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This Women's History Month, Scalawag presents a roundup of women who came before the historical figures you may have heard of: architects of civil rights law, Southern financiers, abolitionist visionaries, and folk music pioneers. This year, the National Women's History Month theme is "celebrating women who tell our stories." But who gets to tell our stories?
Who gets to be placed on a poster hanging in a classroom? Who are the go-to girls that teachers have to reassign students from so everyone doesn't end up giving the same damn report? Hello, Helen Keller and Susan B. Anthony—you're cool, but enough is enough.
Giants of the past and present do not fade into obscurity: they are pushed into the shadows and intentionally hidden there. Black queer and trans women have always existed—teaching, loving, surviving, thriving, often in the shadows they were forced into.
So, if you always wanted to be the student who presented their report on a historical figure that had your classmates shook, this is for you. Read about these Black women and gender-nonconforming folks in history, and share their stories.
1. Pauli Murray
Murray, who publicly identified as a Black woman and self-described as a "he/she personality" in correspondence with family members, refused to give up her seat on a bus 15 years before Rosa Parks. Using pronouns interchangeably, Murray would likely be considered gender-nonconforming in contemporary times, and is heralded by many as an early trans figure. He was also the architect of civil rights law as we know it, and a preeminent theorist of the converging biases of race and sex enshrined in law—what Murray called "Jane Crow," or what we might now term as "intersectionality." This month, we're revisiting Murray's unmistakable impact over the decades, and the ways so many have failed to see it until now.
"As queer and trans folks of color, our ancestors and our history are often hard to come by. We know that we have existed for forever but the world tries so hard to erase us or to explain our existence away as an anomaly or aberration."
Murray knew that her liberation could not come at the cost of self-fragmentation. We know that centering the voices and experiences of queer and trans people of color in this fight is a simultaneous act of love and resistance that demonstrates to the world that we will not be broken. That is Pauli Murray's legacy: one of courage, resilience, love, and ferocity. Her story is integral to the fight for queer liberation.
"Many people talk about Pauli Murray being ahead of her time; early—too soon, even. And perhaps Murray was conscious of that too. 'I am a prophet without eyes to see,' she wrote in her poem, Harlem Riot, 1943."
"Wow," Academy Award-nominated Director Betsy West (of RBG fame) said in an interview with Scalawag, "Why didn't we know about Pauli Murray?" That question seems to have followed Murray's teachings their whole life. Not until recent years did the world seem to finally catch up, says Barbara Lau, the Executive Director of the Pauli Murray Center in Durham.
2. Mama Gloria
Gloria Allen, who unfortunately passed away last summer at the age of 76, was a Black trans activist, icon, and elder known for transitioning well before Stonewall. While she made a career as a licensed practice nurse, Allen is best known for operating a free "charm school" for transgender youth in Chicago where, despite her prim and proper persona, she didn't just teach etiquette and manners, but survival. Through lessons on hormones, street safety, makeup, and self-esteem, Allen provided a model of how to thrive beyond the statistics.
"It is the unspoken order of things that Black women do not show all they have endured. Gloria Allen, the namesake of the documentary Mama Gloria, certainly doesn't. Like so many Black women before her, Mama Gloria wagers that respectability can protect her from being mistreated, believing 'if you act like a lady, you'll be treated like a lady.'"
While many Black trans women struggle to imagine life after 40 due to the violence they experience daily, a 2020 documentary by Black filmmaker Luchina Fisher honoring Mama Gloria's life and work sets out to provide us with an elder role model to look up to. Rather than offering a litany of the trauma that Black trans women endure, we see how anti-trans violence may have haunted Mama Gloria's life—but does not define it.
3. bell hooks
At Scalawag, we're constantly learning that if we're thinking about something, there's a very good chance that bell hooks probably already thought about it too. As a Black, queer-pas-gay, fiercely feminist scholar, poet, and cultural critic, hooks authored more than 30 books in her lifetime. A native Kentuckian, hooks was a prophetic thinker who spoke to the root of Black feminism, race, sexuality, and more. She passed away in 2021 at the age of 69, and we've been mourning—and paying tribute to her work—ever since.
'All my people come from the hills'
"listen little sister/ angels make their hope here / in these hills / follow me / I will guide you / careful now / no trespass / I will guide you"
"To lose bell is to lose," fellow poet and Scalawag Arts & Soul Editor Alysia Nicole Harris wrote in this tribute shortly after hooks' passing. "She was one of the rare folks who became an ancestor before death." In honor of a woman whose work at the intersections of race and gender holds such influence over our own and modern Black feminism as a whole, Scalawag published three poems from hooks' 2012 poetry collection Appalachian Elegy as our elegy to her, a way of mourning her transition while celebrating her life.
4. Odetta Holmes
Odetta Holmes, who passed away in 2008 at the age of 77 following a rich life of culture-making activism, songwriting, and performance, is by and large one of the most overlooked but deeply resonant pioneers of folk music. Dubbed the "queen of folk" by Martin Luther King Jr., she has been cited as a major influence over artists of her time like Harry Belafonte and Janis Joplin, to modern songwriters like Janelle Monáe and Rhiannon Giddens.
"She's the blueprint for activism in music in the United States," observes singer/songwriter Anjimile. "It's specifically because of her that I feel like I even have a voice to speak on political issues."
Through her journey from falling in love with opera to pioneering Black protest music, we're celebrating the vocal and movement contributions of this distinctly Southern icon. In some ways, legendary folk musician Odetta Holmes's career mirrored the coverage she got for her appearance at the March on Washington, where she appeared onstage alongside other greats of the time like Bob Dylan and Joan Baez; oft-discussed but little seen. (Bonus: There's a dope Spotify playlist in this one.)
5. Maggie Walker
In 1903, the banking industry was about as white and male as it is today. But decades before the New Deal, a woman named Maggie Walker did something that no one in the U.S. has done before or since: she founded a bank run by and tailored to Black women. At a time when women were hardly present in the bank lobbies as customers, St. Luke's Bank proved to be so successful that it survived The Great Depression.
Born to enslaved parents in Richmond, Virginia, in 1864, Walker uplifted Black women through a style of banking that was deeply personal, even for its era. We're celebrating her story today as less of a depiction of 20th-century Black capitalism, and more of a rendering of what is possible when Black women can effectively channel their own money for personal and collective economic development.
"St. Luke's Black female borrowers generally occupied the bottom of the social and economic hierarchy in the Jim Crow South—while St. Luke's evaluated social information in the context of lending decisions, it did so with a scorecard that was very different than the one traditionally imposed on women of color."
As white banks has previously evaluated Black women as inherently "risky" and put no stock in the community ties to strengthen Black neighborhoods, Walker's work was instrumental in bucking an economy that kept wealth sequestered to whiteness.