How The Women Who Came Before Us Laid the Foundation for Today's Movements

by Oriaku Njoku

Women’s History Month has always been interesting for me. It’s a time when I reflect on all of my “otherness” and what that means for my place in “women’s history.” Being a first-generation Igbo Nigerian-American Queer Southern woman, I always wondered if there would ever be a moment in time where I would do something (besides simply surviving) that would allow me to make my own mark on history. For me, that moment came as I stood in front of the Supreme Court on March 2, 2016, with throbbing ankles and achy legs, rallying for abortion access as the Supreme Court considered the most important abortion case in my lifetime.

I was proud to be there representing the South, and on behalf of Access Reproductive Care-Southeast. As I stood there, I could not help but think of the resilient, radical, revolutionary women who have fought for human rights in our country, in whose footsteps I am now walking. I could not help but reflect on how the past influences me in the present. Nor could I fail to recognize how learning from our past will ultimately shape my ability to change the way we talk about abortion in the South. I found myself trying to channel the strength of the women of color who have inspired me to be brave and bold as I work to make sure that all Southerners and families have access to the reproductive healthcare we want, need, and deserve.

Standing in front of SCOTUS, I felt surrounded by the warmth, wisdom, and #BlackGirlMagic of ancestors like my godmother Onuma “Mma” Ezera, Audre Lorde, and elders like Byllye Avery whom I call my movement mothers. Their words and actions made it possible for me to be the unapologetic reproductive justice advocate I am today. Our movement mothers made it possible for me and nearly three thousand individuals to show up for abortion access and speak out against anti-choice legislation that seeks to rob us of our ability to make the best decisions for our lives.

Raising our family in Kentucky, my Nigerian parents sacrificed so much to make sure that my siblings and I had all the same opportunities as everyone else. They encouraged us to never forget where we came from as we grow in this world. My parents also made sure we had a long list of female role models who we could reach out to when we needed that extra push that only a community invested in your success could give.

My brilliant Nigerian godmother and original movement mother, Onuma “Mma” Ezera, was the strongest influence on who I have become today. She was an Africana Bibliographer and Africana Librarian at Michigan State University, an activist, the unofficial “Mother of all Nigerians” in Lansing, Michigan, and a truly phenomenal woman. When she started to notice that she was suffering from memory loss related to Alzheimer’s Disease, she asked my dad to bring me and my siblings to visit her. It was the last time I saw her and I think she knew it would be too. Mma made sure to tell me a few things that I still carry with me today. She told me that I come from people who have a history of being warriors that never stopped fighting for what was right, and that is part of what it means to be an Igbo woman. She said the fight would never be easy and through it all, I should never forget where I came from.

When I was 11, I just nodded, smiled, gave Mma a hug and promised I would heed her words. It was not until she passed away in 2011 that I understood the importance of what Mma told me. I knew I had to do something different with my life.

Luckily, I found reproductive justice, or she found me.

Reproductive justice is more than a social justice movement for autonomy. Audre Lorde said, “There is no single-issue struggle because we do not live single-issue lives.” In reproductive justice, this means our struggle goes beyond the right to choose whether or not to become a parent. It is a movement where my race, queer identity, ethnicity, gender, class and whole identity are welcome. Reproductive justice empowers me, all of me, to brazenly fight for what I know is right, which is the freedom for people to make the best decisions for themselves and their families. Reproductive justice is a future I envision where the complex stories and lives of everyone are equally honored and treated with respect, and where the human rights and dignity of individuals are preserved.

As someone who now dedicates my life to reproductive justice, I am grateful to those who paved the way. The visionary movement mother that resonates with me the most is Byllye Avery. As I read the transcript of an interview with Byllye Avery conducted by Loretta Ross in 2005 I was struck by her powerful story, how her life shaped her activism, and how she has evolved into the leader she is today.

Avery is described as one of the first to center the lived experiences of African American women in reproductive health and rights. Amazingly, Ms. Avery has been able to do this work centering the lived experiences of Black women while building meaningful relationships with white allies. She is able to bring her full self into the work by not letting her lesbian identity or initial fear due to lack of knowledge in the field deter her from doing the work. Byllye Avery truly believes in the power of people as experts of their own stories. And she facilitated this storytelling in consciousness raising groups which inevitably led to healing, heightened awareness, and important conversation about Black women’s health and the decisions we make.

Traveling to the Rally for Abortion Access with a diverse Southern Contingency made me realize that this was not only a huge moment in Women’s History, but that this was also a powerful moment in Black History, Queer History, and the History of Immigrant Women. What is Women’s History Month if not a time for us to all celebrate our stories? I hope that during Women’s History Month, that we all take time to reflect on the women of color who laid the foundation for the work we do as we make our own history. I hope we continue to recognize and honor our ancestors and elders who influenced our ability to thrive as we navigate a world that may have other ideas on who we can and should be.

Photo: Shutterstock

Oriaku Njoku is the co-founder and executive director of Access Reproductive Care - Southeast (ARC-Southeast), a reproductive justice organization based in Atlanta, Georgia whose focus is funding abortions and movement building in the Southeast.

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