Black Women, a History of Creating Our Own Spaces

By Amalfi Parker Elder, Esq. and Patrice Tillery

“The most disrespected person in America is the Black woman. The most unprotected person in America is the Black woman. The most neglected person in America is the Black woman.” – Malcolm

As we celebrate Black History Month (February) and Women's History Month (March) this year, we’d like to acknowledge the many ways that Black women have had to create spaces for themselves when no one else was interested in prioritizing their unique existence in American society. We also want to acknowledge the ongoing plight of Black women experiencing gender-based violence, navigating how to overcome invisibility, as well as the intersectionality of sexism, racism, and the other forms of oppression that they experience.

Ancestors Holding Space

Black women have historically been at the bottom of the social hierarchy, even in spaces designated to speak up for women (ex: the women’s suffrage and feminist movements), and in spaces designated to speak up for Black people (ex: the civil rights movement). In the late 1880s, the women’s suffrage movement, largely led by white women, did not address issues of race and further segregated Black women, excluding them from conventions and parades. The civil rights movements of the late 1880s and mid-1900s did not address gender issues and largely placed men in visible positions of leadership despite the expansive role Black women played in the grassroots organizing and administration of civil rights activism and organizations. The 15th Amendment, ratified in 1870, only extended the right to vote to Black men. After the passage of the 19th Amendment giving women the right to vote, white suffrage groups disbanded, failing to support Black women’s continued fight against the discriminatory state laws, policies, and practices that were designed to keep them from voting (lynching, rape, poll taxes, literacy tests). The issue of the right to vote is just one example of Black women’s interests failing to be a priority in solely female or Black spaces.

Black women have a long tradition of creating their own spaces where they can show up as a whole person, and not just as a woman, or just as a Black person. Starting in the late 1800s, Black women formed activist clubs, “mutual benefit societies, settlement houses, and schools” to address lynching, “health, sanitation, education, and woman suffrage … combating racism and racial uplift.” Early Black women’s clubs included the National Association of Colored Women, the Neighborhood Union, the National League for the Protection of Colored Women, and the National Council of Negro Women. In response to the exclusion of Black women’s interests in the feminist movement, Black women continued to create their own spaces throughout the 20th century. Notable spaces include the Women’s Political Council, the Combahee River Collective, The National Black Feminist Organization, the National Congress of Black Women, and African American Women for Reproductive Freedom.

In 1982, Alice Walker coined the term womanist to name Black women’s organizing and activism. Marcia Walker-McWilliams, the Executive Director of the Black Metropolis Research Consortium describes womanism as a movement that “centers the experiences, contributions, and efforts of Black feminists to better the world around them for all of humanity, not just themselves. Womanists speak to the injustices faced by Black women, men, children, and families and frequently fight against these injustices by leading, participating in, or supporting various social justice movements.”

Space for Black Women Experiencing Gender-Based Violence

The intersection of race, gender, and gender-based violence creates another critical need for spaces where Black women’s whole identities are seen, validated, and responded to. Black women were legally assaulted and raped during slavery as the property of white slave owners. The violation of black female bodies as an assertion of white power and privilege continued after slavery throughout the Reconstruction and Jim Crow eras. Gillian Greensite notes that “the history of the rape crisis movement in the United States is also a history of the struggle of African American women against racism and sexism.”

Rosa Parks is celebrated as a civil rights leader who would not give up her seat on a bus, but before that historical event, Ms. Parks was a child survivor of attempted rape and a sexual assault advocate. Ms. Parks established the Alabama Committee for Equal Justice for Mrs. Recy Taylor to initiate a national campaign to push for the arrest of 6 white men who gang-raped 24-year-old Recy Taylor in 1944. The pioneering work of Rosa Parks and others to address the rape of Black women and other women of color (Inez Garcia, Joanne Little, Yvonne Wanrow, Dessie Woods), paved the foundation of the modern anti-rape movement.[i]

The Department of Justice estimates that 1 in 5 Black women have experienced rape. More than 40% of Black women experience physical violence by an intimate partner in their lifetime. It is estimated that 51.3% of Black female homicides are related to intimate partner violence. Many Black women experiencing abuse find themselves arrested, prosecuted, and incarcerated instead of or along with their abusive intimate partner. Almost twice as often as white women, Black women are convicted for killing their abusive husbands, and far too frequently are arrested for domestic violence when acting in self-defense. Black women are commonly not seen as “real” victims. Rather, they are seen as problematic, overly aggressive, hostile, and more likely to be the abusive party, rather than the victim.

Many community leaders, scholars, and organizations have worked to create spaces for Black women experiencing gender-based violence. We encourage you to learn more about the work of Dr. Tricia Bent-Goodley, Dr. Hillary Potter, Beth Richie, Andrea J. Ritchie, Kimberle Crenshaw,  the African American Policy Forum[ii], and organizations such as INCITE!, the Women of Color Network, the Black Women’s Blueprint, the Safe Sisters Circle, Black Women Revolt, and SisterSong, to name a few.

The Institute on Domestic Violence in the Black Community (IDVAAC) formed in 1993 with a mission to “enhance society’s understanding of and ability to end violence in the African American community.” IDVAAC was the primary national cultural resource center for Black women experiencing abuse until it closed in 2016 and Ujima, Inc. formed to continue the work. Ujima Inc., The National Center on Violence Against Women in the Black Community serves as a national, culturally specific services issue resource center to provide support to and be a voice for the Black Community in response to domestic, sexual, and community violence.

Everyone Can Hold Space for Black Women

Because of the work of the above-mentioned and so many others dedicated to improving the lives of Black women and their families, we’ve learned about the common experiences Black women have with gender-based violence. National research reveals five shared social inhibitors to accessing help and resources:

  • Stereotypes (angry, promiscuous, or caretaker/maid).
  • Mistrust in the Criminal Justice System and/or Social Services (less likely to reach out for help because of historical and ongoing disparate treatment and harmful consequences of state intervention).
  • Re-victimizing Victims (arrest, prosecution, incarceration, state violence, alienation from community for seeking help, pressure from faith community to pray it away or be a better wife, stereotyping, and lack of culturally affirming advocacy).
  • Lack of Cultural Competency (perceptions of and terminology for violence and abuse that are different than police language and standards, shelters that do not have hair products suitable for Black women, failure to understand or respond to the intersection of various oppressions).
  • Resistance to Victimization (Black women do not identify with the term “victim,” and often take pride in being a strong black woman who can take care of her family and handle anything on her own, lack of acknowledging fear or weakness).

Developing an understanding of these 5 inhibitors is one way that mainstream service providers, social service agencies, and legal systems can improve their cultural competency and responses to Black women.

A helpful resource for addressing and understanding the unique dynamics of Black women’s experiences of intimate partner violence is the Wheel of Intimate Partner Power & Control in the African American/Black Community. This resource provides a comprehensive framework that goes beyond the traditional understanding of power and control dynamics in intimate partner violence. It takes into account the intersectionality of race, culture, systemic issues, and the “historical legacy of trauma” that contribute to the complexities of abusive relationships within the African American community. 

The wheel was developed by Black women, for Black women in New Orleans, Louisiana, as an initiative of the New Orleans Blueprint for Safety Disparate Impact Strategic Planning Committee. At the time the Committee formed in 2013, Black women were being arrested for domestic violence in New Orleans at a disproportionately high rate. Through several listening sessions with survivors, advocates, police officers and other criminal legal system practitioners, and a close review of 225 police reports, it was clear to the Committee that each of the above-described social inhibitors were contributing to Black women’s arrests, prosecution, and incarceration.

Creating the Power & Control Wheel was only one of the Committee’s responses, but it was possibly the most important. In 2013, despite the numerous adaptations of the original Power & Control Wheel for different communities, no wheel existed to represent the Black community or Black women’s experiences of abuse. The Disparate Impact Strategic Planning Committee believed in the fundamental need to create space for Black women because as history demonstrates in the absence of that space, Black women’s lives become invisible, marginalized, misunderstood, and harmed. 

By acknowledging the specific challenges faced by Black women who experience domestic violence, the Power and Control Wheel becomes an essential guide for both advocacy and support. It facilitates a more nuanced approach to intervention and prevention strategies that consider the historical and cultural factors influencing power dynamics. Recognizing the importance of this tool is key to fostering a more inclusive and effective response to domestic violence within the African American community, promoting healing, empowerment, and breaking the cycle of abuse.

Finally, as we honor spaces for Black women this month, we’d also like to point out that there is no monolithic “Black woman.” There are countless origins, homelands, languages, cultures, sexual orientations, genders, income levels, education levels, body types, hair types, skin types, spiritual beliefs, and generational preferences for music, dance, clothing, and vernacular that all come together under the singular term “Black women.” While the unique aspects of Black women’s identities are to be celebrated, we must also recognize when and how Black women’s identities, beyond race and gender, are used against them.  As we continue our work on behalf of Black women survivors, we strive to create intersectional spaces where Black women are able to show up authentically, unapologetically, and wholly themselves.  

"Black women, even if nobody else sees you, I SEE YOU. We are worth protecting and we are worth loving." - Alexandra Elle

[i] “History of the Rape Crisis Movement.” Gillian Greensite

[ii] Bent-Goodley, Tricia B. (2009) “A Black Experience-based Approach to Gender-based Violence.” Social Work 54(3).

Crenshaw, Kimberle Williams & Andrea J. Ritchie. (2015) “Say Her Name: Resisting Police Brutality Against Black Women.” African American Policy Forum, Center for Intersectionality and Social Policy Studies at Columbia Law School.

Potter, Hillary. (2008) “Battle Cries: Black Women and Intimate Partner Abuse.” New York University Press.

Richie, Beth E. (2012). “Arrested Justice: Black Women, Violence, and America’s Prison Nation.” New York University Press.

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Black Women, a History of Creating Our Own Spaces

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TAGS: #BIPOC #black women #BWJP Announcements #Gender Based Violence #News