In the United States, the question often arises: Why do Black women have to continuously advocate for themselves, from sports arenas and boardrooms to courtrooms and even their own homes? Akelah Reese, Assistant Director of the Office of Multicultural Student Engagement at Wayne State, who also oversees an organization that focuses on the advancement of Black women, encapsulates the sentiment succinctly: “Black women often find themselves in positions where they are compelled to display unwavering strength around the clock. The burden of constantly having to be strong and dependable, with little recognition, still weighs heavily on Black women.”
This sentiment doesn’t exist in a vacuum; it traces back to a fraught history. From Sojourner Truth’s 1851 “Ain’t I a Woman?” speech, calling out the discrimination Black women faced due to their race and gender, to the leadership roles assumed by the likes of Shirley Chisolm, Fannie Lou Hamer and Ella Baker during the Civil Rights Movement. Black women have long been pillars of strength in the community, activists against injustice, and advocates for social change. Their leadership can be felt in every sector of American society, yet, as Reese points out, their contributions often go unnoticed.
The under-recognition of Black women is not just a symptom but a chronic condition deeply rooted in American history. As Reese references, Malcolm X emphasized this when he said in 1962, “the Black woman is the most disrespected person in America.” Nearly six decades later, this statement sadly remains accurate. Take Serena Williams, for example, an athletic marvel who has been subjected to racially biased drug testing as she was tested significantly more than any other professional tennis player, both male and female, in addition to facing derogatory characterizations, or Coco Gauff, an emerging tennis prodigy who is expected to shoulder the burden of activism alongside her sporting career. These modern figures echo the historical struggles of Black women, encapsulating their incessant need to advocate for themselves.
The corporate world provides another stark example. Arian Simone, co-founder of The Fearless Fund, seeks to address the underfunding of Black women entrepreneurs. Reese would describe Simone and her peers as “change-makers, and advocates for their own rights but also for the rights of other communities.” These women break barriers, just like Madam C.J. Walker did in the early 20th century when she became one of the first Black female millionaires in America.
In the legal landscape, Fani Willis, the first Black woman to serve as Fulton County District Attorney, assumes an advocacy role that would be instantly familiar to pioneering Black women in law like Constance Baker Motley and Michelle Alexander. Here again, the twin burdens of racial and gender inequality converge, demanding relentless advocacy.
Historically, Black women have been the cornerstone not just of their own households but, often, of white households as well. Throughout the antebellum period, Reconstruction, and well into the 20th century, many Black women worked as maids, cooks, and nannies in white homes. In these roles, they became the invisible yet essential glue holding these households together. Akelah Reese’s notion of Black women being “compelled to display unwavering strength around the clock” finds historical resonance here. This strength was exerted in kitchens, laundry rooms, and nurseries, providing care and management often devoid of any acknowledgment or appreciation.
In a most intimate form of labor, Black women sometimes nursed white babies, a practice that dates back to the era of slavery. This relationship, commonly referred to as “wet nursing,” is particularly poignant because it embodies the complexities of American racial history and the unique burden placed on Black women. Here, they were expected to nourish and provide emotional support to white children, often at the expense of their own families and children. This emotionally and physically draining work exemplifies Malcolm X’s sentiment about the Black woman being the most “disrespected” and “unprotected” person in America.
The phenomenon of Black women serving as ‘the help’ transcends domestic work and can be seen as a metaphor for the larger social and economic dynamics in America. Black women have long been caregivers, nurturers, and sustainers of life—often for communities that do not grant them the respect and recognition they deserve. Even in the 1960s, during the Civil Rights Movement, many Black women who stood on the frontlines were domestic workers by day, fighting for social justice by night. They not only managed their homes and took care of their families but also became architects of social change, balancing multiple responsibilities that were crucial to the survival and advancement of their communities.
The dichotomy of being both indispensable and overlooked has been the hallmark of the Black woman’s experience in America. While they have been essential in maintaining the fabric of the American household—both Black and white—they’ve often done so without the proper acknowledgment of their invaluable contributions. It’s a historic condition that Akelah Reese recognizes, reminding us that “the burden of constantly having to be strong and dependable, with little recognition, still weighs heavily on Black women.” It serves as another layer of the multifaceted struggle that Black women face, an additional arena in which their advocacy for dignity and equality remains vital.
Reese sums up the importance of the role Black women play by saying, “It is no secret that some of the roles that Black women serve in are role models, activists, change-makers, and advocates. Black women break barriers and create paths for future generations to follow.” Their significance is immeasurable, extending beyond their immediate circles to impact wider society positively.
It’s a point of gratitude for Reese, as she explains: “It’s impossible for me to adequately express my gratitude to the remarkable Black women in my life who have played pivotal roles in shaping the person I am today.” It is not just about acknowledging past and present struggles but about propelling a more equitable future. “It is my hope that my daughter and the generations to come will remain motivated to leave their mark on society, showcasing the valuable contributions of Black women to the world,” Reese adds.
In this journey for an equitable society, Black women have always been, and continue to be, at the forefront. However, their tireless advocacy should not be a mandated responsibility but a choice. Until society collectively assumes the responsibility for ensuring the dignity and representation of Black women, the question will remain—If not them, then who? And while we ponder this, let’s not forget to acknowledge and appreciate the vital contributions that Black women make, fulfilling the hopes of leaders like Reese, who look to the future with both caution and optimism.