“When they go low, we go high,” said Michelle Obama during that epic, make-you-want-to-cry speech on the first night of this year’s Democratic National Convention in Philadelphia. For the next 15 minutes, Mrs. Obama moved a nation from the needle of fear and hate sharpened so dangerously by Donald Trump. FLOTUS spoke to the hearts of a country, dealt with the hate of an opponent, invoked a bloody history, and re-imagined “Make America Great Again” to “America is the greatest country on earth.” She lifted the DNC from confusion and controversy to optimism and committed engagement. Essentially, FLOTUS was doing the emotional labor so many Black women do in nation building, movement building and electoral politics. Black women’s emotional labor matters.
That emotional labor was manifest that night through the ghosts of multiple Black women whose names we never heard, and those whose work was not acknowledged. As Monica Dennis, Regional Co-Coordinator of Black Lives Matter NYC pointed out on her FB page: “Donna Brazile and Marcia Fudge cleaned up a mess they did not create. First Lady Michelle Obama delivered a flawless speech, silencing her haters, shading the RNC candidate while wearing a bulletproof vest. Sen. Corey Booker invoked Dr. Maya Angelou to signal that he is next in line. Black women bear the reality and weight that we are instrumental in keeping Trump out of the White House. And all of this, without a bold mention of Fannie Lou Hamer, Shirley Chisholm or Barbara Jordan who revolutionized U.S. politics.”
The deep irony is that Michelle Obama wearing a bullet proof vest as she delivered a democracy-saving speech was a physical reminder that her emotional labor may save a nation that will not–and does not–protect or save Black women. When Hillary Clinton delivered her June 7th speech clinching the nomination as Democratic representative for president, she said, “Tonight’s victory is not about one person, it belongs to the women and men who struggled and sacrificed to make this moment possible.” Her speech was made in Brooklyn, the same location where Shirley Chisholm launched her candidacy at Concord Baptist Church on January 25, 1972. And yet Chisholm’s name was not mentioned during that speech.
The DNC Convention revealed how Black women are simultaneously frontlined and sidelined. They put their bodies and their brilliance in formation of uplifting a nation, even as that nation dismisses and discards them when it comes to policy to make their lives – and ultimately all lives – better. This happens in movements, public spaces and electoral politics. Glynda Carr, Co-Founder of Higher Heights, an organization whose aim is to put more Black women into electoral office, consistently articulates the phenomenal labor by Black women to get President Obama elected – twice. The president requested that labor again to win Hillary Clinton a history-making presidency. His presidential win still created a policy fail when his major initiative targeting Black folks, My Brother’s Keeper, overlooked and ignored that labor and instead solely targeted Black boys and men – not Black families — for support and dollars and programs.
I think about how the DNC’s nation-building politics leans on the emotional labor of grieving Black women when I watched the Mothers of the Movement. “When a young Black life is cut short, it’s not just a personal loss, it’s a national loss. It’s a loss that diminishes all of us,” said Geneva Reed-Veal, Sandra Bland’s mother. It is not just DNC politics where Black women’s emotional labor goes unnoticed; it is too often within our own communities – the most powerful and the most painful.
Watching Sandy’s mama, I remember how hard Sandra Bland’s death hit so many Black women, and how some Black men chastised Sandra’s behavior with the police. Across social media, some lectured Black women that such behavior was responsible for Sandy’s arrest. Black women—grieving the senseless death of a young Black activist—suspended their grief and engaged in the labor of negotiating their emotionality with some Black men whose own emotional illiteracy meant they were unable to soothe, comfort or empathize.
These economies of violence by the state, and elected officials and within our community, are a cycle, not a single event. Politicians seek access to Black women’s ballots, even as the state consistently targets those same Black women’s children with bullets. And then denies them justice, as it criminalizes their babies’ corpses. The miracle is Black women consistently seek justice, not vengeance, for the violence perpetuated against them and their babies. It is precisely that quality that really makes America great. But it comes at a cost to our health and wellness, even as it saves America from itself.
Black women’s emotional labor matters.
Esther Armah is a radio host and media lecturer. She is host of The Spin, a weekly all women of color podcast. Follow her on twitter: @estherarmah.