ARTICLES BY RUBY SALES< Back
I Can’t Deal With Her: Black and White Women in the Movement
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, as well as 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 met and worked alongside white women who were just as fierce as myself 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. These roots extend back to slavery, and they echo 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; black and white women, when we weren’t fighting against our common enemy racist oppression, 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, always keeping 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. This 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 individuals who took 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 and asserted, “I am a man,” black women stirred with pride and ownership. And we were not letting anyone rob us of this moment that we dreamed of 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, as a Movement witness, I 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.
Whether you were a black or white woman, the South was a dangerous place to work and go to jail. White male jailers raped both 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. This propaganda depicts the Southern Freedom Movement as a movement of black and white female sluts whom engaged in endless abnormal and depraved sex with men, especially animalistic and predatory black men. In both the short and long term, these revisionist lies have worked to undercut the meaning and victories of the Movement, as well as the complex friendships that emerged from it.
As was the case with many of my black sisters, I 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 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, instead having to work behind desks, 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 seemed 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 to control information and keep 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; I believe 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 those, however, who built 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.
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 about Hillary, as well as those from black women about Barack. Learning very little from the popular Movements of the '60s to '90s, 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?