Long before there was a United States, there was a myth that affected the naming of California, the myth of Califia, a black female Amazon queen.
Califia's life and land "at the right hand of the Indies" were described in a novel written about 1510, by Garcia Ordonez Rodriguez de Montalvo, a Spanish writer, and was entitled "Las Serges des Esplandian". To some extent, this document helped to precipitate the Spanish hunt for gold in North America. In fact, thirty years later, when the explorer Cortes landed with his crew in what is known today as Baja California, it is said that he announced to his men (of which 300 were of African descent) that they had arrived in Califia's land. By 1770, the entire Pacific coast controlled by Spain had been given the name California, and the Spanish speaking people who lived there were called Californios. A portion of the original of this document was translated by Edward Everett Hale for The Antiquarian Society, and the story was printed in the Atlantic Monthly magazine in 1864.As I think about the contributions of real women of African descent to our history, I am proud of the roles we have played in this nation, even when many of those stories are as yet untold.
The best known depictions of Queen Califia are murals done by well known artists. One seven foot high panel showing Califia as a Black woman with her Amazons is in The Room of the Dons at the Mark Hopkins Intercontinental Hotel in San Francisco, and was created for the opening of the hotel in 1926, by Maynard Dixon and Frank Von Sloun. Another famous depiction, created by Louise Lloyd and entitled "The Naming of California", can be seen in Sacramento in the Senate Rules Committee Hearing Chamber on the 4th floor of the State Building.
We are women of many facets and identities, and the term "African-American" today encompasses not only those African ancestored women born here, but also women who have migrated here from the Caribbean, the African continent, South and Central America.
I am not pleased by the way we are still stereotyped by racist misogynists, who use these memes to denigrate us, and re-enforce lies about our agency and role in history.
One of the most recent books to address this is Sister Citizen: Shame, Stereotypes, and Black Women in America, by Melissa Harris Perry.
Jezebel's sexual lasciviousness, Mammy's devotion, and Sapphire's outspoken anger—these are among the most persistent stereotypes that black women encounter in contemporary American life. Hurtful and dishonest, such representations force African American women to navigate a virtual crooked room that shames them and shapes their experiences as citizens. Many respond by assuming a mantle of strength that may convince others, and even themselves, that they do not need help. But as a result, the unique political issues of black women are often ignored and marginalized.
There are too many important books to read by and about my sisters for me to highlight them here. There are too many black women's lives and issues to explore in one short essay.
During my tenure here at Daily Kos, I have attempted to tell some of those stories and recommend further reading. Rather than repeat, I prefer to link to them.
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As one of the editors of Black Kos, and in individual posts of my own, I've written about politicians like Barbara Jordan, Shirley Chisholm, Maxine Waters, Kamala Harris and presidential adviser Valerie Jarrett.
Our activism as black women has not been primarily as elected officials, and our political activities have spanned the time of enslavement through reconstruction, women's suffrage and the civil rights and revolutionary movements. Activists like Fannie Lou Hamer and Ella Baker, contemporary radicals like Angela Davis, and historical giants like Mary McLeod Bethune have all contributed to our strides forward. There were sisters who became the test cases for integration like journalist Charlayne Hunter-Gault, and those women whose lives shaped judicial history like Harriet Scott whose case is part of the Dred Scott decision.
Our role in demanding the vote and a place in the women's suffrage movement was key, led by women like Ida Wells Barnett, Anna Julia Cooper and Mary Church Terrell.
I decided to dip back into history today to highlight a woman who is rarely mentioned: Sarah Parker Remond.
Were it not for the work of historian and librarian Dorothy Porter Wesley, who wrote Sarah Parker Remond, Abolitionist and Physician in the Journal of Negro History, I may not have ever learned about Remond.
Born free in 1826 in Salem Massachusetts, Remond's family members were activists and abolitionists.
Salem in the 1840s was a center of anti-slavery activity. The whole family was committed to the abolition movement. They played host to many of the movement's leaders, including William Lloyd Garrison and Wendell Phillips, and to more than one fugitive slave fleeing north. Her father was a life member of the Massachusetts Anti-Slavery Society; and her older brother Charles Lenox Remond was the American Anti-Slavery Society's first black lecturer and the nation's leading black abolitionist until Frederick Douglass appeared on the scene in 1842. Along with her mother and sisters, Remond was an active member of the state and county female anti-slavery societies.What fascinated me about Remond was the fact that she was not only active here in the U.S., but that she left the U.S. to take the anti-slavery message to Europe.
In 1853, Remond was forcibly removed and pushed down a flight of stairs at the Howard Athenaeum in Boston where she had gone to attend an opera, Don Pasquale, for which she had purchased a ticket. This incident stemmed from her refusal to sit in a segregated section for the show. Remond sued for damages and won her case. She was awarded $500, which did not compensate for her injury and embarrassment, but her goal was not to make money on the case but to force an admission that she was wronged.
A clear and forceful speaker, Remond lectured to enthusiastic crowds in cities throughout England, Scotland and Ireland, and raised large sums of money for the anti-slavery cause. Once the Civil War began, she worked to build support in Britain for the Union blockade of the Confederacy and influenced public opinion in Britain to support the Union cause. At the end of the war, she lectured on behalf of the Freedmen, soliciting funds and clothing for the ex-slaves. She was an active member of the London Emancipation Society and the Freedman's Aid Association in London.Key were her attempts to combat bigotry in Ireland.
The second part of her tour took her to Dublin. Relations between Ireland and the United States had been multiplied during the preceding decade. Vast numbers of Irish people, impoverished by successive failures of the potato harvest, had emigrated in search of new opportunities for survival, if not for prosperity, some to the slave states but most to the more opulent North. Sarah Remond endeavored to build antislavery sentiment among her Irish listeners, for Irishmen had a potential influence among affluent visitors from American slave states who were making the "grand tour" of the British Isles. They also had an influence upon relatives and friends already in America, some of whom had succumbed to proslavery dialectics: Too many who perhaps had felt persecution themselves, and had left the country filled with aspirations for human freedom, had no sooner become residents in America and had dwelt there sufficiently long to become imbued with the all prevailing spirit of intolerance inculcated by the slave-holders, than they were to be found to go the fullest length which tyranny could desire, "going the whole ticket" in the pro-slavery interest.(Black Women in Nineteenth-Century American Life: Their Words, Their Thoughts, Their Feelings)
In 1866, her decision to become a physician at age 42, was a courageous one, an opportunity she would not have had in the U.S. She is buried in Italy, where she died in 1894.
I think about the opportunities she had and contrast them with the life of my great-grandmother Amelia "Millie" Weaver Roberts. Born into slavery in Loudoun County, Virginia, in 1835, she was the daughter of an herbalist and midwife and became one at an early age. Had it been possible for her to have become a physician, she would have done so, though she did live long enough to see two of her sons fulfill that dream.
She was famous in Loudoun County for healthy deliveries and healthy mothers, who never died of childbed fever. She birthed all of her own children, not allowing anyone else to assist, in fear that they would not practice proper sanitary procedures.
My Aunt Mildred told me that great-grandmother Millie boiled everything—sheets, towels—and sterilized her birthing instruments in the oven at a time when many doctors never even washed their hands before touching a patient. Her clients were both black and white. She passed on her knowledge of herbs and healing to her sons and daughters, and one of her sons went on to become a doctor, another a dentist.
I dedicate this post today to her memory, and to the memory of all those black foremothers, without whom we would not be here today, still fighting for our rights.
And to all those sisters who are role models for future generations of young women and men. A special shout out to our first lady, Michelle Robinson Obama. Who makes me really proud.
Please share with us today the black women who have had an impact on your lives.