As Vice President-elect Kamala Harris gave her acceptance speech, she reflected on her mother and all the “women who fought and sacrificed so much for equality, liberty, and justice for all, including the Black women, who are too often overlooked, but so often prove that they are the backbone of our democracy … I stand on their shoulders.”
I, too, have stood on the shoulders of Black women. Growing up in a small town in the Arkansas Delta, I was raised by my single mother, Toni Walker, who remains the strongest Black woman I know. Black women were more than just leaders in my community; together they forged essential support systems for young Black children. Black women led our homes, our schools and our Sunday School classrooms. Because of their watchful and loving eyes, so many of us were able to survive and thrive.
Take Mrs. Erma Jefferson. In fifth grade, I began receiving Cs and Ds for behavior on my report card due to frequent anger outbursts. My mom asked Mrs. Jefferson, a retired school teacher, to help me talk through and control my frustrations before they began to damage my future. While I can’t say I completely understood our sessions together, she helped me discover my true self-worth as a young Black man. Her mentoring also disrupted the systemic pattern of disproportionate discipline of Black students in elementary school where they are almost four times as likely to be suspended from school as white students.
With the support of my family and women like Mrs. Jefferson, I graduated high school magna cum laude and went on to attend college at the University of Arkansas-Monticello. There, Tawana Greene and Kelli Johnson helped me and many other students seize the opportunities before us. Mrs. Greene was instrumental in making sure that I went to class, received the tutoring I needed, and she also made sure I was committed to graduating on time. Without Ms. Johnson, I would never have applied for a graduate degree program at the University of Arkansas, Fayetteville. She saw the master’s and doctorate degrees that I later earned well before I could imagine them for myself.
Black, female leadership has offered critical support in my professional career as well. For more than eight years, Dr. Angela Williams, Assistant Vice-Chancellor, was my direct supervisor and offered an exemplary yet tragically uncommon picture of Black executive leadership. Under her supervision, I had the autonomy to lead, coordinate, and execute projects that expanded my expertise and confidence. Dr. Williams made it her business to prepare me for my next role and beyond in a Predominantly White Institution.
Black folks like me only have to look to their own lives to see the oversized role Black women occupy in our society. Nevertheless, their contributions still go largely unnoticed in mainstream White culture. Even the most famous legends —women such as Madam C.J. Walker, Ida B. Wells and Shirley Chisholm — are not well known and rarely appear in history books. As we celebrate the 100th anniversary of the passage of the 19th Amendment and the year that the first woman became vice-president-elect, how many of us realize that Black women have only had the right to vote for 55 years?
When Elizabeth Stanton and Susan B. Anthony established the National Woman Suffrage Association, racial xenophobia trumped gender inclusion, blocking Black women from the association’s legislative successes. Yet women like Sojourner Truth, Mary Church Terrell, Frances Ellen Watkins Harper, Ella Baker and Mary Mc-Leod Bethune continued to push forward the women’s suffrage movement for Black women until it was granted with passage of the 1965 Voting Rights Act. For years to follow, Black women have continued to fight and overcome voter suppression laws and discriminatory policies intended to abridge their right to vote.
Vice President-elect Kamala Harris is correct: Black women are the backbone of our democracy, reminding us that we are never truly free until ALL of us are free. They are also the backbone of our communities lifting children and families up so that all can enjoy the promises of this country. If Black Lives Matter to you, your schools, your workplaces and your communities, it is time to elevate more Black women to positions of leadership. Mellody Hobson, one of three black Fortune 500 CEOs states that “this issue has been one where we have seen more lip service than elbow grease … words are cheap.”
For as long as I can remember, extraordinary Black women have stepped up and into my life to instruct me, guide me and push me into the person that I am today. These women have blazed uncharted paths, showing me how to lead during good times and bad and encourage others when they themselves are discouraged.
The simple truth is this: Without Black women, we ain’t getting anything done. I challenge Americans to dispel the stereotypes that you hold about Black women, learn about the infinite contributions that Black women have made to society and advocate for the Black women in your lives.
Rickey Booker Jr., Ed.D., is a trainer, facilitator and consultant with the IDEALS Institute at the University of Arkansas Office for Diversity and Inclusion. His views are his own and do not necessarily represent the position of the University of Arkansas.