The 1830s was the high-tide of Jacksonianism, an era many historians consider the nadir of early American history. Although universal white male suffrage had been achieved, free Black people and women were barred from the same privilege. In that decade, American herrenvolk democracy had infiltrated all ranks of social life. Even northern Quakers, who were the most sympathetic to Black people, adopted racist practices that provided the blueprints for Southern Jim Crow in the 1890s. Sarah M. Douglass, an abolitionist lecturer, remembered attending Quaker meetings as a child. “My soul was made sad with hearing five or six times during the course of one meeting,” she wrote. “This bench is for black people.” “This bench is for the people of color… Oftentimes I wept, at other times I felt indignant.” Equally prevalent in this period was the endemic sexism that plagued Black abolitionism.
It was during this heyday of the Jacksonian era that Maria W. Stewart, an abolitionist and women’s rights activist, took to the podium to denounce the immoral excesses of the time.1 In 1833, speaking to a room of male Black abolitionists, Stewart confronted them about the problem of sexism in the fight against racism. “These things have fired my soul with a holy indignation,” she said, so much that it “compelled me thus to come forward.” Many of the men she addressed were Black patriarchs who had designated themselves the leaders of the African American community. Stewart’s speech averted her gaze from white racism to speak directly to Black men about the exclusion of women from the ranks of Black abolitionism. She believed sexism not only denied Black women their full equality, but was a barrier to fighting for equality as a people:
It is upon you that woman depends; she can do but little besides using her influence; and it is for her sake and yours that I have come forward and made myself a hissing and a reproach among the people; for I am also one of the wretched and miserable daughters of the descendants of fallen Africa. Do you ask, why are you wretched and miserable? I reply, look at many of the most worthy and interesting of us doomed to spend our lives in gentlemen’s kitchens.”
In its most simplified form, Stewart’s message was clear: there is strength in numbers, in diversity, and in the solidarity of men and women to contribute equally. In addition to her activism, Maria W. Stewart was an itinerant preacher in a world where the Black clergy was dominated by men. By contrast, Black Lives Matter (BLM) activists have placed women front and center in the new activism of the twenty-first century. They have taken up the mantle of Stewart’s charge to address gender equality in leadership. Just as Stewart had done in the nineteenth century, BLM has enriched not only the visibility of Black women’s leadership, but it has expanded the capacity of the Black social struggle to capitalize on the creative energies of an entire half of the population whose work has always been historically vital.
In Maria W. Stewart’s time, anti-Black racism remained a constant in Black life, even for those who were free. Racism is never a constant, of course, as it changes over time and takes on different shapes—a chameleon-like quality that renders efforts to defeat it elusive. This fact was why Malcolm X urged Black men and women to “Stop talking about the South” as the signifier for American racism. To him, the Mason-Dixon line was an artifice of geography, for as “Long as you south of the Canadian border, you’re south” of freedom. This dictum remains a truism. Today’s BLM activists know that Black American lives have existed in a precarious state and under the assault of white supremacy, just as they were during Stewart’s time. Like Stewart, today’s generation has returned to a more confrontational style in defending Black humanity. As The New York Times noted, “The civil rights movement was intended to make Congress and Americans confront the fact that African-Americans were being killed with impunity for offenses like trying to vote, and had the right to life and to equal protection under the law.” Fifty years later, countless Black lives are still precarious, largely unprotected, and taken with impunity. But unlike many activists in the 1960s, today’s BLM activists are less concerned with changing the hearts of the perpetrators of racial injustice.
More urgent, as they see it, is a wholesale eradication of the racism that is the underbelly of the state. They are less focused on the sentimentalism of individuals and more attentive to the superstructures that continue to dehumanize Black Americans. Therefore, the days when the moral sentimentalism of Christianity served as a deterrent to racism seem almost inadequate. Many of today’s Black activists are demanding the full recognition of Black humanity in its own terms, without apologies or the need to rationalize its existence and value to white people. The appeal to white liberals had currency for older generations who felt it was necessary in winning concessions from white society. By contrast, BLM activists are more confrontational and unyielding in their approaches. They insist less on pragmatism and religious appeals and more on absolute change. The older generation can see in this an uncompromising righteousness at the expense of long-view pragmatism in a pluralistic society. Yet, it is that absolutism, combative as it may seem, that has raised enough consciousness to solidify Black Lives Matter as an idiom in anti-racist discourse.
Black Lives Matter has been transformed from a hashtag to become its own ideological strand of Black power. BLM as a mantra and a slogan deploys the political aesthetics that recall the synergy of the Black Power and student movements of the 1960s and 1970s. Part of BLM’s genius is that it represents a social infrastructure for justice with a diffused democratic base rather than an organizational structure. Loosely connected, it is variegated, serving multiple constituencies and providing the centrifugal force for countless groups on the peripheries and margins of justice. In the process, the movement avoids the “great man” leader cult. In other words, BLM’s ingenuity is that it allows itself to be the medium of the message without displacing the activists’ voices. Leaders feel no responsibility to own the message insomuch as promote the ideologies of the black radical tradition.
BLM is also broad enough in scope to seem universal. Black Lives Matter is a radical act that defiantly evokes a local and global solidarity that respects the many intricacies of whatever community it is embedded in. That is why BLM can traverse borders into non-American milieus like London. BLM is thus both universal and particular, speaking to what ails the Black community while accommodating the grievances of a global lumpen-proletariat. In this way, it has made itself indispensable but not imposing. Its very mobility has meant that BLM can exist anywhere and everywhere, creating a leadership network so unrestrictive that its global appeal has, by extension, produced branches in the ghettos of London, the banlieues of Paris, the favelas of Rio, and communities of color in Canada.
In closing, consider this fitting historical contrast between the Civil Rights Movement and Black Lives Matter. In the 1960s, both the radical and mainstream branches of the movement relied on the laborious energies of Black women like Fannie Lou Hamer, Rosa Parks, Ella Baker, and countless others. Yet, these women, though appreciated, are not as canonized in our memory as are Dr. King and Malcolm X, for example. And yet, it is widely known how integral these civil rights pioneers were to the success of the movement. When Black Lives Matter emerged from the aftermath of the shooting of another yet unarmed Black teenager named Michael Brown, its creation was spurred by the leadership of three Black women—Alicia Garza, Patrisse Cullors, Opal Tometi. At the front line of every protest have been Black women whose visibility speaks volumes about what had always been true but seldom acknowledged: Black women have always been equal partners in, if not central to, the tradition of Black protest and liberation movements.
- For more on Maria W. Stewart’s life, legacy, and writing, see: Dorothy Sterling, We Are Your Sisters: Black Women in the Nineteenth Century (1997); James Bert Loewenberg, Black Women in Nineteenth-Century American Life: Their Words, Their Thoughts, Their Feelings (1996), Karlyn K. Campbell, Women Public Speakers in the United States: 1800–1925: A Bio-Critical Sourcebook (1994); Maria W. Stewart, America’s First Black Woman Political Writer: Essays and Speeches (1987); Maria W. Stewart, Productions of Mrs. Maria W. Stewart: Presented to the First African Church & Society of the City of Boston (New York Public Library Digital Collections); Maria W. Stewart, “Religion and the Pure Principles of Morality: The Sure Foundation on Which We Must Build,” in Kathryn Kish Sklar, Women’s Rights Emerges Within the Antislavery Movement, 1830-1870: A Brief History with Documents (2000). ↩