4 Lessons All Activists Can Take Away from the Womanist Organizing of #SayHerName

by Candace Simpson

“In the process of consciousness-raising, actually life-sharing, we began to recognize the commonality of our experiences and, from that sharing and growing consciousness, to build a politics that will change our lives and inevitably end our oppression.”

—The Combahee River Collective, “A Black Feminist Statement”

For the Black Feminist or Womanist, it is not enough for us to shout “Lean in!” as if it is our individual behavior that keeps us oppressed. We, instead, believe and behave as if this world can be better. There is no greater popular case study for understanding Black Feminist Thought and Womanist Methodology than the latest iteration of #BlackLivesMatter protests and actions: the #SayHerName movement. Here are a few elements that make Black Women’s organizing particularly effective for sustainable social change.

Lesson #1: Encouraging Relationship Building among Protest Participants

At a #BlackOutBlackFriday protest some friends and I helped to organize last year, we gathered in front of a large shopping mall in Brooklyn. We decided as a group to march across the Brooklyn Bridge to the New York Stock Exchange. Because we had people of varying ages and abilities in our group, we encouraged people to take a rest from chanting and singing while we walked across the bridge. Participants had the chance to talk with the people they had been marching with for the morning. For us, the whole point of protest was not necessarily the spectacle of disruption. We wanted to connect like-minded individuals who would inevitably hold each other accountable for our shared values.

I felt this same spirit when I attended the recent #SayHerName vigil in New York. Immediately upon arrival, I saw men and women embracing each other with genuine love. “Hey Fam!” “So good to see you!” “You coming to my birthday?” “Is that Ruby Woo!? Looks great on you!”

Where in other protests we are encouraged to focus on the “VIPs,” the #SayHerName vigil was filled with brothers and sisters who considered this protest a safe place among friends. More than once, vigil organizers encouraged participants to see the person standing next to them. This was a disruption of power dynamics, an essential piece of Black Feminist and Womanist Thought. 

A protest that uses Womanist Organizing Methods will encourage everyday people to see each other as the movement’s greatest assets.

Lesson #2: Making Connections Between Exploited Bodies and Forgotten Stories

One of the most controversial protests was the direct action in San Francisco, where Black women participants painted messages of liberation on their bare chests. Organized by The BlackOUT! Collective and Black Lives Matter, women of this protest cried out, “Who taught you to love yourself? Black women!”

The images were powerful, as they conjured memories of exploitation of Black women’s bodies for the sake of the United States Empire. One participant reminded press that “our labor-slave labor helped to build this country, and we won’t be commodified anymore.” This truth goes beyond just slavery. We can extend the question of exploited labor to the use of Black women in political campaigns, in the erasure of our intellectual work, and in the recent discussion of Harriet Tubman on the $20 bill.

Black women are reminding the world that they are deserved respect, recognition, and remembrance.

Perhaps most ironic about the protest is the way that it has been received by spectators. Even among Black people who belong to organizations and clubs founded upon service and community uplift, questions remained: “Why are they topless? Does that detract from their message? Don’t they respect their bodies?”

Respectable Negroes shook their virtual heads and wondered why these women couldn’t engage in more “appropriate” actions. But it was clear that organizers knew exactly what they were calling up. Chinyere Tutashinda of The BlackOUT! Collective reminded press that the decision was a reference to the legacy of the Diaspora. They purposefully utilized “traditions from Nigeria, Gabon, Uganda, and South Africa, from women who bare their chests and other parts of their bodies in protest.” 

A protest that uses Womanist Organizing Methods preferences historically accurate and powerful images over respectable and sanitized ones.

Lesson #3: Engaging Local Communities through Street Outreach

The New York City chapter of Black Lives Matter helped to organize street outreach in Flatbush. In one-on-one conversations, volunteers were trained to speak with residents of the neighborhood about police brutality against Black women and girls. This practice struck me as radically different from other actions we’ve seen thus far. Organizers prioritized the consciousness-raising of communities most affected by police brutality. There is a time and place for different kinds of actions, and here, it was most appropriate to spend time in our home-communities having real, loving conversation.

In her own autobiography, Assata Shakur names her discomfort in the organizing practices of the Black Panther Party. Shakur had observed an attitude that was “arrogant, flippant, and disrespectful” coming from the Party. It was nearly impossible to organize the not-yet-initiated due to this harsh attitude. 

A movement that uses Womanist Organizing Methods recognizes the power of truly grounding itself within the local community.

Lesson #4: Maintaining a Connection Between Scholarship and Practice

The Black Feminist fangirl in me could not contain the joy in her little purple glittery heart upon seeing Kimberlé Crenshaw in all her sandy-locks glory. Professor Crenshaw is credited with developing a holistic theory of “intersectionality.” She gave opening remarks at the New York #SayHerName vigil, using her scholarly work to frame the occasion. As a student on the uncertain path of academia, it was refreshing to see Professor Crenshaw use accessible language as her prop. She did not speak over or beyond people. Instead, she explained that we gather to remember that Black lives matter all the time, and that our insistence on centering certain victims out of an easily sentimentalized instinct is unfair to the Black community as a whole. 

 Her embodiment as a scholar and an activist is exactly the aim of Womanist thought. It is impossible to write, read, and lecture on theory without feeling some sort of responsibility to share that scholarship with activists and community members. 

A protest that uses Womanist Organizing Methods will encourage all attendees to consider their gifts and how they might be of use to the movement.

#BlackLivesMatter, as a movement and as a framework, is here to stay. If we are going to engage in this movement sustainably, we’ve got to hold tight the Womanist Organizing Methods that make for a good foundation. We have spent a lot of time critiquing the model of charismatic male leadership, but there is more to the conversation than how this aesthetic gets it wrong. We must also focus on the ways that Black Women have gotten it right, how we are working to make the pieces fit, and that we have a method to our perceived “topless madness.”

Particularly in a think-piece environment that fixates on the questions, “Is Beyoncé feminist?” and “Is twerking feminist?” we must insist on asking, “What does our justice framework DO?” It is for this reason that we are not feminists in the sense that we behave or think like Emma Watson, Sheryl Sandberg, or Hillary Clinton. We maintain our deeply intersectional identity as Black Feminists and Womanists through our commitment to tangible ideas that impact our everyday lived experiences.

For us, this isn’t a hobby. Our lives depend on it.

Photo: Andy Katz / Corbis

Candace Simpson is a seminary student and a Brooklyn native. You can follow her tweets about faith, Nicki Minaj, and the gospel of shea butter at @CandyCornball.

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