I come from a family of hard-working, God-fearing women. Several of my grandmother’s sisters were domestic workers — daytime housekeepers and caregivers for wealthy White families. They would cook, clean, and tend to children eight hours a day, three to five days per week. It was from them and through their work that I learned how to be resilient, even in the most difficult circumstances. It is through their conversations that I learned how they interacted with White people and how they were perceived by their employers. For the most part, they were trusted to do their work. Yet I sensed there was something just beneath the surface where they did not always feel seen or heard. I would sometimes hear them lament about how much was being asked of them or how their compensation did not match the “extra” things they were asked to do. But they had families to care for and bills to pay and very little other options for work.
I always wondered how they were able to walk with their heads held high, remaining dignified and poised through it all. One day, while eavesdropping on one of their conversations, my grandmother and her sisters allowed me to sit in their company. So I asked them: “How did you survive?” They simply answered: “Our faith in God kept us through it all. We know we are valuable, even if the world does not believe we are.”
I never forgot this conversation as I grew older, wiser and had my own experiences in the world and workplace. I am the first person in my family to attend college and have been fortunate enough to enjoy several careers before becoming a pastor. But even with these opportunities, I have sensed that I am sometimes “not enough.” I have felt that there was no grace when I made an error. I have had coworkers express shock when I refused to “join” the office clique to gain respect. When I stand up for myself or others, my voice has not always been welcomed and sometimes dismissed.
In my former life, I worked in public safety communications for a local police department. Part of my job was to conduct emergency drills. During one of these drills, a manager observed how well I handled the exercise from start to finish. This left me perplexed because I had been working in this sector for more than five years and was more than proficient in handling all aspects of the drill. We both knew this. Yet she appeared to be astonished that I worked well under pressure, effectively kept my team calm, and focused on our work. Her response led me to wonder if she trusted me to handle this task. Was she expecting me to fail? Knowing her the way that I did then, I realized her comment was part compliment and part astonishment. Her astonishment left me disappointed because I loved my work and I was good at it, always looking for ways to improve my skills.
Despite this experience and others like it, I follow in the steps of the women who came before me, and I know my worth. I trust myself and my voice when it comes to advocating for my health, dealing with issues such as pay disparities, the lack of opportunities to advance to higher positions, how Black women wear their hair, etc.
When I think about some of my life experiences, I recall one of Malcolm X’s observations about Black women in America: “The most disrespected person in America is the Black woman. The most unprotected person in America is the Black woman. The most neglected person in America is the Black woman.”
On April 7, 2020, social worker and writer Feminista Jones wrote a piece entitled “Malcolm X stood up for Black women when few others would.” In this commentary, she recalls a speech the civil rights activist made on May 22, 1962, in Los Angeles, California, where he spoke to Black women about the negative ways in which they are treated. As Jones puts it, “He called on us, Black women, to think deeply about the harmful internalization of society’s loathing of who we are, particularly when it comes to our natural appearance.” He asked: “Who taught you to hate the color of your skin? Who taught you to hate the texture of your hair? Who taught you to hate the shape of your nose and the shape of your lips? Who taught you to hate yourself from the top of your head to the soles of your feet?”
In my opinion, the answer is simple: society taught us. We have been conditioned to second-guess ourselves and to devalue, disarm and destroy any sense of our confidence, power, and self-love. We live in a culture that questions Black women’s right to address anything that allows us to be seen, heard, or taken seriously. Our bodies and our thoughts are relentlessly debased, oversexualized and criticized, beginning at an early age, which often forces us to pivot quickly to protect our physical, emotional, and mental health. This is exhausting and troublesome.
We are expected to trust everyone’s opinion about what is best for us except our own. In a world that does not seem to care if we are heard or not, we must continue to trust our own voices. Malcolm X was committed to the upliftment and empowerment of Black women, and we will need other voices to be committed as well. We must be our own advocates in addressing issues that harm us and invite others to join us in this struggle, knowing that when we work together, we can become stronger and unified as human beings. When we find and use our voice, we can encourage others to use theirs.
Ultimately, no voice can be more powerful than our own when it comes to trusting and knowing what is best for us.