Knowing Our Names: Why Black Women Must Refuse the Language of Victimhood

by Stephanie Renee Payne

"When you know your name, you should hang on to it, for unless it is noted down and remembered, it will die when you do." ―Toni Morrison, Song of Solomon

A dynamic black woman that I have loved and admired since I was a child surprised me when she said, with a bit of disgust, "Black women are at the bottom. We're even beneath black men, and you know that's low."

As a writer, I dwell in the powerful and creative space of words and understand that while words can uplift they can also cloak us in darkness. Even though my sister-mentor soared above her words within her actions, she taught me a valuable lesson. I learned that choosing my words as well as my actions with deliberate intention tells the world who I am and that I, with steadfast focus, know my name.

As a black child growing up in Los Angeles in the 70s and 80s with a single mother, two younger sisters, and only the memory of an abusive, alcoholic father who abandoned us, I nevertheless saw myself as having super powers. I could fly beyond the moon and explore the universe within my mighty imaginative mind if I so pleased.

I also sat in the seat of the high morality that my grandfather, Morris Latham, taught me to occupy. Big Daddy, as we affectionately called my grandfather, never spoke the language of victimhood. While he experienced the inequities of being a black man in America, he did not blame white people, or feel held back. This, to me, was astonishing and inspiring given the fact that Big Daddy grew up in segregated Mississippi, and Big Daddy's father, Benjamin Latham, was killed by a white man for being in the wrong place at the wrong time.

I witnessed my grandfather as someone who thought of himself as powerful and successful in his Sunday-go-to-church white Cadillac. Big Daddy thought of the poor white people who had to result to feeling superior to one of God's children as sad and misinformed, but that wasn’t always his view.

When Big Daddy was a young man, he was full of venom and hatred toward the man who killed his father. Big Daddy came to the knowing that we all feel pain and can experience debilitating fear, and even act from that space of fear when we forget who we really are. Our forgetting can keep us in a loop of victimhood, which for all too many of us folks of color in America has become a default setting and a place of comfort.

As women, we often speak the defensive language of victim: If he thinks he's going to take advantage of me he's got another thing coming. We hold ourselves ready to fight instead of within the open embrace of grace, sensitivity, and wisdom that is our birthright as women. My grandfather stepped into that space of victim when he held the mantle of revenge as he planned, with a shotgun in his hand, to find the man who killed his father. This is what he told me:

"Stephanie, that man didn't have any teeth in his mouth. That man was living in an old shack. He was living far worse than I had ever lived. Stephanie, that man was already being punished. I knew to just take myself on home and be grateful for what I have."

When my grandfather focused on revenge, the rage was inside of him and not the other person. That rage blunted the beauty of his human spirit and made my beloved Big Daddy forget the compassionate man of grace that I knew him to be until the day he passed away.

On April 4, 1967 at the Riverside church in New York City, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. gave an address titled, "Beyond Vietnam." That speech called for our nation to undergo "a radical revolution of values." King went on to say, "True compassion is more than flinging a coin to a beggar; it comes to see that an edifice which produces beggars needs restructuring."

A more compassionate view of our American culture is to look at the edifice that produces the behaviors in those who reside in the shadows of racial hatred, gender violence, intolerance, and abuse of power.

My appeal to you, radiant women of color, is to look at the structure of our culture as separate from our worth. When we look at the edifice it is not personalized and we remain absolute in our power, and absolute in knowing our indelible, unique gifts to the world. When we look at the edifice, we attack a structure and not a person. When we look at the edifice, we devise a game plan for—as Dr. King so eloquently said—"a radical revolution of values." We must remember this as we march for Trayvon, Michael, Eric, Tamir—all of the brothers and sisters, black, white, and of all other ethnicities—who lost their lives due to those who stepped into the dark and thorny spaces of an edifice that made them forget their names.

Photo: Shutterstock

Stephanie Reneé Payne is the Founder and Executive Director of, a positive place on the Internet to connect to like-minded people who desire more peace and positivity in their lives, and author of, "ESP: Extreme Self Pampering for the Soul." Stephanie is a professionally trained and certified life coach, and a member of the International Coaching Federation. Stephanie holds a MFA in creative writing from Vermont College of Fine Arts, has taught creative writing at The New School University in New York City, and is in the process of completing her memoir titled, "Unbroken: One Daughter's Journey."

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