Alagi Yorro Jallow
Fatoumatta: The Natural History Society of Maryland building was where something phenomenal happened in 1913 when a group of women suffragists marched over 200 miles for three months from New York to Washington DC only to demand fundamental human rights, the right to VOTE. This generation of American women activists lives in the shadow of one of American history’s most inspirational women’s movements that fought for women’s right to vote.
New York Times article dated February 1913. The women suffragists from New York marched on down past headed on to Washington DC. With them, they carried banners and placards, one which read: “New York State denies the vote to criminals, lunatics, idiots, and women.” When they arrived in Washington DC, they held up another sign, which read:
“We demand an amendment to the Constitution of the United States enfranchising the women of this country.” Nevertheless, things were not going to change overnight. It was not until seven years after those women came by the 19th amendment was signed, giving women the right to vote. However, that is not what is shocking. This fight started in 1848 when the women established the National Women’s Suffrage Association. It took them 70 years to achieve that goal!
Fatoumatta: Let zoom it into the most authentic perspective. The United States Constitution was written in 1787, states that all men are created equal and have the right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. However, it took over 130 years for women to achieve that equality as voting citizens. This did not include black women! There is a sadness about this struggle that only America’s foundation of racism could have enabled. White women who fought for equality left out black women. Some of those in the leadership rank voiced their concern that black women did not have the same rights as white women. Ida B. Wells, a black woman suffragist born into slavery, fought for black women’s place in the struggle. They were allowed to march from the back of the parade.
History records that Ida B. Wells bravely led her team of black women to the front. While the 19th amendment of 1920 gave women the right to vote, it was not until 45 years later that black women gained their right to vote. This background connects the dots from women’s suffrage to Vice President Kamala Harris, a black woman, for the Vice Presidency. Vice President Kamala Harris, in the African context, European society looked upon women as men’s property, childish, prone to irrational thought, and therefore dependent on their husbands for decision-making. Unfortunately, this is a worldview that European colonization imposed on Africa. African societies had women in positions of power and public influence long before European intervention. They were queens who ran kingdoms alongside men. They were warriors who fought in battles and medicine women who healed. They were priests who held oracular power that could be more powerful than the king’s political office. They also comfortably occupied the private space of their homes as mothers and nurturers of life.
Fatoumatta: African scholars’ sufficient research shows that African societies recognized the complementarity role that both male and female genders played before colonialism. The ordinary African woman was not considered fickle of mind as the European woman. In fact, in most societies, African women ran the markets, determined the prices, and controlled the location of trading. This phenomenon is still very present in African countries where, for example, “market women engaged in trading and petty trading “banana” the predominant trader in local markets. If something happens to the market spaces, women speak out and fight to have things corrected. The Western concept of market needs, on the other hand, is dominated by women. There are still very few white women in political and trading spaces. In the United States, there are only seven black women who have conquered the heights of financial bosses in big companies. The Western world has a lot to learn from pre-intervention Africa.
Why are African women celebrating the election of Kamala Harris to the Vice Presidency in the United States of America if they were way ahead in recognizing gender complementarity? Because things changed, and now we can draw inspiration from the global black woman who rises against the odds. Colonial powers in Africa strategized to place men in powerful positions and relegated women to private spaces where decisions affecting society were not made. Over time, colonial and post-colonial African men began to think of themselves as superior to their women.
The black movement does not yet have the power to steer more Kamala Harris to the top. There is a war of intra-black identities brewing. Furthermore, we are caught between different blacknesses. Racial identity in America is a web of chains that they struggle through. One encounters three streams of consciousness:
unquestioned belonging of whiteness
uncertain discomfort of in-betweens
the dangerous branding of blackness
Kamala Harris belongs to the in-between identities that have lately kept shifting and disturbing a nation that demands neat extremes. Kamala, the in-between She is black, she is Indian, she is American. In this country, the race is everything.
It is the thread that knits this country’s identity, with the warp and weft of black and white extremes inextricably holding together the character of a nation knit with the needles of structural and performative violence.
Fatoumatta: This was never the reality. When men with shattered masculinity admonished women in Africa in public, telling them they should know that African culture demands a woman should be subservient to men, they are dead wrong. African elders raised in colonial Africa are not to be trusted with Africa’s memory. They are the ones who sided with the white usurpers and kicked our grandmothers, mothers out of their places of honor. Many have misled a generation that is slowly beginning to discover the truth about an Africa whose civilizations fully included women.
In ancient Africa, from a gender perspective, Vice President Kamala Harris’s election would have been ordinary. Have we forgotten the African institutions that had nurtured powerful women who were not an oddity to Africans? Despite the destruction of Africa’s gender complementarity systems, Africa’s new nations have not needed to fight the same battles that Western women have had to fight. Gambian women do not need a suffrage movement. Moreover, out of the sphere of marriage to the public space, women throughout history have proven to be better problem solvers. Their self-immolating content-capacities are the reasons cities stand and men rule.
In our chapter on history and myth, Senegambians remember. Aline Sitoe Diatta ( 1920 – 1944) was a Senegalese heroine of the opposition to the French colonial empire, a potent young female symbol of resistance and liberty and the permanence of her place in history doing what men could not do to free her people.
Coming closer in time, there was In the 19th century, the Wolof queens Ndaté Yalla and her sister Ndjeumbeut Mbodj stood out as two of the most powerful women of 19th century Senegambian dynastic history, whose knowledge of how to handle men summarily, permanently cut off obnoxious tax nooses around feminine necks. Every household and every community has a history of such women. Furthermore, of course, we would ask, what about women who set ablaze humanity in fits of rage and greed?
What white women have been fighting for is a place that African women had long figured out how to structure and then violently forced to forget. Kamala Harris’s novelty in American politics comes from a society that is still very young in building institutions of gender complementarity. America is culturally a baby compared to Africa’s ethnocultural nations and territories before they were arbitrarily bunched together as Westphalian nation-states.
However, the irony is that African women now find inspiration in Vice President Kamal Harris’s election as one of them. Perhaps someday, African scholars will teach and inspire the United States of America in building what Africa once had so that the occurrence of a Kamala Harris or a Barack Obama in the 21st century would not be so shocking an achievement.
Fatoumatta: When Professor Cheikh Anta Diop attempted to teach about the ancient wisdom of Africa’s matriarchal systems and civilizations of black Kemet that contributed to Western knowledge, he was fought ruthlessly by the French and denied the right to teach. Slowly, the present-day Cheikh Anta Diops will arise, return memory to Africans, and gift the Western world with the idea of how to make a black woman’s presidency as familiar as that of a rich white male.
When Shirley Chisholm, an educator, and writer, became the first black woman elected to the US Congress in 1969, where she served seven terms, and then boldly ran for President on a major party ticket in 1972, she carried within her this easy knowledge from her African ancestors – the knowledge that there was nothing out of place about a black woman leading a country, a kingdom, an army.
Fatoumatta: We caught between celebrating Vice President Kamala Harris and chastising America for its exceedingly slow pace in bringing women to powerful public spaces. Thus, seeing many women in political leadership will change our conscience system and political consciousness. Having women public intellectuals, politicians, and professionals and serving in public policy decision-making and the board room will become a norm. Some things are uncomfortable, and there is a price to pay in democracy and shared citizenship.
Fatoumatta: However, women’s empowerment has to be done for the greater good in benevolence principles. Until 100 years ago, women in the United States were not allowed to vote. Moreover, up to the 1970s, there were still many cases of gender discrimination in the country. However, this is what they call the free world. We can imagine what was happening in the rest of the world.
Alagi Yorro Jallow