As February’s Black History Month comes to a close and we gear up for Women’s Herstory Month in March, I am struck by this particular juncture. This moment on our academic calendars illustrates the everyday lives that, we, Black women experience – moving through the world at the intersections of race and gender. Because of this juncture, a Black women’s feminist agenda formed in response to mainstream second wave feminism. In the 1970s, Boston area feminist group, the Combahee River Collective issued a manifesto, which named the interlocking systems of oppression that Black women face.
“The most general statement of our politics at the present time would be that we are actively committed to struggling against racial, sexual, heterosexual, and class oppression, and see as our particular task the development of integrated analysis and practice based upon the fact that the major systems of oppression are interlocking. The synthesis of these oppressions creates the conditions of our lives.”
Legal scholar and critical race theorist, Kimberlé Crenshaw furthered this notion by coining the term intersectionality. This historically academic term can now be seen discussed in the mainstream on MTV. Sociologist Patricia Hill Collins also theorized about this notion of interlocking oppressions in the seminal text, Black Feminist Thought: Knowledge, Consciousness and the Politics of Empowerment. Third Wave Feminists of Color continued to push further for transnational and intersectional feminism as narrated in the 2002 anthology, Colonize This! Young Women of Color on Today’s Feminism. Women of Color feminist projects have persisted in multiple forms and have advanced with the advent of social media. New media technologies like Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram memes allow women of color histories and present day narratives to be captured.
Earlier this month the Anna Julia Cooper Center at Wake Forest University published an exciting women of color feminist project – A Seat at the Table, a crowdsourced syllabus under the curatorial direction of scholar and journalist, Melissa Harris-Perry and Candice Benbow. Benbow, doctoral student at Princeton Theological Seminary and lecturer in Women’s and Gender Studies at Rutgers University, is the genius behind the Lemonade Syllabus along with several Black feminist scholars who contributed to its creation in May 2016. Both reading lists use the 2016 albums by the Knowles sisters, Beyoncé and Solange, to spark a conversation about Black women’s experiences and contributions. Syllabi projects existed before and have continued since these including ones focused on Ferguson, Black Disabled Women and more recently, Trump. In the spirit of celebrating learning and connecting to moments in popular culture, the Elma Lewis Center for Civic Engagement, Learning, & Research at Emerson College has created our own, the Hidden Figures Syllabus Project.Our syllabus project is inspired by our predecessors and by the recent film adaptation of the non-fiction book by Margot Lee Shetterly, Hidden Figures, about three Black women mathematicians who were instrumental in NASA’s early operations. The film won the 2017 Screen Actor Guild Award for Outstanding Performance by a Cast in a Motion Picture and was nominated for three Academy Awards. While the film is noteworthy and rich for deeper analysis, I am most struck by the film’s title. The concept of a hidden figure is compelling because it is an opportunity to uncover the histories of individuals who have been obscured by history. Yet the same time, I can’t help asking: hidden to whom?
In her acceptance speech last night at the Oscars, Viola Davis, said something that resonated with me and this syllabus project. She remarked,
“People ask me all the time, what kind of stories do you want to tell, Viola? And I say, exhume those bodies. Exhume those stories. The stories of the people who dreamed big and never saw those dreams to fruition… So, here’s to August Wilson, who exhumed and exalted the ordinary people.”
In the spirit of exhuming stories, I invite you to participate in the Elma Lewis Center’s syllabus project. Today, we officially launch the Hidden Figures Syllabus Project to recognize and celebrate powerful Black women from across the African diaspora, whose work is often erased from history. This project is inspired by The New York Times Best-Sellers book and Oscar nominated film, Hidden Figures. The syllabus will consist of a list of texts, films and audio materials by and about Black women and their incredible contributions. We will then compile all the resources as a single document that we can share widely on social media and amongst our networks, in a similar fashion to other syllabus projects before us. Follow us on Facebook and Twitter with our hashtags #ElmaTaughtUs and #HiddenFiguresSyllabus to keep up with the project and visit the submissions page to contribute!
Judy Pryor-Ramirez is the Elma Lewis Scholar-in-Residence at the Elma Lewis Center for Civic Engagement, Learning, & Research. She is the co-author of Voices of Mixed Heritage, a digital curriculum for teachers about race, cultural hybridity and mixed race heritage. Follow her on tweets about #BlackGirlMagic and other musings at @JPryorRamirez.
(Image of Dorothy Vaughan, Katherine Johnson and Mary Jackson: NASA/Donaldson Collection/Smith Collection/Gado/Getty Images via HowStuffWorks)
(Image of Hidden Figures cast courtesy of Hopper Stone for 20th Century Fox, 2016)