I Can’t Deal With Her: Black and White Women in the Movement

Other major writing deadlines claim my attention this week, and I must thank my friend Ruby Sales for stepping in and contributing a guest column here on Something Within today.
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I grew up in the South where white women were “Ms. Anne” the pillar and post of a segregated society and black women were expected to bend to their power and every command in the kitchen and all areas of society. When black women refused to accommodate this white female supremacist structure, white women acted as ruthless as white men in pushing us in our places. This is the only kind of white woman I knew before I joined the southern Freedom Movement in the 60s.

In the Movement, I worked met and worked alongside white women who were just as fierce about democratizing the south and the rest of the country by breaking the backs of economic and racial injustice. Like black women, they took the body blows and the vicious name calling without backing down or finding easy ways out. We stretched each other’s lives! Thinking back on it now, had we gone through life without meeting each other our lives would be the poorer for it.

The Movement taught the black and white women who worked in it to interrogate our assumptions about each other even if it meant going into territories that reeked of bad history and seething anger.

Much of black and white women’s anger and mistrust toward each other today has long and deep roots that extend beyond the Southern Freedom Movement, back to slavery and echoes throughout black and white women’s history with each other in this country. I came face to face, however, with that history during the Southern Freedom Movement where black and white women, when we weren’t fighting against our common enemy racist oppression, we engaged in an intra- gender war among ourselves. We each used what we thought were our most beautiful assets to jab each other and to score beauty and power points. In the presence of black women, white women often untied their hair and flung it shoulder length at us. Not to be outdone, we flung and shook our hips as we blew air between our lips. In these battles, both white and black Movement women retreated behind defensive walls because we wanted what the other had and what we thought we lacked. We waged attacks against each other with different weapons with always a view on what we thought were the prizes of our struggle: Black men, leadership, and white male power.

In far too many instances, the struggle between Black and White women gave way to a horizontal and irrational meanness and narrowness that hampered our abilities to critique our actions so that we might see more of the other and less of ourselves. For many southern and northern white women, black male freedom fighters represented taboos they wanted to cross over. For us, black men were strong, take care of business, spit in the face of white culture and lived to tell about it – a new breed of race men. When black men stood up during the Movement up and asserted “I am a man,” black women stirred with pride and ownership. And, we were not letting any one rob us of this moment that we dreamed and prayed into being. In the end, we could not unite in long run coalitions as mutual partners in a struggle for racial and gender justice. Sad to say, but the white and black men who worked alongside us in the Movement found ways to fuel the divisions among us for their own benefits, which often meant securing their places of power.

Lest I feed into the revisionist notion of the Civil Rights Movement as principally a gender war and a sexual playground, I, as a Movement witness can tell you without any hesitation that a passionate and uncompromising commitment to freedom and justice for southern African Americans drove my Movement sisters and brothers, both black and white. This deep and abiding commitment cut across race, class and gender. It was the glue that held our relationships together beyond our differences and skirmishes in the hottest and most devastating moments of the Movement. Black and white women formed a circle of friendship and camaraderie that held throughout the worst days of white terrorism and gender wars. Many of these friendships hold steady today.

Sit ins
 ©Fred Blackwell; Seated, left to right, are Joan Trumpauer (now Mulholland), and Anne Moody

Whether you were a black or white woman, the South was a dangerous place to work and go to jail. White male jailers raped black and white women, conducted invasive and deep vaginal searches and often poured acid on women’s genitals. They tortured black women more frequently than white women. Today revisionist historians, along with 20th Century White Redeemers, Right Wing Conservatives, Christian Coalitions and their colored allies, obscure the nature and violence of these barbaric actions with public propaganda that depicts the southern Freedom Movement as a movement of black and white female sluts who engaged in endless abnormal and depraved sex with men, especially animalistic and predatory black men. In the short and long term, these revisionist lies work to undercut the meaning and victories of the Movement and the complex friendships that emerged from it.

I, as was the case with many of my black sisters, belonged to a generation of black women that did not feel limited in the Movement because of our gender. Immediately upon entering Lowndes County, Alabama, I was assigned as a sole organizer to a city with about 2,000 black people. This was not true for white women whose public presence with black people, especially black men, jeopardized the entire black community. White women resented the fact that they could not always work out in the field like the rest of us and had to work behind desk answering phones and taking care of administrative tasks. It reminded them of all the times in their lives they had been held back because of their gender. 

Some Black women gloated over the restrictions placed on white women. For the first time in history, we seem to have more freedom of mobility and access to power than white women. In response to what seemed to be unequal power, white women retaliated by using their position in the administrative offices by controlling information and keeping those they disagreed with in the dark about key Movement decisions. These dynamics fed the divide that already existed between black and white women. Despite the common experience between black and white women in the Southern Freedom/Civil Rights Movement, the bond between black and white women would eventually finally snap. And when it came, it was not over men but over the deeper issues of systemic racism, power, leadership and Black women’s unwillingness to come to feminism on white women’s terms in ways that left our fathers, sons and brothers out.

White women would eventually leave the Southern Freedom Movement to form their own feminist circles using the skills they gained from their experiences in the Southern Freedom Movement. I do not blame them for building gender organizations. They should have. The Movement shouldn’t have expected white women to swallow sexism any more than we were prepared to swallow racism. I do blame the white women who worked in the Movement, however, for building what in many instances became racist organizations that closed doors in black women’s faces—appropriating the tools of their white mothers and fathers and forgetting what they learned from local black women like Victoria Gray Adams and Ella Baker.

race women 

Today as I watch all that has taken place in the recent presidential primaries I see black and white women falling prey to a static history that leaves out this ebb and flow with each other. Instead we lock each other into a one dimensional contentious history that does not tell the stories of the hopeful times when we stood together in Mississippi, Georgia, Alabama, Florida, Tennessee and South Carolina our voices earnestly singing , “I will die for my freedom if the spirit says die”…. Gone are those memories.

We see evidence of our collective loss of memory from the vitriolic comments of white women for Hillary and black women for Barack. Learning very little from Popular Movements of the 60’s- 90’s, both groups imagine a dualistic world where their grievances take up the entire stage. Grievances that close them off to the suffering of others. Yes, deep bitterness runs throughout the conversations between black and white women, blighting truths and the questions that we must ask about ourselves each other and the men in our communities. I ask myself: Are black and white women doomed to repeat the past? Will we always be going our separate ways because it’s just too hard to interrogate our assumptions and get past our differences? Can no better future for us be imagined?

©Ruby Sales, 2008

9 Responses to “I Can’t Deal With Her: Black and White Women in the Movement”

  1. Danielle Says:

    Ruby,

    Very thought-provoking indeed. I think the main thing that must be at the heart of true kinship between black and white women in any movement is honesty. We have to begin in small circles and create atmospheres in which we can share our fears and beliefs without judgment and hurt feelings. When we begin to have honest conversations then we will find that there are so many more things we have common than the things that divide us.

    Additionally, thanks for a TRUE history lesson from that bird’s eye perspective. Have your thought of capturing an “in their own words” kind of book to record this vital piece of living history? I would be interested in reading more accounts like yours.

  2. Renita Says:

    I too appreciate, Ruby, reading your first hand account of some of the dynamics taking place between black and white women in the Movement.

    I find fascinating your description of the different work assignments assigned black and white women (presumably because of the lightning rod effect white women working alongside black men in registering voters and participating in sit-ins would have had).

    You mention the “complex friendships that emerged from [that period].” I assume you’re talking about friendships with white women in the Movement. Why complex, and what would you say is the secret to the survival of such friendships given these bitter-sweet memories?

  3. revmamaafrika Says:

    Sis. Dr. Ruby,

    As always, thanks again, fascinating reading indeed. As I and others have often asked you, “when are you writing YOUR book?” A lot of your colleagues have, including finally Big Bro. K.T. All you need to do is get a young, bright high school or college student to follow you around with a micro-cassette recorder and a laptop for about three to six months, then WOW, it’s done. :)

    I would also be very interested in reading how the LGBTQI movement evolved and gained momentum from the Civil Rights/Black Power/African Liberation movements of that time period, the Black and Brown people involved in Stonewall, especially now, with the controversy raging about justice in marriage, etc.

    Thanks so very much for your continue presence and guidance in the People’s Struggle! :) :)

  4. Ruby Sales Says:

    @Danielle, yes, Black and White women have many things in common that we can draw on. At the same time we must wrestle with the differences that exist and do separate us whether we ignore them or not. It’s hard to have a vibrant sisterhood in the face of systemic injustices like racism, classism, etc. We need not pretend that our commonalities outweigh these heavy divides that preclude in many instances democratic intimacy. I did not mean to convey the often repeated assertion that we have more in common than differences. What I meant to say that it is in our common work for justice and the relationships and history that emerge from this work that Black and White women come to know each other enough to walk into these systemic divides and injustices without denial or silence.

    @ Renita, White and Black Women in the Southern Freedom Movement. Black and White women came into Movement with both the burden and strength of history that we did not make together. Yet, this history sat in the middle of our relationships. However, the Movement presented us with the freedom and opportunity to make new history with each other. Although the past troubled our new history, our daily intimacy carved out of our common work and the need to cover each other’s backs from outside white terrorism tightened us into family who went through bad and good times together.

    We came together young, impressionable and passionate more grateful for the opportunity to work together in a period of history that touched our young hearts and minds forever deeply. So, even after forty years when we meet, our first impulse is joy and then later the other stuff surfaces like in any family. Of course, we could not resist each other’s intellects. The Movement brought very bright Black and White women with nimble minds that constantly broke boundaries, racial, gender and sexual. Many Black and White women found our lesbian and bisexual voices with each other and certainly from our journey in Movement. Once we broke racial and gender constraints, it was a matter of time before many of us jumped out of the loop of heterosexuality if not together certainly at the same point in history. We found in each other friendships of comfort and security that our home communities and sometimes families denied us when confronted with our expanded sexualities.

    @RevMamaAfrica,you have a book in you, too…Black woman in the All African People’s Party… I am telling my story, are you? I hope so.
    Ruby Sales

  5. valerie bridgeman Says:

    @ Ruby
    Thanks for the provocative analysis. I am having serious conversations with white women friends these days and the differences are often thorns we try to avoid; but like every rose, you don’t often see the thorn until you’re stuck and bleeding. I know the years of pondering and struggling to “get ahead” while not maintaining the racialized ideals of “the American Dream.” Sisterhood is only powerful if it brutally honest, truthful. And, your description of the nimbleness of thinking and the passion the Movement tapped into reminds me of the Poetry Slam crew, mostly young people who challenge each other in this generation. I worry (yes, that’s the word) that the histories of which you write will drown out the dialogue that women often have been able to carry on. I think of my friends Cheryl and Lisa and Emily and Barbara who I am always vetting and never fully trusting that their “whitenss” won’t override the relationship/alliance/commadre/sisterhood we have established. I am sure that they wonder whether my blackness is my “trump” card. And I hear Sandra Wilson’s question: “Which me will survive all these liberations….”

  6. Rev. Angela Says:

    @Ruby
    Thank you for your account and analysis of the Movement and relationships between Black and White women in the midst of it. Wow, these narratives are conspicuously absent from the anecdotal telling to the writing in “history” books. If you write the book I will buy it, eagerly read it and buy copies for my friends. As it is, I need to reread your post and roll it over in my mind some more.
    @Valerie
    I also worry about the “whiteness override” in some of my friendships with White women. I wonder what their worries are about us? I’ve just realized that I’ve never asked. Wow…
    In seminary we formed a group of women–Black, White and International Women around the question, “If we get along so well in one-on-one friendships then why when we get into our respective groups, these friendships somehow give way?” We committed to staying in the group despite, deep honesty, some(okay, lots) anger and too many tears to count. At various points, each of us talked about how difficult it was to return to the group but we did. It was a challenge by one of the International sisters that prompted me to move to India for awhile. Our commitment to one another and a sense that what we were doing was far too important to abandon that carried the day. Most of the lessons were hard but I learned what is possible which leaves me cautiously optimistic.
    @Renita
    I’m baaaaaaack :-) I appreciate the effort you make to keep this blog going in the midst of all you do and inviting other “Thinking Women of Faith” as your guest bloggers. Thanks.

  7. Renee Says:

    A lot to think about here. I would agree that both sides are suspicious of the other but I firmly believe that black women have more grounds. Feminism did not start with the movement in the 70’s no it began with the struggle to get the vote. Yes at the very beginning of feminism black women were rejected. If that were not the case there would not have been a need for Sojourner Truth to ask ain’t I a woman. There must be some kind of peace somehow but I am not sure where the conversation begins.

  8. victoria Says:

    I’m just now reading this, coming from a link at Womanist Musings. I just want to say thank you for writing about this issue.

  9. KIMBERLY Says:

    I remember growing up in the 70’s. I had friends that were white (women ),but when I became an adult I can’t see myself dealing with a white women unless it is business.it is not because they are not friendly I just don’t feel comfortable around a white women.

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