Being a Black woman in the United States is still a challenge and a complex set of burdens. Though we have always played a significant role in the development of America, we have often been ignored, insulted and invisible, shamed, stereotyped, and sidelined in spite of our achievements.
We have learned to find humor in heartache, to see beauty in the midst of desperation and horror, to be caregivers and breadwinners, to show strength and resilience, loyalty, love, and affection. Rising above centuries of oppression, long enduring society’s racist and sexist misconceptions and mistreatment, Black women today, while still caring for their families, are also prominent in major media organizations and other corporations, the military, and state and federal governments. Yet as a society and as a nation, it is still not clear how welcome and understood its Black women are in the United States.
Much is still unknown about the psychology of these 19 million people, seven percent of the U.S. population. Their experience in the workplace, the complexities of their romantic lives, the challenges they face as mothers and grandmothers, their spiritual and religious practices—these and so many other aspects of their lives remain largely unknown to the wider community. The result is continuing and significant discomfort on their part in relation to American society. In a June 2002 Gallup poll 61 percent of Black women said they were dissatisfied with “how Blacks are treated in society.” For Black men, the rate of dissatisfaction was lower—47 percent. In the same poll 48 percent of Black women, in contrast to 26 percent of White women, said they were dissatisfied with “how women are treated in society.”
Astonishing myths about Black women in America survive. For too many minds, Black success stories may be dismissed as outliers rather than typical of their Black woman neighbors and fellow citizens. Many hold, instead, to the elements of the insistent stereotype: if a Black woman is strong, she is not supposed to also be beautiful or feminine; if she works at menial tasks to feed and educate her children, she must not be intelligent; if her family unit is collapsing and her children failing, she is somehow to be seen as tough and unafraid; if she maintains her poise while being accosted with sexual harassment, she is probably oversexed or promiscuous; if she travels the globe, she is probably ferrying drugs. She may be as moral and intelligent as ever, but the signals she receives from the wider society too often tell her that she is not; nor can she be.
Distorted lenses are not unique to any ethnic group, but Black women are routinely defined by a specific set of reductive, inaccurate, and unfair caricatures. These survivals of old Hollywood movies and black-and-white television reruns have mutated into contemporary versions of their old selves. The emasculating Sapphire, for instance, resides in some episode you chance to stumble upon from NYPD Blue or Law and Order when police make their way into a poor Black neighborhood: Sapphire is harsh, loud, uncouth, usually making other characters seem more professional, more charming, more polished by contrast. Sapphire is a twisted take on conscientious striving, the Black women who assume multiple roles and myriad tasks upon the absence of their men lost to murder or prison, fulfilling the stereotype of strong and determined while ignoring the physical and emotional strain and the desperate need for balance in their lives. Their effort becomes a health struggle: soaring blood pressure; the consolation of food—and the wrong foods at that; depression; fantasizing about escaping; the untruth that they can and must persevere and endure against great odds without being negatively affected.1
Such stubborn societal myths, stereotypes based on race, gender, and social class are a continuing assault against Black women, invading their inner psyche, becoming permanently internalized, battering them from within even if they’re able, for a time, to wriggle free and live the truth. And the effort to cope with or qualify based on an external and unbalanced agenda makes it harder to trust oneself or to trust others who look or behave as you do. Confusing parameters on who you think you are, and what you believe you should or can become, often dictate what you expect, what seems real, and what seems possible.2
The challenges Black women face are sourced in both gender discrimination and ethnic prejudice. With regard to the latter, Black women live with fears similar to those of Black men in the area of law and order. They are concerned that they not appear too aggressive to the police; anxious that they not be dismissed again and again as welfare queens, sponging on the nation’s economy; anguished that when shopping they can so often be profiled as potential shoplifters; dismayed that fellow workers wonder what right they have to be in offices of status and social consequence.
They are profoundly frustrated that such academic, professional, or business success as they may achieve makes them appear more threatening than ever to White colleagues and simultaneously more uppity than appropriate among Black friends. Specific health problems ensue from or simply correlate with their life effort. Black women in the United States are three times more likely than White women to die during pregnancy and/or childbirth, and are disproportionately single mothers (67 percent, as opposed to 42 percent among Latinas and 25 percent among White women).
But they can still find a promise of future triumph. It is found in the biographies of their ancestral sisters who lived out in their own time all that their descendants of today most desire and dream of in their own hearts. Today’s Black woman has already seen her Black sisters emerge as champions on America’s sports teams, breaking Olympic records, sustaining the nation’s banner of victory. She has seen them assume prominent places in the past and in the culture of our times both at home and abroad, contributing in such areas as literature, journalism, music, dance, theater, and science. Those pioneers have etched their courage and vision into the cultural landscape.
A sampling of their honor roll of talented, beautiful, deeply thoughtful, and intelligent African American women who have contributed significantly to making America better, would surely include such gems of American humaneness and womanhood as Maya Angelou, Hollywood’s first Black woman director and recipient of the Presidential Medal of Freedom—highest civilian award in the United States; Johnnetta Betsch Cole, anthropologist, museum director, and first Black female president of Spelman College; Mae Carol Jemison, engineer, physician, and NASA astronaut; Toni Morrison, Pulitzer Prize winner, Nobel Prize in Literature; Carol Moseley Braun, diplomat, politician and lawyer; Faith Ringgold, painter, writer, mixed media sculptor, and performance artist; Anna Deavere Smith, recipient of the Dorothy and Lillian Gish Prize ($300,000), and founding director of the Institute on the Arts and Civic Dialogue at New York University; and Alfre Woodard, identified as one of America’s most accomplished and versatile actresses. Two biographies in the accompanying sidebar lay out in greater detail what the African American woman has been doing for her children, her people and her nation all along, pointing thus to what she can be depended on to do tomorrow, regardless of the circumstances.
Buoyed by the history of their heroines of the past, Black women are impacting America today in unprecedented ways. Tennis stars Venus and Serena Williams have been able to draw inspiration from the prowess of Althea Gibson, the first Black woman to win a Grand Slam event in tennis (1956). The Williams sisters have taken a page from her book and written multiple volumes based on it. They are arguably as accomplished as any American sibling pair ever, holding between them 121 singles titles, including 30 Grand Slam titles, 14 Grand Slam doubles titles, four Olympic gold medals each, and on and on.
Then there’s Oprah Winfrey, talk show host and media executive, actress, television producer, magazine founder, and philanthropist. And former first lady Michelle Obama.
The burdens of race and gender do not vanish until the biased are willing to acknowledge their prejudiced perspective, and then choose to grow and change for the better. The future of the African American woman is as bright as today’s Oprahs, Michelles, and Serenas, and as promising as yesterday’s Elizabeth Evelyns, Ruth Janettas, and Altheas.
Joan Francis chairs the Department of History and Political Science at Washington Adventist University, Takoma Park, Maryland.
Seventh-day Adventism in New England was an outgrowth of the nineteenth-century Millerite movement inspired by the ministry of Baptist lay preacher William Miller. By the time delegates from a number of states met to organize a General Conference of the movement in Battle Creek, Michigan in May 1863, Adventist believers had begun focusing on a community in the heart of New England as a place to gather and build.The congregation they founded 1n 1864, now the South Lancaster Village church, welcomed Hannah More, longtime missionary to Africa, as its first baptized member in 1866. Four years later, the New England Conference was also formed in South Lancaster, a village about 15 miles north of Worcester.
The work among former Millerites and those of other Christian denominations grew quickly, and South Lancaster increasingly became a center for Seventh-day Adventism. A school, South Lancaster Academy (SLA), established in 1882, subsequently evolved into two schools, SLA and Atlantic Union College (AUC).1 Other institutions that came to locate in South Lancaster included an elementary school, the Southern New England Conference, and the Atlantic Union Conference, administering the church’s work in the six-state region and New York.
Nineteenth-century growth among Adventists also benefited from the work of the Vigilant Missionary Society, women of South Lancaster who distributed literature, wrote letters of encouragement, and regularly visited and supported both the physically and spiritually needy.2
Education contributed significantly to the growth of Adventism in South Lancaster. SLA continued to serve Adventists even as it grew to four-year AUC. For more than 40 years, academy and college students shared dormitory space, until the New England Accreditation of Schools and Colleges (NEASC) alerted the AUC board, in the 1950s, that renewed accreditation depended on separation of college and academy. The Atlantic Union Conference asked the Southern New England Conference to take over secondary education in the area, and the conference, at a rural site in New Braintree, Massachusetts, constructed Pioneer Valley Academy (PVA), which opened in 1965 with a total of 233 students.
In 1914 the Everett church school, originally operated by the Malden and Everett churches, began, with 13 students, in the basement of the Universalist church in Everett. By 1916 the school needed to relocate. In 1920 attendance had grown to 59, with practically all the churches in the Greater Boston area taking an active interest in its success. The expanding school was rebranded as the Greater Boston Intermediate School.
Migrating to the Boston Temple church in 1924, the school had to move again when the church building was sold in 1940. A few years laterthe Boston Temple Junior Academy, as it had become known, became a senior academy, Greater Boston Academy (GBA). In 1965 GBA moved to the grounds of the regional Adventist hospital. When the hospital closed in 1999, the academy relocated to the campus of the nearby Edgewood Adventist Elementary School.
On April 28, 1899, on behalf of the Adventist Church, eight men obtained a charter to set up an organization for the express purpose of establishing a sanitarium in South Lancaster. Originally known as the New England Sanitarium and Benevolent Association, it was the eastern branch of Adventism’s celebrated Battle Creek Sanitarium and administered the same wholesome natural remedies that had made Battle Creek famous.
People flocked to Adventist sanitariums for their unique hydrotherapy and dietary treatments, and other health practices. By 1901 more than 600 patients from 26 states, Canada, and overseas had come to the sanitarium. First constructed beside the college in South Lancaster, it was later disassembled piece by piece, transported by rail, and reassembled beside Spot Pond in Stoneham, Massachusetts as the church’s premier medical facility in the region. By October 1902 it was fully operational at its new site.
Ellen White visited soon after and wrote that its move to a quiet country location was in accordance with the divine blueprint, “far enough removed from the busy city [of Boston] so that the patients may have the most favorable conditions for recovery of health.”3 To avoid a repeat of the Battle Creek loss,4 the sanitarium was placed directly under the control of the New England Conference. Later known as the New England Memorial Hospital (NEMH), the institution, for decades, boosted the reputation and impact of Adventism in New England.
At the close of the 1982-1983 academic year the Southern New England Conference’s boarding high school, PVA, had amassed $150,000 in unpaid bills. A conference constituency session voted to close the school and sell the property just as apple trees planted on the property were coming to maturity. Proceeds from the sale ($2.5 million) were put into a secondary education trust fund, with the interest to fund scholarships for Adventist-constituent youth to attend any Adventist academy in the region.
Further challenges emerged with the church’s primary medical facility. The 1999 bankruptcy and closure of Boston Regional Medical Center (formerly NEMH) deeply impacted employees, the city of Stoneham, and Greater Boston Academy, on whose grounds the academy operated.
Twelve years later AUC, Adventism’s only four-year college in New England, lost its accreditation, leaving students unable to obtain government-backed guaranteed student loans to finance their education. Most students transferred to other schools, but many faculty and staff were left to fend for themselves. Not everyone lost faith, and the school has since been reopened.
The loss of key institutions has not extinguished the light of gospel witness in New England. Immigrant congregations have emerged in the heartland of the Millerite movement. Adventist membership in New England is now at an all-time high. Church leaders are rising to the challenge of reimagining how witness, church planting and growth can be supported in the years ahead.
Joan Francis, chair of the History Department at Washington Adventist University, also taught history at Atlantic Union College.
The story of African Americans in the development of the United States of America has finally been recognized in an institution worthy of its stature: the National Museum of African American History and Culture. Opened on September 24, 2016, and sitting on a five-acre site on the National Mall in the nation’s capital, the distinctive bronze-color building in the shape of a traditional Yoruban crown, shares the pain, oppression, and triumphs of African Americans. Fittingly situated next to the Museum of American History and opposite from the Washington Monument, it connects the United States’ painful past with current events, and proposes ways to live as an inclusive society in the future.
After waiting patiently to enter on opening day, visitors descended 70 feet below ground, going past reminders of various important dates in United States’ history, recorded on the wall in descending order, until they begin the journey with the Atlantic slave trade. This virtual reality exhibit makes visitors feel they are in the slave ship, being lashed by waves, and confronted with implements of torture, such as the cat-o’-nine-tails that was used to whip slaves. Other shocking sights included shackles for babies and the coffin of 14-year-old Emmett Till, whose brutal murder in 1955 gave energy to the nascent civil rights movement.
Educational exhibits include Harriet Tubman’s hymnal, and a shawl England’s Queen Victoria gave to her, circa 1897, in recognition of her work on the Underground Railroad; a list of names of more than 2,200 people lynched from 1882 to 1930; medals awarded the crew of the U.S.S. Mason, the first Navy ship with a predominantly Black crew during World War II; and areas of African American achievement.
Not all galleries follow a chronological framework. “Community and Culture” exhibits are themed around music, art, and sports, and recount how African Americans overcame discrimination and oppression as they strove to make of the United States a more perfect union.
Upsetting and uplifting, the museum brings America’s diverse peoples together to learn how our shared history can help us to share a better future in each other’s company.
Joan Francis is chair of the History and Political Studies Department at Washington Adventist University in Takoma Park, Maryland.