Invisible: The Unrecognized History of Black Women

There exists a dichotomy of Black Women’s History that creates a departure of alliance for modern day women and for women cross-culturally alike.  We know Harriett Tubman and Rosa Parks, each woman courageously reflecting pivotal moments in Black History, while Sojourner Truth and Condoleezza Rice salute mile markers in Women’s History.  But what about Henrietta Lacks or Anarcha, Betsy and Lucy?  Do we know them or are their truths and struggles too somber to hoist upon our conscience?  It almost seems like we have no relation to the women who have pounded the ground before us and created a path to our dreams for the future.  They all relate to one another, but somewhere, we’ve neglected to associate our relation with them.

In 1849, at the age of 29, Harriet Tubman escaped from slavery.  A lonely free woman in a strange new land, Harriet was provoked to leave Philadelphia. She returned to Maryland to rescue first family, then friends and eventually other captives, earning the nickname “Moses.” She established what we now know as the “Underground Railroad.”  By her early 40s, Harriet was a full-blown Civil War spy.  What she did was courageous, but also natural as an unrelenting bond with her family persisted.

While Tubman was making one of her more than 19 trips as a conductor of the Underground Railroad between Maryland and Philadelphia, Sojourner Truth stood proudly, at the age of 54, and delivered her “Ain’t I a Woman” speech in Akron, Ohio as the only female speaker at the Ohio Women’s Rights Convention.  The year was 1851.  Over time she humbly recounted how she quite literally “walked” away from slavery. She lived to dictate the tales, many of which are in her (initially) privately published “The Narrative of Sojourner Truth: A Northern Slave.”

Harriet abolished slavery one step at a time as Sojourner revoked bondage with the power of speech.  Our women were sycophantic in their quest.  Yet as crowds listened closely and escapees planned carefully, Anarcha, Betsy and Lucy endured quietly at the hands of J. Marion Sims.  Anarcha is one of 14 enslaved experimental subjects who inadvertently aided the “Father of Gynecology” in perfecting the repair of vesicovaginal fistula. Many of us, proud mothers, are familiar with this unfortunate condition that occurs during childbirth.  Anarcha laid down to more than 30 test operations with no anesthesia before 1852, when fistula surgery was perfected.  Little is said and less is heard of the women who died and suffered to bring forth the practice of gynecology, as we know it today.

Nearly 15 years later, in 1867, Sarah Breedlove – aka Madam C.J. Walker – was born.  Concocting a cure-all for hair loss and scalp infection, Madam C.J. Walker is regarded as the first self-made female millionaire in American History.  In 1908, at the age of 41, she opened Lelia College (named after her daughter) to train hair culturists and established and built a production factory in 1910.  She launched into philanthropy and rocked the Black community with contributions to the NAACP, YMCA and other organizations and individuals throughout her life.  Like many women we know, Walker was taken by cancer in 1919.

One year after Madam C.J. Waker’s death, an unexpected star was born. Loretta Pleasant, known as Mrs. Henrietta Lacks, is mother of the first-ever cloned and first-ever immortal cell.  Rarely is it mentioned when reading about the great medical feats of Jonas Salk that the HeLa cell was used in creating the polio vaccine.  The HeLa cell is the most widely used immortal cell with 20 tons existing on this earth today and is being used for HIV/AIDS and cancer research.

Henrietta Lacks succumbed to cancer in 1951. Rosa Parks was a 38-year-old woman at that time, just four years shy of becoming a shining star in civil rights history.  Born in Tuskegee Alabama, the seamstress could probably have never guessed that a long, hard day at work would’ve led to a small revolution and a life of activism.

1955, the year Rosa Parks stood up (or quite literally, didn’t stand up) was a year of change for Black America. Unfortunately, the same could not be said for the 399 black men of Rosa’s birth town, Tuskegee, Alabama, where 40 women and 19 children contracted syphilis during the 40 year long Tuskegee Syphilis Experiments.

After public exposure, the Tuskegee Syphilis Experiments ended in 1972, just as Shirley Chisholm became the first major-party Black candidate for President of the United States and the first woman to run for the Democratic presidential nomination. Courageously, she identified and challenged the “double handicap”: being Black and being a woman.

While Chisholm was running for president in 1972, Condoleezza Rice was just 18 years old.  In 2000, she became the first woman to serve as National Security Advisor in the United States.  In 2002 she performed in public, as an accomplished pianist, with cellist Yo-Yo Ma.  Multi-faceted, omni-talented and superbly interesting, “Condy” is perhaps the most underestimated and overlooked woman of our time.

These women chronicle history.  They relate to one another in a multifaceted gem that will not diminish.  When we hear the crinkle of exam table paper crushing against our bottoms, we can relate to the helpless necessity of exposure to a stranger in the name of “gynecology” and vaginal health. When we are tired after a long day’s work, in chic uncomfortable pumps and no one will give us a seat, think of Rosa.  When we enjoy the beauty of the piano, while embarking upon a brave work endeavor, let us think of Condoleezza. But when we don’t know what the future holds, let us think of who will be next.  Can I relate to you?  Will you be next?

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