our blood has flowed and continues to flow like a river — as though it does not begin in a beating heart, nurtured by a passionate soul. We risk much — each time we demand to be heard and seen — but silence means that our shared pain, which is the legacy of the patriarchal white supremacist state that we have all been reared, will continue to be erased.
This Black history month, instead of repeating the names and achievements by rote of those we know, perhaps we should commit to searching for the stories that have been lost — because it is in this search that we will not only find truth, but ourselves. Someone has got to speak up for the nameless and the faceless and it is a task we dare not entrust to those whose agenda has been to cast us as second class citizens within a society that has benefitted and continues to benefit from our very marrow.
If we allow these stories to remain hidden, we send the message that these women do not matter, and by so doing, condemn ourselves to obscurity. The life of every Black woman means something. We must take this history of race and gender based oppression, and make it transformative, otherwise these women have died for nothing.