Thursday, 8 March 2012

Our Black Women Icons

Today is International Women's Day, a day to commemorate, celebrate and remember. To mark the day, we asked each other about our icons, the black women who give us hope and inspiration.

Ripeka Evans was part of Ngā Tamatoa, an activist group that operated during the 1970s to promote Māori rights, fight racial discrimination, and confront injustices perpetrated by the New Zealand government. She was involved in the protests against the South African rugby tour of NZ in 1981 and gave the call for protesters to invade the rugby pitch at Hamilton to stop the match from being played. She was a household name in NZ in the 1970s and 1980s and considered one of the leaders of her generation. She went on to join the Māori Economic Development Commission that worked on eradicating Māori poverty, was involved in setting up the Ministry of Women's Affairs and Māori TV which aimed to make Māori coverage equal to the proportion of Maori in the population (not yet succeeded) and worked to create the Waitangi Tribunal and treaty settlements. She says that "I saw that as following on from storming the barricades at Hamilton storming the barricades in the cabinet room. And it was brilliant." - Chitra

Nanny of the Maroons (Jamaican National Hero) was the leader of the mutinous black rebel army of former slaves and free black people in Jamaica in the early 18th Century. A formidable and fierce woman who secured the freedom of many Jamaican slaves. The British feared her and she led battles against them in the Maroon War from 1720 to 1739, and won using sophisticated guerilla warfare tactics. Like most Jamaicans I know, I honest to god believe that I am related to this woman, although she had no children. ;-) - Charmaine

Una Marson (1905-1965) was a Jamaican feminist, activist, and writer. Marson came to London during WW2 and was the first black female broadcaster & producer for the BBC with her radio show 'West Indies Calling' broadcasted internationally. Marson was also the personal secretary and script writer to His Imperial Majesty Haile Selassie. - Donalea

My black female hero is Surya Bonaly, one of very very few Black ice-skaters, I believe even the first, who like me is French. I have very little interest in ice skating but when I was little and there weren't any black people on TV in France, my mum and I started watching ice-skating competitions when we heard of Surya Bonaly, THE BLACK ice skater. She was criticized for using forbidden moves, a quadruple jump and a back flip which she remains the only one able to perform. When she appeared on the ice, the commentators spoke differently about her than about the other skaters. She had to prove herself more because she was different and even as a child I was aware of that, they wouldn't allow her to win no matter how good she was because she was not supposed to be there. but it turned out she was so incredible and unique that they had to give her medals. She was competing for France but the French were skeptical about praising her despite the fact that she was incredible and did things on ice that no one has ever seen even today. The French won several medals thanks to her but instead of praising her they criticized her aggressive technique and singularity, as if only White people were supposed to compete on the ice, and as if being "different", not the right color, not the usual figures meant being bad. As I said before I don't care that much about ice skating but when my mum and I watched the competitions we wanted to see an outstanding Black hero grab medals from the racist juries who didn't want to see her win and she never let us down. When she became vegetarian she gave me another reason to admire her. - Annette

I started reading Buchi Emecheta's books when I was a teenager, along with with Alice Walker and Toni Morrison her stories were amongst the few I could relate to. I was fortunate enough to hear her do a talk about 7 years ago and my admiration was sealed as she talked about her life story, how she came to live in London and how she survived. An inspirational woman without whose influence I would be a lesser person. - Samantha

My woman would be feminist writer and political activist, Ida B Wells (1862-1931). Born into slavery, at the age of 16 she became an orphan. To support herself and siblings she became a teacher at 16 pretending that she was in fact 18. She put herself through university and became a writer, editor of her own news publication and a political activist on racial injustice. Following the lynching of two friends, she became the first to conduct research on when, why and how lynching was applied as a 'law enforcement' tool. She wrote, "Our country's national crime is lynching. It is not the creature of an hour, the sudden outburst of uncontrolled fury, or the unspeakable brutality of an insane mob.'" She systematically went about making the world know this. Her life was threatened on numerous occasions and she became an internal exile within America but continued to tirelessly campaign. - Lola

Amy Jacques Garvey. Born in Jamaica, she moved to the USA in 1917 an' tief Marcus from his first wife. Nonetheless she did not derive her legitimacy from the status of her husband. She was a leading Pan-Africanist and Black Nationalist in her own right. She played influential roles in the movement as journalist, feminist and race activist. She became Secretary General of the UNIA, a post she held for over half a century proselytizing and propagating Garvey's philosophy of black consciousness, self-help and economic independence. From 1924 to 1927, she was the associate editor of the UNIA's newspaper, The Negro World, where she advanced her feminist/nationalist ideas with the inauguration of a new page entitled "Our Women and What They Think." The United Negro Improvement Association (UNIA) galvanised and energised Black people from Harlem, USA, to Capetown, South Africa. - Nadine

I heard of Homai Vyarawalla just over a month ago, through news articles reporting her passing away. It was both disappointing, and telling, that I hadn't heard of her earlier. Homai Vyarawalla is considered the first Indian woman photojournalist and is credited with capturing iconic images of/from Indian history, especially those of the last days of the Raj and the early days of Independence. What is even more significant for me, personally, is that Ms. Vyarawalla is a Parsi, a tiny ethnic community in India. Yet, in a culture where achievement is equated with economic prowess, our community tends to celebrate its 'captains of industry' over all else, so that Ms. Vyarawalla's history came as a surprise to most. In my mind, however, it is women like these - those that chart their own course without pomp or show, creating newer and broader avenues for those others to follow - who are truly inspirational. - Rashne

My black female heroine is Poly Styrene, lead singer in the seminal punk band X-Ray Spex. Although Poly wasn't a political activist or leader she was a revolutionary figure in the 70s punk scene as one of the few black women to stand up alongside her white, male peers and beat them at their own game. Although they only released one album, Germfree Adolescents, X-Ray Spex were critically acclaimed for their catchy songs and political songs about consumerism, environmentalism and identity politics. In a world where black woman are very rigidly stereotyped, you have to celebrate and gives thanks to the ones that break free from all the rules and set their own path. - Steph

I have several inspirational black women as my heroes (including my mum). Since we have to choose one I choose bell hooks. When I read her books I feel that I am not alone and find her writing style very engaging. My favourite bell hooks book is "Sisters of the Yam: Black women and Self-Recovery." - Kassandra

Keladi Chennamma was daughter of Siddappa Setty of Kundapur. She became the queen of Keladi Nayaka dynasty who fought the Mughal Army of Aurangzeb from her base in the kingdom of Keladi in the Shimoga district of Karnataka State, India. She protected the kingdom when her husband failed in his duty. Her rule lasted for 25 years (1671-1696), and Keladi kingdom was probably the last to lose autonomy to Mysore rulers and subsequently to British. She was a strong woman that had no fear and was known however for her generosity and kindness to armies that surrended! - Sonal

A hero of mine is Sor Juana de la Cruz, possibly-lesbian-Mexican-scholar-nun-musician-activist from the 1600s. She clearly experienced the world before becoming a nun, and became one perhaps less from devotion than because it was the only for a woman to do her own thing in those days, she rocks my world because she has the wit and wisdom of someone who has lived a thousand lives, she has the guts to speak out for women who wish to do what they want to do, she was a rebel, and she wrote really great poetry. She's fresh in my mind because today I was talking about my hero at university,
Professor Maria Cristina Fumagalli who was the first person at uni to address my Latin American background in a positive way, and who encourage me to write about it and 'from it' (I remember she said "you are creole, you know this". She is one of my heros because she is not afraid to be brilliant, calls people out on their privilege, laughs about it all, and she questions with great integrity the canon of what is 'good' in literature (white, european, etc). She tackles some really serious issues around culture, language, gender, identity, with depth, creativity, insight and power. I am afraid I will not succumb to the Latinamerican stereotype: Frida Khalo is not a female hero of mine. I think she was a wonderful artist, but I believe she has been elevated above other female artists of similar or better talent because she fulfils the role of a suffering female martyr, which reinforces the deeply ingrained latin american situation around the traditional roles of women. I love her as a person & an artist, but it would be wrong to choose her as a hero simply because she is famous & latin. - Intimaria

Who are your Black feminist icons? Add your thoughts in the comments below!


  1. My black feminist icon is Shirley Chisholm. When I was five years old in 1968, she was elected as the first African American woman to serve in the United States Congress representing the Bedford-Stuyvesant neighborhood of Brooklyn. She rocked the boat early on by demanding that she be moved from membership on the Agriculture committee because it had little relevance for her district. In 1972, she became the first African American woman to run for the presidential nomination of a major political party. Then in 1985 when I was 21, she became my professor at Spelman College as a scholar in residence and actually lived in my residence hall. The title of her first book Unbought and Unbossed captures the determination, feistiness, integrity, and womanistishness of this longtime political and social activist.

  2. Thanks for the beautiful reading. I really like the recognition of people you selected other than the traditional heroes we already know. Beautifully written. Thanks for sharing your beautiful thoughts and photos with us.