How Bree Newsome Gave Us an Important Lesson in Black Girl Boldness

by Altheria Gaston

Over the last few days, I’ve been thinking a lot about Brittany Ann (Bree) Newsome, the social justice activist who, in an amazing act of defiance, scaled the pole and removed the Confederate flag in front of the South Carolina Statehouse. In many Internet circles, this courageous Black woman has been rightly accorded hero status. When I first heard about Bree, I immediately thought of Alice Walker’s description of womanist. In her multifaceted definition of womanist, Walker includes the following meaning:

“From the black folk expression of mothers to female children, “you acting womanish,” i.e., like a woman. Usually referring to outrageous, audacious, courageous or willful behavior.”

Bree’s actions can certainly be considered outrageous, audacious, courageous, and willful. For far too long, Black girls, especially Black girls in the South, have been taught to NOT be womanish. I can specifically remember cousins being disciplined for being womanish. The label was one of judgment and warning. Bad things happen to womanish girls. I, on the other hand, was rewarded for being nice, polite, and obedient—all traits that I carried into my adulthood.

Bree has certainly caused me to question my own life as a self-proclaimed activist. I was in my 30’s before I started to speak up for what I believe, to not settle for less than I deserve, and to be vocal in the face of injustice. Because of how I was raised as a Black girl growing up in rural Alabama, I feared being labeled difficult or a troublemaker. Good girls didn’t get in trouble; they weren’t loud or loose. In a recent speech, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie cautioned us (women) about our obsession with being liked. I’m offering a similar caveat—about our motivation to be nice, sweet girls who don’t cause trouble. In many ways, we need women who are troublemakers.

Twenty-first century challenges require more Black women to be willing to boldly stand against injustice and to stand for equity. This won’t happen as long as we teach Black girls to be always accommodating, always compliant, always “good girls.” I am not arguing that we should allow Black girls to be disrespectful or disobedient to their parents and other adults who care for and about them. But I do think that Black girls should be granted the space to be rebellious when appropriate. In fact, it is necessary to teach them to rebel against all forms of exploitation, victimization, oppression, and humiliation. While cruelty should not be tolerated, and questionable criminal activity should never be encouraged, we should not expect Black girls to only be “sugar and spice and everything nice.”

Bree Newsome’s actions invite us to think more deeply about the kind of women we aim to be and want our daughters to be. I think it’s acceptable to be a rebel WITH a cause. Our girls don’t have to choose between being nice and being bold, between being respectful and being defiant, between taking chances and being cautious. It is possible to be “both/and” instead of “either/or.” They can adorn themselves with either hat, but we Black women have to guide them so they’ll know when to wear which one.

We have a long history of radical Black women activism like Angela Davis, Rosa Parks, Assata Shakur, Marian Wright Edelman, Fannie Lou Hamer, and Sojourner Truth. Bree Newsome gives us and our girls a modern-day example to follow. During the 1990’s, a Gatorade commercial encouraged us to “be like Mike.” Today, I propose a girls’ tee that reads, “Be like Bree!” Audacious, courageous, rebellious Bree. Compassionate, intelligent, sincere Bree.

Photo: Robert Lahser / The Charlotte Observer

Altheria Gaston is a regular contributor at For Harriet. She is on her on journey to “Be like Bree!” You can find her on Twitter @altheriagaston.

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