“When you leave this house, you represent me.” That was the closing line of my parents annual first day of school speech when I was little. Sometimes my dad won the prize of delivering those words and sometimes it was my mother. Those words stuck with me and over time became representative of what our historical past means to me as a woman of color.
As African-American women, we are a part of something greater than ourselves and we represent something greater than ourselves. We cannot afford to mismanage the opportunities we have today that were afforded to us by amazing women like Ida B. Wells, Ruby Dee, Lena Horne, Rosa Parks, or Coretta Scott King. We cannot afford to ignore the doors they opened for us, nor can we afford to ensure those doors do not close once again.
As women, and particularly as African-American women, we have made tremendous progress. However, progress is not the end product. Women are still paid less than their male counterparts. I, a very hard-working multiracial woman, have been knowingly paid less than a male hired to do the exact same job as me. I didn’t stay there long and continue to hone my salary negotiation skills. Women in the United States still make up the majority of people living in poverty, after children. Globally, women constitute much of the world’s impoverished, and sexually and physically abused. We are forced to undergo female genital mutilation, denied access to family planning and sexual healthcare, denied access to education, and have become hosts to sexually transmitted infections. Women of color in particular are still absent from most political platforms in the states and abroad, as well as board rooms, conference rooms, temples and church pulpits. We’ve made progress, but we are far from where we are capable of being.
If we become satisfied with the foundation built for us by women such as Josephine Baker, Harriet Tubman, Sojourner Truth, Alice Walker, Angela Davis, or Miriam Makeba, then we risk remaining in a state of “almost”, a state of “something is better than nothing”, a state of “less than”. We remain impoverished, underpaid, uneducated, infected, victims.
However, if we harness the tenacity, critical thinking, commitment to creative problem solving, dedication to equality, holding each other and our leaders accountable, hope in action, then we become change makers and we continue the progress. We who are dissatisfied with our current conditions work effortlessly in any and every way we can achieve higher goals. We want to be offered the best pay for a job (not the best pay for a woman), the best education to best prepare us for any political office we desire to hold, the best health care, the best safety to protect us from violence, the best environments to say no to things that may have been considered a cultural norm or rite of passage, the best seat to pull up to the best companies we have built from the ground up.
If we own the rich herstory that we have as both a reminder and motivation, we can in fact collectively be all that we envision for ourselves, our families, and our communities.
“Don’t settle for better, go for the best. You represent me.” These words are indicative of the collective voice of our African-American female civil rights leaders who started the mission that we ought to consider a duty and an honor to continue until its day of completion. We must continue to be representatives of our historical paths through the footings of our futures. Our black history is not just a once-a-year reminder. It’s a personal legacy embedded in all of us. The story has been started…how will you finish it?