Black Women's Activism Will Not be Erased

by Kimberly Denise Williams

The fierce afro. The defiant gaze. The black power fist raised. The feminine silhouette. Angela Davis’ image is one of the most enduring from the Black Power Movement. Even looking at footage of her today strikes a note of reverence and conjures a sense of righteousness for the viewer. Her anger is apparent.

This imagery, along with incessant news reporting is what helped turn Angela Davis into a household name internationally.

Today, several victims of police brutality are known by name. And due to the protests that happen following each incident, the imagery of revolution is re-entering media spaces. Yet, in all these images, there is no contemporary Angela Davis iconography, real or fictional. 

But there should be. 

You could say it is disheartening, but not exactly surprising that even amongst some of our most insightful voices, the imagery of revolutionary women remains lacking. Kendrick Lamar’s album cover for To Pimp A Butterfly generated its own media frenzy, outside of the album’s musical content. The album's cover featured mostly men, posing exuberantly post-revolt in front of the White House was shocking for many reasons: The men were shirtless. Children were present. And a judge was dead. Of course, where there is buzz, there is backlash. Some people celebrated the revolutionary concept, while others noted the obvious lack of women. 

Historically, black women have been an active part of every civil rights and freedom movement in the United States, and they continue to stand as leaders today. And still, we don't see the multitude of representations that we deserve as organizers committed to the struggle. 

It must be asked: Is a weeping mother the extent to which the modern-day black female activist can be canonized?

Women should be in the foreground, weapons in hand, raging against the machine. Imagery like this symbolizes a very specific type of participation. Since women are active and engaged participants in activism and organizing work, they should be shown as such. Women don't just support this work; they lead it. 

There are a number of examples of how impactful images of women engaged in revolutionary work can be. Recently, Erykah Badu released They Die by Dawn, a 2013 cowboy themed film project featuring Rosario Dawn and Badu amongst others, on Tidal. The film puts women front and center. Badu is amongst the players, shooting her own gun, and making her own moves. Where some may comment on echoes of Blaxploitation, this is a very evident portrayal of a woman holding her own, not fading into the backdrop. Even more, it’s placing black women in a pivotal role in a very traditional depiction of American renegade and self-created justice.

Representation of women in this light now will also secure future representation of the actual work that women are performing. The pen has proved its might, and thanks to writers who have expressed their disgust and disdain for what's taking place in America, the thoughts and strategy of female activists will not be lost. 

But a picture is worth a thousand words. This representation needs to extend to visual formats as well, that can be easily and quickly consumed. What we want remembered is that through whatever tools women deployed, their actions were deliberate, forceful, and influential. Future generations will rely on images and documentation to understand today’s current events. Thus, today’s media producers should not deprive those generations of equal representation across genders.

Calling for these images of women does not equate to a call for violence. Nowhere in any of the images of revolution or rebellion, from Kendrick Lamar’s cover art to the music video for J. Cole’s "G.O.M.D.", is there a literal call to react violently to the injustices Black people currently face in American society. But as long as we are going to have symbolic revolts to express frustration, women must be included in the figurative action. They have to get their hands on the weapons too, or women will continue to be treated as less than. A revolution without full representation and participation is ineffective.

Angela Davis’s plight was real. While there is no way to create an Angela Davis replica, we can continue to recreate influential images and depictions of women involved in revolutionary work. As long as we continue to look back at the 1860s, 1920s, or 1960s for inspiration, we need to remember the women who were instrumental during the movements of those times—like Angela Davis, Ida B. Wells, and Harriet Tubman. We owe them, and the many other women like them, to include more women in representations of revolt and activism. If black women get to be strong and angry in every other facet, then we must also show images of our strength, our purpose, our righteous anger. 

Give me a weeping mother. Give me a black cowgirl. Give me a weapon. I’m here to fight.

Kimberly Denise Williams is a Brooklyn born chatterbox with an affinity for pop culture and chocolate. You can tweet her @kimberlythinks or visit her website:

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