Black women have led our communities in the fight for health and dignity throughout the course of history. We have worked to build strong families in the face of ignorance, hate, and structural oppression.
Sadly, many of our elected officials either stand in the way or fail to help. They claim that Black women can’t be trusted. But it’s not us that can’t be trusted, it is lawmakers who fail to address the very real problems facing our community who should not be trusted. And as we look ahead to the 2016 election, and beyond, we at SisterSong, and our committed colleagues in the field, agree that the time has come for these politicians to stand with us or move out of our way.
That is why now more than ever Black women need to come together to speak out against attacks on our autonomy. We cannot allow another lawmaker to spout off about who we are or another community leader to talk about our families. We are here. We are making decisions every day to plan and care for ourselves and for our children. We deal with attacks on our ability to access reproductive health care and obstacles to raising our children—the need for better education, difficulty affording child care, a broken criminal justice system that perpetuates mass incarceration and police violence, continued health disparities, and a lack of access to high quality health services. We are struggling, but we are also striving to get by in a world that far too often wants to push us down.
While legislators pass discriminatory limits on programs that support families and even try to control the reproduction of low-income women and women of color by limiting the number of children we can have, they also put up barriers to affordable health services.
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Black women are less likely to have access to reproductive health care, including effective methods of contraception, abortion, or annual gynecological exams and other health screenings. We are also at an increased risk of death or severe complication during pregnancy and childbirth. We face poor health outcomes for breast, cervical cancer, diabetes, hypertension, and heart disease. A significant majority of women diagnosed with HIV are also women of color and the cost of treatment often pushes effective options out of reach.
There is a real health crisis for Black women in this country that is only exacerbated by an organized attempt to strip us of our rights and our bodily autonomy. People should not be forced to be pregnant when they are not ready, and we will not be told that we cannot be parents or that we should have to endure having our children grow up in a climate of fear or without a safe and healthy place to call home.
More than a decade ago, community organizer and SisterSong supporter Cazembe Jackson endured a traumatic experience that has only made his support for Black women as leaders today even stronger. As Jackson, who now identifies as a Black trans man, explained to me via email, “In April 2001, when I was 20 years old, I was gang-raped by four men in Huntsville, Texas. At the time I was a college student attending a local predominately white university and living my life as Black queer stud. They said it was a ‘corrective rape’ because throughout the time I was getting raped I was told this act of violence would help me dress and act like a ‘real’ woman.”
“It was a really hard time,” said Jackson, “in addition to having survived, to know I was also targeted because of how I expressed my gender identity and going through the experience of being re-criminalized by the local police department for what happened to me.”
Jackson went on to explain how when he returned home for break from college, he learned the rape had resulted in pregnancy. “I went to my local Planned Parenthood, which handled my [abortion] procedure. This and I also got referred to a local rape crisis center that probably saved my life. No one [at Planned Parenthood] tried to make me feel bad about my decision or like I wasn’t smart enough to make the decision,” he added.
“Living now as a Black trans man I have seen how access to health care is still for many in this country a luxury putting Black families and our futures in jeopardy. The same way that discriminatory legislation and the history of the ownership of Black bodies in this country undermines the leadership and history of Black women and Black communities who have been building culturally competent services for our families,” said Jackson.
“As a Black trans man it’s important to support Black women as leaders in both our traditional and informal family structures.”
Black lives and health and dignity matter. For the work and organizing to also matter to our families and our community, we must ensure that Black women and Black transgender people are included. Black men must sometimes stand next to us and at times step aside so that other members of our community can step up and step out to push for the change that we all desperately need and that we deserve.
Black women fight for ourselves and we fight to uplift our people. We will not stand by while decision makers pass law after law that is designed to control our decisions or that are based on racist stereotypes of Black women and our families. We will speak out when groups try to divide us—like SisterReach did when they responded to billboards pushing racist propaganda in Tennessee.
More than five years ago, SisterSong launched Trust Black Women, a partnership to create a strong, coordinated movement led by Black women that would not ask for trust and autonomy, but demand that we each be able to make important moral decisions for ourselves, our families and our communities. It is clear that need has not gone away, and let’s be clear, we are not going away either.
As we reflect on the past work of the Trust Black Women initiative we are also looking at how future efforts can grow and expand to make sure that the voices of our transgender family and friends are not left behind.
We trust Black women to know what is best for our lives, our families, and our future. We trust Black women to be leaders in the efforts to recognize and dismantle the systems that work to keep us down. SisterSong and our partners and allies are committed to trusting Black women, telling the truth about our lives, and demanding that decision makers either stand with us or get out of the way.