“To say nothing is saying something. You must denounce things you are against or one might believe that you support things you really do not.”
– Germany Kent
It’s not easy to take a stand in a world that’s quick to judge. This quote by Germany Kent, a print and television journalist, is brave. Germany is not afraid to say what she believes in a social media-driven world where one misplaced, misconstrued or misappropriated word can destroy a legacy of good work.
Yesterday’s feature on Louisa Lulu Jacobs “Black, Female, and Free in 19th Century America” gives some perspective. Louisa’s entire life was grounded in purpose and doing whatever she could to provide other Black children with an education. She faced injustice and poverty until the day she died but she never gave up.
It’s impossible to underestimate what it must have taken for Louisa to defy social institutions that prevented women from speaking out, let alone Black women who were treated as chattel.
But Louisa did as an abolitionist and advocate for change. After establishing a school for Black children in Virginia, she later became the first Black woman to teach at Howard Universtiy.
Thanks to her mother, Harriet, Louisa had a rare opportunity to be educated because her mother was the mistress to a Congressman and newspaper editor. Together, Louisa and her mother created a path to freedom for other Black children.
As a mixed-race child, the stigma of being caught in two different world would have also been an immense challenge. But Louisa’s tenacity was cut from the same cloth as Ruby Bridges, tomorrow’s modern day woman who changed history.
Both women had strong mothers who led by example. Ruby led America into the pages of history and the first steps towards a desegregated education system despite the armed guards and the death threats.
All of these women could have settled for less and protected themselves from the hatred in the world. Instead, they confronted it to help free others from what writer Yara Zgheib called, “the face of White injustice and poverty.”
That’s why it’s so wonderful to see books like Germany Kent’s, The Hope Handbook and You Are What You Tweet. Germany is a Black woman giving great advice that is measured not by her skin color but by the ethical values she holds dear. It’s nice to know we’re making progress even though it’s not nearly enough. Hope can seed personal dreams that change the world.
But how many of us are willing to fight against injustice and testify to our values? I ask myself this question every time there are hard decisions to make and consequences that always affect others. The hit television show Law and Order is popular in part because viewers put themselves in the victim’s shoes: would I testify to stop a rapist from going free or a killer from getting away with murder if I knew my family might suffer or my life was in danger?
Overcoming racism is more than values and good words. Fighting racism is about action and having the courage of conviction and knowledge. While systemic barriers might prevent opportunities to understand and appreciate each other, it’s women like Louisa and Harriet Jacobs who made it possible for Black children to think for themselves and shape their own freedom.
Louisa Lulu’s mother Harriet documented the events of her own life in a book called Incidences in The Life of a Slave Girl. In it, she wanted others to experience what slaves endured and, most importantly, to help them to recognize injustice.
Yet when Harriet Jacobs asked Harriet Beecher Stowe, a White abolitionist and feminist activist to support her story by writing a preface to her book, Stowe ignored the request.
Stowe criticized racism in her own fiction book, Uncle Tom’s Cabin, but when Harriet asked her to write a preface to lend support and solidarity to a slave narrative she had written, Stowe ignored the request. Maybe it was the graphic detail of Harriet’s severe beatings, rape and inhumane treatment that seemed too explicit? Or maybe she feared Harriet’s writings would be more popular than her own? We’ll never know but it was disappointing to learn this fact.
After the Civil War, Stowe eventually responded but asked instead if she could include Harriet Jacobs work as a companion to Stowe’s follow-up book, A Key to Uncle Tom’s Cabin (1853). This was insulting to Jacobs and acknowledged the divide that still existed among women who knew slavery was wrong. It’s too bad they couldn’t find common ground or that Stowe couldn’t support Jacobs’ story on its own merit. This is a cautionary tale for modern women today who put differences in culture, race, economics, and religion ahead of a universal call to injustice – whether institutionalize patriarchy, wage discrimination, or other shared challenges.
Maybe it’s not really surprising when women do this – slavery was a powerful institution for the Jacobs and Stowe to fight. Laws like the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850 demanded private citizens in free states to capture and return fugitive slaves to their masters if they didn’t want to be charged with a felony offense. Thankfully, freedom found its way through the Underground Railroad helping to eventually put an end to slavery.
See you tomorrow for the riveting story of the “problem we all live with.” Til then, Germany Kent has some wise words to consider:
“Stand for something. Make your life mean something. Start where you are with what you have. You are enough.”