On Tuesday Dorothy Height passed away at the age of 98. Her passage has evoked moving tributes by politicians, journalists, organizational leaders and ordinary citizens who were inspired and transformed by her decades of public work on behalf of racial equality.
For decades, Height led the National Council of Negro Women. She used her voice to advocate for African American women’s inclusion in higher education, corporate America, world politics and community leadership. She had the ear of American presidents and she used her role to speak for those whose voices and interests mostly went unheard. As president of Delta Sigma Theta, a national, historic, women’s service organization Height encouraged young women to follow her lead as organizers and servants of their communities.
Dorothy Height’s legacy was visible on the night Barack Obama was elected to the United States presidency. On that night he concluded his speech by discussing Ann Cooper, a 106-year old black woman whose life bore witness to the exceptional changes wrought in our country during the last century. Through her story, President Obama asked us to reconsider the American story through the eyes of black women and thereby challenged us to find a new American narrative that might emerge if we tell the story on their terms.
It was a moment that honored and bore the fruit of Dorothy Height’s decades of work to encourage American political leaders to make black women’s stories central to our national self understanding.
African American women historians like Darlene Clark Hine, Deborah Gray White, Elsa Barkley Brown, Barbara Ransby, Chana Kai Lee and Tera Hunter have taken up her call. Their work reveals the tensions in the American narrative when we read it through black women’s lives as slaves, sharecroppers, agricultural workers, laundresses, domestics, professionals and community organizers. Their texts force us to think about the difficult conditions that characterize black women’s lives throughout most of American history. They also allow us to observe how African American women have fought to maintain dignity and humanity despite these conditions, and how they used organizing and collective effort to resist exploitation.
In contemporary America, black women have taken on many different roles. We have had a black woman serve as Secretary as State, one currently serves as the ambassador to the U.N. African American women own businesses anchor the nightly news, teach at prestigious universities, and live in the White House.
It is easy to look over this century and celebrate. But it remains important to be clear about the continuing realities of black women’s lives. Black women still earn only a fraction of their white female and black male counterparts. African American women continue to suffer the highest divorce rates and are increasingly likely to never marry. This means that black mothers must often balance work and family out of strict economic necessity and with few social and emotional supports. Fewer than one quarter of African American women earn college degrees and black women continue to disproportionately the occupy lowest paid segments of the labor force.
In addition to these economic realities, African American women labor under internally and externally imposed stereotypes that link their human value to their productive value. They exist in a world where "welfare queens" and "baby-mamas" are common ways of characterizing black womanhood. The battle against these vicious stereotypes leads many black women to work themselves to physical illness and mental exhaustion in order to justify having a seat at the table.
Nearly every tribute this week referred to Dorothy Height as an icon. Icon is too staid and safe a characterization for Height and for the women who labor and organize in her spirit. “Icon” encourages us to remember the image of Height, her dignity, poise, and exceptional style. I prefer to remember Height by her voice. Hers was a voice speaking out when black women were silenced.