Laurie and Debbie say:
We were completely struck by the quality of Kaitlyn Greenidge’s opinion piece in last Sunday’s New York Times, “Sisterhood Felt Meaningless. So My Sisters and I Got in the Car.”
Greenidge was feeling (aren’t we all?) the weight of the 2016 election:
What does the rallying cry of sisterhood and the concept of feminism mean when last year, the majority of white, female voters chose whiteness as a political identity over womanhood? What does feminism mean to each of us, as black women, when we had just lived through an election season of hearing candidates and commentators use that old, unexamined phrase, “women and black people,” skipping over our existence as both? How do we understand women’s history as triumphant when we are still smarting from the very public smackdown of a woman attempting to reach the highest seat of power?
My sisters were the perfect people with whom to seek some answers.
Greenidge sets the scene by describing her sisters, Kerri and Kirsten, and their childhood in predominantly white neighborhoods and schools.
Black womanhood was always centered in our home, so I didn’t look at white women with envy because they were white. And I was rarely instinctively suspicious of them. Like most black and brown people in this country, despite what white people may believe, I was not actively looking for the ways whites slighted me because I was black. Especially when you live and work in predominantly white spaces, you have to hold on to the social fiction that white people are responding to you as an individual. If you do not hold on to that lie, or at least use it judiciously, you risk going mad with grief and anger.
This description of the black experience maps onto the (white) female experience in male spaces: there, you have to hold on to the social fiction that men are responding to you as an individual. If you’re black and female, the challenge increases exponentially.
The three Greenidge sisters went traveling. “We wanted to find women who could remind us that another, more tolerant, hopeful way of being is possible. It was possible 150 years ago, during a time when people supposedly didn’t know any better — and we hoped that perspective would help us in this present time, when people supposedly do.”
Their three stops were all at historically obscure places, also generally obscure to black and feminist historians. Read the article to see Greenidge’s careful descriptions and contexts; here’s a very brief synopsis:
- The Prudence Crandall Museum (Connecticut) commemorates a white schoolteacher (Prudence Crandall) who enrolled Sarah Harris, a black student, in 1831, and successfully fought intense opposition which only made her a stronger defender of access to education for black people.
- The Royall House & Slave Quarters (Massachusetts) is the only standing slave quarters location north of the Mason-Dixon line, a crucial reminder of Northern slavery, which many of us tend to ignore, forget, or gloss over. Of particular note here is that Isaac Royall Jr. received reparations for the loss of his slave property, while American black people have received nothing for 150 years.
- The Robbins House (Massachusetts) is the home of a previously enslaved Revolutionary War veteran. One of his descendants, Ellen Garrison Jackson, fought tirelessly for equality and access to public space.
So the Greenidge sisters saw a mixed story: America’s deeply shameful history, black people committing their lives to working towards equality, and the occasional white person who joined the march to justice. What did this tell Kaitlyn Greenidge about the role of sisterhood in troubled times?
After touring the house, my sisters and I sat on the green, while all around us, people paraded, dressed in the costumes of colonists who believed in freedom with conditions — not necessarily for women, not necessarily for black people and certainly not for black women.
I think about the foresight and sheer leaps of intelligence it took for Crandall, for Harris, for Sutton and Garrison, to imagine a world that most around them could not imagine. It is a world I have to keep telling myself we are almost in sight of, if we keep thinking and planning and plotting as they did.
When polarization dominates our discourse, and much racial commentary — from many directions — is correctly about how most white people have failed to uphold even the most minimal standards of respect and decency, Greenidge’s voice rings out with something else. She knows 53% of white women voted for Donald Trump, and she is clear how shameful that is. She knows that her colleagues rarely see her as an individual, and she pulls no punches about what contortions that puts her through. And at the same time, she and her sisters managed to delve into — and she chose to tell — a range of stories which show both racism and heroism, the troughs of human blindness and the heights of human commitment to justice.
We’re grateful to the Greenidge sisters … and we want to take the same trip ourselves.