“Baltimore Chief Prosecutor Marilyn Mosby charged six officers today in the death of Freddie Gray, a 25-year-old African American man who died last month from a spinal cord injury while in police custody. But while justice may be served in Gray’s case, activists are raising awareness about another group who experience police brutality but rarely receive media attention, let alone attention from the courts—African American women.
The Cut reported that “women account for 20 percent of unarmed people of color killed by the police between 1999 and 2014,” and according to the Black Liberation Project, 15 black women have been killed by police in the last 18 months. Yet few of them have received the same attention as Michael Brown, Eric Garner, Trayvon Martin or Freddie Gray.”
African-American women hold white children, most likely in their care. Most of these women are assumed to be either slaves or domestic servants, though one woman is notably dressed in fancy clothes and gold jewelry. The second ambrotype may be a post-mortem photograph of the little boy.
As we admire these women this month, we must also remember how difficult of a journey they must have had. And we must make a commitment to make the journey easier for little Black girls who are interested in science.
In her book Swimming Against the Tide: African American Girls and Science Education, Sandra Hanson explodes the myth that black girls are somehow disinterested in science due to hyper-religiosity or “culture.” Hanson found that, despite significant institutional and societal barriers, there is greater interest in science among African American girls than in other student populations. She frames this seeming paradox in historical context, stressing that “Early ideologies about natural inequalities by race influenced the work of scientists and scholars as well as the treatment of minorities in the science domain. Racism is a key feature of science in the United States and elsewhere. This has a large impact on the potential for success among minority students. Early work on science as fair has not been supported.”
Hanson outlines some of the obstacles that confront budding African American women scientists from elementary school to the postgraduate level. Stereotypes about girls of color lacking proficiency in science, the absence of nurturing mentors, the dearth of education about people of color who have contributed to science research (i.e., culturally responsive science instruction), and academic isolation often deter youth who would like to pursue science careers.
Conservatives who disdain “liberal multiculturalism” in higher education dismiss such concerns about diversity in hiring as handwringing. According to this view there is only one standard academia should use; objective and unbiased, untainted by affirmative action.
Yet white students are beneficiaries of cradle to grave affirmative action. White students grow up seeing the dominant image of rational, trailblazing scientific discovery (from films like Dr. Strangelove to 2001: A Space Odyssey to Close Encounters to The Right Stuff) as spearheaded by courageous rugged individualist generally white males. They are socialized to believe in a template of “purely” meritocratic success and individual achievement. Meritocracy becomes gospel and lucre. They can take it to the bank and use it to repel the less qualified savages.
While she was at UCLA Devin Waller was the only African American woman in the Astrophysics department. On the first day of her upper division classes she recalls being asked by male students befuddled by her presence whether or not they “were in the right class.” Since peer networking and study groups in science departments are largely white and male, white academic success and scholarly legitimacy in science become a self-fulfilling prophecy. For black women in white male dominated professions, showing vulnerability and having any kind of public failure are simply not options. Like many women of color Devin’s approach was that “You kind of go in there and set a precedent. Everything you do is watched. You have to establish yourself as intelligent. There were no black women in my classes. No one who looked like me.”
Not having anyone who looks like them as a faculty member, administrator and/or mentor influences the sense of isolation, anxiety, and burnout that students of color often experience in science disciplines. As an Electrical Engineering major Kimberly Bryant, founder of Black Girls Code, a nonprofit dedicated to developing African American girls as computer programmers, also found herself “feeling culturally isolated” during college. On her website she argues that the “dearth of African-American women in science, technology, engineering and math professions…cannot be explained by, say, a lack of interest in these fields. Lack of access and lack of exposure to STEM topics are the likelier culprits.”
In her autobiography Find Where the Wind Goes: Moments from My Life, Mae Carol Jemison (the first black woman astronaut and first woman of color in space) reflects on how, after professing interest in being a scientist to one of her teachers, she was told to set her sights on being a nurse instead. As a sixteen year-old undergraduate at Stanford University, Jemison was practically shunned by her physical science instructors. Although her experiences occurred during the sixties and seventies, the dominant view of who is a proper scientist has not changed and nursing is still a more acceptable aspiration for black women who are culturally expected to be self-sacrificing caregivers for everyone in the universe.
As a young slave girl, Susie King Taylor secretly learned to read and write. Her skills proved invaluable to the Union Army as they began to form regiments of African American soldiers. Hired by the 1st South Carolina Colored Volunteers as a laundress in 1862, her primary roles were to nurse to wounded soldiers and to teach those who could not read or write. Taylor served for more than three years, working alongside her husband, Edward King, a sergeant in the regiment.
Photo: Susie King Taylor, 1902, courtesy East Carolina University
A black female naval officer has shattered a piece of the military’s glass ceiling. The Navy has promoted Michelle Janine Howard to the rank of three-star vice admiral, as she stepped into her new role as deputy commander of the U.S. Fleet Forces headquartered in Norfolk, Va.
She becomes the first African-American woman to achieve that rank.
This is the latest in a string of firsts for Howard, who was the first African-American woman to command a warship, the first female Naval Academy alum to reach the rank of rear admiral and the first African-American woman to be in charge of an Expeditionary Strike Group at sea.
Originally charged with the 1974 murder of a white jailer, Joan Little was ultimately acquitted on Aug. 15, 1975. Her defense claimed that Little, who was in prison at the time, had stabbed the jailer with an ice pick in defense when he assaulted her sexually.
Little became the first woman in the United States, regardless of race, to be acquitted using the defense that she used deadly force to prevent sexual assault.
Focusing attention on a women’s right to defend herself from rape, capital punishment and racial inequalities in the criminal justice system, Little’s trial aroused campaigning amongst the civil rights, feminist and anti-death penalty movements.
“Those of us — women and men — who are black or people of color must understand the connection between racism and sexism that is so strikingly manifested in [Joan Little’s] case,” wrote activist Angela Davis in a 1975 Ms. magazine article.
“Those of us who are white and women must grasp the issue of male supremacy in relationship to the racism and class bias which complicate and exacerbate it,” Davis continued.
One more legend to acknowledge today: the great Shirley Chisholm, was born on this day in 1924 in Brooklyn, New York. The congresswoman is shown on November 6, 1968, the day after she became the first Black woman elected to Congress. Photo: AP.
Karan and Sharon Baucom were the first African-Americans to graduate from the School of Medicine
“For identical twins who grew up in an under-privileged area of Kansas City, Mo., earning acceptance into the UMKC School of Medicine was a life-changing event. It gave the sisters, Karan Baucom (M.D., ’75) and Sharon Baucom (M.D., ’75), the opportunity of a lifetime.
The sisters—known affectionately as “the twins” throughout their lives—graduated with honors from Central High School in Kansas City, Mo., in 1968. Although they were out-of-state and lacking financial resources, both women were accepted to the University of Kansas after an anonymous donor provided financial assistance. During their junior year, the twins were accepted into a mentoring program started by AT&T executives to provide jobs for inner-city students…”