“The Times They Are a Changin’”: Shifting Black Womanhood from the Bottom of Social Hierarchies to the Center of Movements
Danielle McGuire. At the Dark End of the Street: Black Women, Rape, and Resistance, A New History of the Civil Rights Movement from Rosa Parks to the Rise of Black Power, New York: Knopf, 2011.
In At the Dark End of the Street, McGuire seeks to uncover the overshadowed part of the civil rights movement, the rape, torture, and sexual abuse towards black women from white men. She argues that women involved in the civil rights movement was entrenched in their resistance to sexual violence and appeals for the protection of black womanhood. The civil rights movement was shaped by the sexual violence against black women and black women’s resistance to this violence. She asserts that working-and middle-class women, fed up with decades of abuse” launched and continued the Montgomery boycotts in 1955 as a “women’s movement for dignity, respect, and bodily integrity” (51). She beings her narrative with the brutal gang rape of Recy Taylor in Abbeville, Alabama in 1944. The Montgomery NAACP office sent Rosa Parks who prior to becoming the lynchpin of the Montgomery Bus Boycott was an anti-rape activist. McGuire shows Rosa Parks as a militant NAACP activist and fundraiser who worked to expose crimes against Southern women before taking the opportunity to resist bus driver cruelty.
McGuire outlines a history of humiliation and violence from bus drivers against black women creating an environment of terror for Southern bus passengers, which signaled that the black women of Montgomery were ready to bring about change. When she became the face of the boycotts, Parks’ image as a militant activist changed drastically into a wholesome, respectable, innocent depiction of black womanhood. McGuire states, Parks’ “history as an activist and defiant race woman disappeared from public view” (100). She challenges the popular narrative of the boycotts started as a call from the Montgomery Improvement Association’s E.D Nixon to local ministers to stop “shirking their manly duties” and to “rise up in defense of black womanhood” (104). The media intensified this male centered narrative when it portrayed Dr. King as an “apostle of civil rights” (130). As a result, black women such as JoAnn Robinson were not only ignored but also erased from the movement.
At the Dark End of the Street, fits into the historiography on the intersectionality of sexuality and the civil rights movement along with Fay Botham’s Almighty God Created the Races (2009) which examines interracial sex and marriage. Too Heavy a Load: Black Women in Defense of Themselves, 1894-1994 by Deborah Gray White also speaks to the excruciatingly long history of black women’s resistance to sexual violence.
In terms of my research, Black power spoke to LGBT activists who chanted “gay power” during the Stonewall Riots and the slogan “Gay is Good” adopted from “Black is Beautiful” became popular in 1968 to counter homophobic ideologies. I will also be looking at black transgender women and sexual violence in public and private spaces, especially prisons. They are sentenced to men’s prisons if they have not had genital surgery thereby classifying them by their gender at birth. One of my subjects, Marsha P. Johnson was found in the Hudson River in 1992. This case was reopened in 2012; witnesses recall Marsha being harassed prior to her disappearance. Koritha Mitchell, an English professor at Ohio State University, draws a comparison between anti-transgender violence today and the early-20th century sexualized lynchings of African American men in the U.S. South. Both forms of brutality, she points out, are aimed at denying citizenship, marking “who belongs and who does not…. because violence most often plagues those whom society encourages us to abandon, denouncing violence empowers us to embrace them.”