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Mace & Crown | March 23, 2017

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'What Do You Know?' Sheds Light on Women in History

Erin Sudek
Assistant News Editor

American history is a subject that every person raised in this country must learn in grade school. When we finish those classes, we believe that we are now knowledgeable of all the essential people, places and events about our nation’s history that we should know as American citizens, but what we don’t learn are facts such as how beauty parlors were historically key places for political activism. African-Americans, women and those of every sexual orientation played an equally important role in American history, but schools only teach their students so much about this history.

Dr. Deborah Gray White, Dr. Khadijah Miller and Dr. Tiffany Gill held a panel discussion on March 15 about the role of black women in America and uncovered truths about America’s history.

The event was hosted by the Women’s Center in honor of Women’s History Month and included a wide range of topics related to the oppression of African-American women throughout history and today.

“This country was not just built by the George Washingtons and Ben Franklins. America was built by everybody; every color, gender and sexual orientation alike, but our grade schools don’t seem to teach that,” Gill said.

Gill is an associate professor in both the departments of Black American studies and History at University of Delaware. She spoke about the huge political role that beauty shops had not only during the civil rights movement, but also today.

“There are not many places that a black woman can seek refuge and restore their dignity at like that of a beauty parlor,” she said.

She explained the different ways that African-American beauty entrepreneurs built a vibrant culture of activism within their salons and throughout their communities, making great social and political gains possible.

White is the Board of Governor’s Distinguished Professor of History at Rutgers University and has written numerous books on African-American history. She discussed the changing definition of freedom and citizenship in the U.S. and how being able to express every variable of one’s own identity is finally becoming increasingly acceptable. Although, obviously, problems do still exist.

She went on to explain that intersectionality, or the interconnected nature of social identities like race, class and gender and their related systems of oppression and discrimination, keeps getting in the way of inclusiveness in every aspect of American life.

For example, in various marches across the country we see people breaking off into groups, even though they are protesting for the same cause. A lesbian woman may not feel welcomed at a Women’s March because of her sexual orientation, despite the fact that she is fighting for the same ideals as straight women. Sometimes there are even separate marches held for wealthier and poorer groups, though their reason for marching is the same.

“I want to be a black, straight, female Baptist all at once. I don’t want to have to choose between race and gender. The big question is, can we stand with those unlike ourselves?” White said.

Miller is the Department Chair and Associate Professor of Interdisciplinary Studies at Norfolk State University and she explained the struggle of survival that every African-American woman faces and the incredible social vulnerability and underrepresentation they experience in the government and society.

“It is critical for black women to tell their own story because history is at the beck and call to those who share and tell,” she said.

In the U.S., great progress can be seen regarding humanitarian rights and social equality, but there are still remaining issues that are very evident in our country. These historical figures showed how powerful women of all races, sexuality and class were to America’s rich history.