Dear Charles, Black Women Change the World

Patrice S. Johnson
Feb 1 · 4 min read

The first snow fell in Detroit, and even though I’ve lived in Michigan all of my life, I went into a panic. Do I need new tires? Has the oil been changed? Where are my boots, hat, gloves, and scarf? Ultimately, I decided I don’t want to go outside. Thankfully, I have a rule, if the schools are closed, so are our offices. So I refused to deal with the freshly fallen snow, which seemed to never end, despite the bustling sun that awakened me the next morning. Needless to say, on days like this, when winter comes, I find the perfect time to read.

This afternoon, I chose to rummage through Charles Phillips’, 50 Leaders Who Changed History. MLK was on the cover, delivering what appeared to be his famous ‘I Have a Dream’ speech. I was curious, how many women are counted in the 50? When I glanced the table of contents, I saw names like Queen Elizabeth, Mother Teresa, Queen Victoria, Queen Boudica (whoever this is), and to my not so surprise there were no Black women listed. Having just seen the movie Harriet I thought surely, Harriet Tubman could be listed. But no. Eva Peron, Margaret Thatcher were listed, but no Harriet or Rosa or Oprah even. And quite honestly, didn’t these women emerge as world changers? I write that last line in the same tone as Sojourner Truths, “Ain’t I a Woman.”

Perhaps, that is, in fact, the point. Black women, for centuries, have contributed to the rise of nations, people, communities, and families, all while being in the words of Malcolm X, the most disrespected and unprotected of the human race. Black women are seemingly invisible superheroes, gracing the globe with our presence, and yet never being recognized with the same enthusiasm as the non-Black women listed in Charles’ book. Our crowns are placed immaculately on our heads without the world’s acknowledgment, they still exist, and we seemingly still reign. What I want to make clear is that Black women lead under the gravest of conditions. One of the women who could’ve been listed in the 50, Shirley Chisholm, recognizes my point plainly in her 1974 speech as she notes,

“As a result of this historical circumstance (slavery and it’s never-ending impact), the black woman has developed perseverance; the black woman has developed strength; the black woman has developed tenacity of purpose and other attributes which today quite often are being looked upon negatively.”

-Shirley Chisolm (The Black Woman in Contemporary America, June 1974)

Unlike any other, Black women face the intersectionality of both their race and their gender — the double jeopardy. And yet she, the original Queen Mother, has been able to navigate the world in such a way that she fiercely changes it. I would argue that black women will always have a sense of self-determination and agency that I describe as a gendered double consciousness, the black woman’s version of DuBois’s double consciousness. I so bravely wrote about this truth at 22 years old when my experience in the world had yet to begin. Ten years later, I realize that I was prescient.

An excerpt from that paper reads:

“It is evident that black women have historically been ostracized from the proponents of American civil livelihood. Their material realities illustrate the conditions of white supremacy and patriarchy as systemic. Black women counteracted their oppression with self-identification and racial uplift. Their philosophy contended that they lift their race while simultaneously promoting the cause of black womanhood. Understanding the dimensions of their oppression was critical to the strategic implications of community empowerment and self-help. Black women were conscious of their condition within American society. They chose to use their oppression as a tool to guide their work.”

Perhaps, the Black woman’s greatest strength is that she is underestimated because, despite the world’s inability to see her worth, she is quietly changing it. In that case, continue to underestimate us as we sprinkle Black Girl Magic around the globe, and watch it glisten in the sunlight that the African tundra drew upon our lips.

So, dear Charles, with all due respect, despite your many accomplishments, Oxford degree, and all, I’d like to offer you this, a list of 50 world changers, and they are all Black women.

Adrienne Dixson, Ph.D.
Alexandra Burrell, Ph.D.
Angela Davis
Angela Y. Porter (My Mama’)
Ashley Johnson, Ph.D.
Assata Shakur
Beyoncé Knowles-Carter
Carla Turner
Carolyn Allen
Charity Whitehurst
Coretta Scott-King
Courtney Smith
Dayonna Whitehurst
Dymasha Thomas
Ella Baker
Fannie Lou Hammer
Gail Perry-Mason
Henrietta Lacks
Ida B. Wells
Inglish Reed-Jones
Jainelle Robinson
Jemele Hill
Jhonika Hawkins
Jo Coleman
Katherine Johnson
Keisha Jackson
Kim Sims
LaCretia Dye, Ph.D.
Lauren Clayborne
LeAnn Henri
Mary Church Terrell
Mary Sheffield
Megan Threats
Michelle Obama
Nettavia Curry, Ph.D.
Ngum Suh
Oprah Winfrey
Phaedra Wainaina
Ramona Cox, Ph.D.
Rebecca Limbaugh
Rochelle Riley
Rosa Parks
Shadora Ford
Shanti Senthe
Shirley Chisholm
Suzanne Shank
Tabitha Bentley, Ph.D.
Teresa Younger
Tiffany Taylor
Tonya Allen