March 8 is recognized as International Women’s Day (IWD) and in Toronto was commemorated with a rally and march on March 3. The United Nations (UN) endorsed IWD in 1945 and provides this history: “International Women’s Day first emerged from the activities of labour movements at the turn of the twentieth century in North America and across Europe.” In North America and various other places today in the 21st century it is mostly taken for granted that a woman’s place is wherever she wants it to be. More than 100 years ago when the celebration of IWD began that was not the case. Most people thought that a woman’s place was in the house, most likely the kitchen if she did not have domestic help. Apparently this mindset was first documented in the play Seven Against Thebes written by Greek playwright Aeschylus in 467 BC. In Greek Theatre Performance: An Introduction published in 2000 David Wiles writes of the confrontation between the ruler and the women of Thebes which led to the infamous edict: “In Aeschylus’ Seven Against Thebes the male warrior and politician Eteocles condemns the women’s howling as bad for morale, and declares that he will never share a house with anyone of the ‘female race’; the woman’s place is indoors, he insists, and she should express no opinions about the outdoor world of men.” This sentiment is repeated in the quoting of two proverbs in the 2007 published book Classical and contemporary sociological theory: text and readings by authors Scott Appelrouth and Laura Desfor Edles: “A woman should leave her home but three times, when she is christened, when she is married, and when she is buried” and equally outrageous “The woman, the cat and the chimney should never leave the house.” This popular sentiment did not hold true for most African American and African Canadian women whose place was more than likely in the home and kitchen of a white family even after slavery was abolished in Canada August 1, 1834 and in the USA January 31, 1865. This history is documented in several books including Cooking in other women's kitchens: domestic workers in the South, 1865-1960 published in 2010 by white American author Rebecca Sharpless and by African American authors Labor of Love Labor of Sorrow: Black Women, Work, and the Family, from Slavery to the Present (Jacqueline Jones published 1985,) Out of the House of Bondage: The Transformation of the Plantation Household (Thavolia Glymph published 2008) and To Joy My Freedom: Southern Black Women’s Lives and Labors (Tera Hunter published 2000)
This state of affairs was not confined to the Southern US States. In her 2001 published book Unprotected Labor: Household Workers, Politics, and Middle-Class Reform in New York, 1870-1940 Vanessa H. May writes about the reality for African American women in New York: In the Depression’s cut—throat competitive labor market, black women were left with the lowest paid and least stable jobs in this already low—status occupation. For many black female domestics in New York City, that meant standing in line in one of the 200 “slave markets” that appeared on street corners throughout the five boroughs but particularly in the Bronx. African American women waited for housewives to stop and offer them a few hours work, sometimes for wages as low as ten or fifteen cents an hour. Employers’ racism and greed, along with the workers’ obvious desperation, made street market workers particularly vulnerable to abuse. Employers were notorious for lengthening workdays by secretly turning back their clocks or claiming a domestic’s work was undeserving of pay.
The image of African American women as being happy with their lot as domestic servants was so pervasive in the minds of white women that even those attending institutions of higher learning in the late 20th century held those views. In her 2009 published book Teaching Critical Thinking: Practical Wisdom bell hooks writes of her encounter with one white female student who held this view: “I was lecturing on Toni Morrison’s the Bluest Eye and referenced the history of black women working as domestics in white households. A white female student raised her hand to disagree when I suggested that often black maids served white families with apparent good cheer and then returned to segregated black communities venting their rage and anger at ways they were exploited. The student kept repeatedly stating that their maid was a beloved member of the family, who loved them as though they were her own. I questioned her about whether she had ever talked with the maid about her feelings, about race, about love, and her answer was no. I then suggested that it was unlikely she knew what the maid was really feeling. The student cried. She accused me of being racist and seeing racism everywhere.”
Even though IWD is supposed to celebrate/recognize the history of women, the reality is that it is mostly a celebration/recognition of the history of white women. There are women from various African communities who deserve recognition, some are well known while some are not known outside of their communities. Sister Sherona Hall who transitioned in December 2006 is one of those unsung sheroes. She was a Civil Rights activist not only involved in Toronto but also in her homeland Jamaica, various other Caribbean islands and the African continent. Sister Sherona Hall was a founding member of the Black Action Defense Committee (BADC) which was founded in 1988 in Toronto to address the spate of police murder of African Canadian men. Doreen Lawrence is another African woman who is among the unsung sheroes to remember on IWD. On April 22, 1993 her 18 year old son, Stephen Lawrence was murdered by white youth in London, United Kingdom (UK.) In spite of a white supremacist culture that inundated the police investigation and set her son’s murderers free, Doreen Lawrence did not give up fighting for justice. It took 19 years of perseverance on her and her husband’s part before two of her son’s murderers were brought to justice in 2012 http://www.guardian.co.uk/uk/2012/jan/03/justice-for-stephen-lawrence. The women of Buxton, East Coast Demerara, Guyana who put their lives on the line (literally) when they clambered onto the train line (tracks) and stopped the colonial governor in his tracks are another example of unsung African sheroes who are not known outside of the communities in which they lived/worked. A few years after slavery was finally abolished in British Guiana on August 1, 1834, Africans freed from slavery pooled their money and bought abandoned plantations. The village of Buxton was one of the many villages established by Africans after slavery was abolished. They were actively discouraged from seeking this independence from white domination of their lives. The white people who had formerly dictated every area of the lives of Africans tried every underhanded trick to continue doing so including sabotaging the growth of the recently established villages. The Buxtonians survived the deliberate flooding of their farms and other attempts to dislodge them from the homes bought with blood, sweat and tears. The final straw was an unfair taxation of their land by the colonial government. Several attempts to dialogue with the governor were rebuffed. When news reached the villagers that the governor would be passing by their village as he inspected the recently laid train tracks it was an ideal opportunity to engage the governor in conversation. As the train approached Buxton, the women of Buxton strode onto the train tracks putting their lives on the line. The men followed when the train was forced to stop. The protestors immobilized the train by applying chains and locks to its wheels which forced the Governor to step out and meet with villagers. The villagers demanded that the governor listen to their genuine concerns about the exorbitant, unfair taxing of their land and repeal the tax law. Following that impromptu meeting at the train line, the governor did repeal the tax. The story of the brave women of Buxton is hardly known outside of Guyana.
This African Proverb: “Until lions have their historians, tales of the hunt shall always glorify the hunter” makes a profound statement about the lack of widespread knowledge of our African sheroes. Thankfully we do have some historians who have documented some of the stories of these women’s lives. The story of how: Buxton women stop train is documented in Ovid Abrams’ Metegee: The History and Culture of Guyana published in 1998. Makeda Silvera’s 1989 published book Silenced: Caribbean Domestic Workers Talk with Makeda Silvera gives voice to Caribbean women who immigrated to Canada and worked as domestic workers. The experiences of some of these women as they laboured in the homes of white Canadian families are heartrending and can rival the most dreadful experiences of African American domestic workers told in books like Coming of Age in Mississippi by Anne Moody published in 1968 and Living In, Living Out: African American Domestics and the Great Migration by Elizabeth Clark-Lewis published in 1996.
Some more of our sheroes include Viola Desmond and Carrie Best. Viola Desmond challenged the white supremacist segregation policy that relegated her to the balcony seat of the Roseland Theatre in New Glasgow, Nova Scotia on November 8, 1946. Her story is now fairly well known because of several books written about her experience including Sister to Courage published in 2010 by Desmond’s younger sister Wanda Robson. In 2010 Desmond received a posthumous official apology and free pardon (which acknowledges her innocence) for the criminal conviction of 1946. Her crime was essentially sitting in a seat reserved for white Canadians. In 2012 Desmond was honoured with a postage stamp. During her struggle (which she took all the way to the Supreme Court) to have the guilty verdict against her overturned she was supported by civil rights activist Carrie Best who publicized the case in The Clarion. The Clarion was established in 1946 by Best and was the first African Canadian owned and published newspaper in Nova Scotia. African Americans also used their media to publicize their plight. Civil Rights activists Ella Baker and Marvel Cooke wrote an expose of the Bronx Slave Markets which was published in the November 1935 issue of the magazine The Crisis founded by W.E.B DuBois in 1910 as the official newspaper of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP.) The Crisis remains the official publication of the NAACP in 2012.