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Black History Month: A Time to Share or Shut Up?

Angela Peoples holding sign (Kevin Banatte)

In the wake of the Women’s March on Washington, many participants and from-afar admirers celebrated the success of a watershed political moment: a coming together of millions of women all over the world to voice opposition to the new American president and his stance on a variety of political and social issues.

For all the rightful celebration of the march, some participants and abstainers also brought up rightful criticism. They said the march failed to emphasize and acknowledge the identities of women of color, native women, queer and trans women, and sex workers. In other words, they said the march wasn’t intersectional. In other other words: it was just too white.

The Women’s March is a prime example of an event that, while largely successful, remains a teaching moment for feminists to reflect, discuss, learn from others and vow to try to do better next time. Much like the organizers at the women’s march, we at JWA are also feminists engaged in an inherently political activity (reclaiming and disseminating women’s stories to affect change), and as such, we are all about self-critique and reflection.

To that end, we’ve been pondering just what we should do to honor Black History Month.

A bit of backstory: Black History Month was rolled out by President Gerald Ford in 1974, and since then, has been oft-lauded as a time to raise awareness of and celebrate Black history, as well as oft-derided as an exercise in tokenism and an excuse for corporations to launch marketing campaigns such as “Black History Month sneakers” (Nike) and something called “365Black” (McDonald’s).

Late-stage capitalist shenanigans aside, the noble ideals behind Black History Month are completely in line with our mission to highlight history’s marginalized stories, and so in theory, we’re all on board for a month of sharing Black Jewish stories.

But the question is: is it our place to be?

The truth of the matter is that, although we have many wonderful women of color who write for us and contribute to our materials, everyone who works at JWA is white. Yup, all white. And this brings me back to the women’s march. One of the early critiques of the march was that although all women were of course welcome to march, the architects of the day were still white. Just like it’s been for most of modern history. The original organizers of the march did quickly realize their mistake and worked to assemble a more inclusive team, but at the end of the day, many of the marchers were still white. The symbol of the march—the pink pussy hat—isn’t even representative of most women of color’s bodies. I mean, this picture says it all, in many ways.

So by blazoning our social media and website with stories of Black Jewish women for these next 28 days, are we simply perpetuating a system wherein white people still hold the keys to information, power, and activism? Isn’t it a bit condescending for ten white people to proudly showcase stories of our Black fellow Jews? Is this, perhaps, a time for us to sit down and shut up and let someone else do the talking?

Perhaps. But, counterpoint. The fact remains that our archive is replete with stories about women who are both Black and Jewish, from the friendship between Polly Cowan and Dorothy Height to Alicia Garza to Jamaica Kincaid to Katya Gibel Mevorach. If our mission is to share Jewish women’s stories, well, clearly, Black Jewish women should be a part of that. We should be working to actively challenge the notion that Judaism is monolithic, that all Jews are white Ashkenazi New Yorkers. Aren’t we remiss in failing to take this opportunity to showcase alternate experiences and stories?

But then, why do we need an opportunity to showcase the stories of Black Jewish women? Why don’t we just make a conscious effort to integrate the sharing of these stories into our daily work, instead of patting ourselves on the back after 28 days and closing our encyclopedia pages about Garza and Mevorach until February 2018?

I hope that you’re not hoping for a grand conclusion at the end of this blog post, because I don’t have one. There are no easy answers for hard questions. However, there are a few things that JWA can commit to. One is to share stories of women from outside the white heteronormative mold during months that aren’t February. Yes, we will share some stories of Black Jewish women during this month, but we will also continue to share them throughout the rest of 2017 and beyond, alongside the stories of women with other identities that intersect with Judaism (such as women who navigate disability, Asian women, transwomen, Southeast Asian women, and LGBT women).

Our second pledge: we want to learn. We want to hear from you about how we’re doing, what you think we’re doing right, and what we could be doing better. We promise to listen; we promise to reflect. These commitments are imperfect solutions—or maybe not solutions at all—but we hope that by following them, we will at least move in the right direction towards an ever-more intersectional, inclusive future.

Topics: Civil Rights
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How to cite this page

Cataneo, Emily. "Black History Month: A Time to Share or Shut Up? ." 8 February 2017. Jewish Women's Archive. (Viewed on March 28, 2023) <https://jwa.org/blog/black-history-month-time-to-share-or-shut-up>.

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