July 5, 2020, Martin Luther King Park, Amsterdam | Switch to Dutch
First of all, thank you to Airco for the opportunity to share a few thoughts during this beautiful and historic moment.
I’ve had the honor of receiving a replica of the statue of Martin Luther King, Jr., as well. He stands in my home, on a wooden bench, with a glass of water and a candle beside him, in front of a hanging cloth woven for the ancestors, for Martin Luther King, Jr. has become an ancestor, too.
In the Vienna Art History Museum, there is a famous painting by Pieter Paul Rubens entitled ‘The Four Continents.’ During the Renaissance, it was customary to depict the allegory of the four continents and their rivers in the following manner: the gods, male, represented the continents of Africa, Asia, America, and Europe, and were surrounded by female nymphs, who symbolized their respective rivers: the Nile, the Ganges, Rio de la Plata, and the Danube. In various texts from Antiquity, the Nile is described as being black in color, because the Ethiopian source is black. All women in this painting symbolize fertility, but the Black nymph is the most precious of all. She is the only one depicted wearing expensive jewelry, with a ruby adorning her forehead. The Black nymph represents not only the Ethiopian source, but also the mystery and fertility of the Nile. As the Nile is the oldest river in the world, its source is therefore seen as the origin of the world. The source of the Nile was legendarily difficult to find, and remained a long-standing, historically significant quest. In ancient times, it was written that the Nile once covered its head, never to reveal it again; wonderful imagery for her secret, and her hidden source.
In this painting, Rubens demonstrates that the origin of man is in Africa; it is no coincidence that he chooses a Black woman as a metaphor. For me, the source that the Nile tries to hide is a symbol for a third dimension within which the mystery of our existence lies, one through which the Black woman from generation to generation transfers to all her offspring.
African-American scientist and intersectional thinker Patricia Hill Collins had the following to say about the third dimension:
The ethic of caring is the third dimension of Black feminist theory which places the emphasis on individual uniqueness, appropriateness of emotions and the capacity for empathy. Rooted in a tradition of African Humanism, each individual is thought to be a unique expression of a common spirit, power or energy inherent in all life.
In this way, the third dimension is also an empty space where Black women are located, a space within which the margins of race and sex overlap. We exist in a kind of vacuum of “erasure” and contradictions amplified by the polarization of a world in which Black men are on one side, and white people on the other, with we, Black women, floating somewhere in between. Black female reality is a hybrid phenomenon crossing different views on race, sex and class, from which intersectional thinking arose.
I too have a dream. My dream is that one day my daughter, my sons, my grandchildren–and the generations of white and Black children to follow–will fully understand the fact that Black women have for centuries made an enormous contribution to the fight for a fairer world. That they will grow up knowing the world is carried by a Black woman. (Not by Atlas, for that’s just a myth.) I dream that history books will be rewritten, that the stories of all those Black heroines of resistance will find their rightful place in historiography, inspiring Black and white children to fight for a better and fairer world, helping them to understand that they are borne on the shoulders of these women. I dream that they will learn there are role models beyond Beyoncé.
I ask you, why do we hardly ever hear anything about Coretta King here in the Netherlands?
Or Betty Shabazz, the widow of Malcolm X, or Myrlie Evers, the widow of Medgar Evers?
Or Winnie Mandela? Both Coretta and Myrlie met and supported Winnie in the fight against Apartheid.
I am myself a mother. I have tried to imagine how terrible it must have been for these mothers to deliver the message to their young children that their fathers are forever gone. How do you comfort children who have seen their father brutally murdered before their eyes? How do you comfort children who have seen their father’s face split by the iron lines behind which they were forced to stand for most of their lives? How do you pick yourself up again, take the weight of the full care of those children upon your shoulders? How do you mourn the immense loss? Somehow, these heroines continued to fight for justice until their deaths, continued to develop their thinking, studying, and organizing.
After the failed assassination attempt on her, Martin Luther King, Jr., and their daughter Yolanda, Coretta lost her fear of dying. She became resolutely convinced that she had to support Martin entirely in his struggle. To do so, she gave up her own dream, namely a career in music. So little attention is paid to the role Black women have had, and the sacrifices they had to make and still make as they continue the struggle. Mainly men have taken over leadership in battle, and as a result, power, ego, and patriarchy play an important role, sometimes overshadowing the larger goal, which is that the struggle must be fought for everyone who is oppressed. Coretta later became a major advocate for the rights of the LGBTQ + community, because, as she once remarked: ‘I don’t believe you can stand for freedom for one group of people and deny it to others.’
These heroines moved against certain traditions: Martin Luther King, Jr., just like Malcolm X., had expected his partner to take on the role of housewife.
I have conducted extensive research into the centuries-long struggles Black women and women of color have pursued against oppression, against patriarchy, and for justice.
In the earlier days, it was the women who organized internationally and who remained the backbone of the civil rights movement. Many Caribbean women have also played an important role in these struggles; Surinam activist Hermine Huiswoud belongs within that tradition. Their feminism was relational, interdisciplinary, and transnational.
It’s not a coincidence that Black Lives Matter was founded by Alicia Garza, Patrisse Cullors and Opal Tometi, three Black women. Black Lives Matter evolved from an ‘Emergent Strategy,’ which is about shifting the way we see and feel the world and each other. If we ourselves start practicing transformation, we can in turn transform the world.
Emergent Strategy stems from a deep sense of injustice. That sense of injustice comes straight from the heart. There is no focused planning on how to fight. Emergent Strategy empowers people to mobilize themselves as and where necessary. Alicia, Patrisse and Opal do not act like traditional leaders, deliberately avoiding the patriarchal approach to leadership, moving away from the state and systems of oppression. Their leadership style is non-hierarchical, and as such, is more likely to move towards transformative justice, which recognizes that the state harms marginalized people. Research continues to be conducted into alternative ways of addressing that damage while remaining independent of the state. People are increasingly relying on organic and creative strategies which have emerged from within their own communities. They are investigating how and where the root of violence originated in society, in order to subsequently transform it.
I want to ask you all: have the courage to investigate how to transform.
I ask all men: dare to move away from patriarchy and embrace Black feminism.
I sincerely ask white people: question your privileges, explore how you can use them to help marginalized people–without falling into savior behavior or thought. Dare to name racism, and don’t take everything personally when a Black person speaks to you about your privileges. Understand you are part of a system which placed your ancestors and you in a position of privilege for centuries.
Now, it is time to dismantle that system.
Transformation does require making sacrifices. It means giving up or sharing part of your privileges, because ‘sharing is caring.’
It goes well beyond sharing #blacklivesmatter on social media, or participating in a demonstration. It is a process of pain, a process in which you, as a white person, must have the courage to break yourself open, in order to free the beautiful Black person hidden inside you.
In this way, you can become a genuine ally in the struggle of Black people and people of color.
Let us work to heal the deep wounds inflicted by slavery and colonialism–and the destructive system of capitalism which resulted from both those–upon our personal lives, our society, and our earth, our own Mother Nature.
I invite you to retell this painful story together, and in so doing to rewrite history, making her more complete, and fairer. Napoleon once wrote, “history is written by the victors,” but, as a wise man from Kurdistan once said, “the truth is with the oppressed.”