It was 2015 when Mokah Jasmine Johnson decided to enter the world of activism. The use of a racial slur in a drink name from a downtown Athens bar was the last straw. She had had enough of the racism in her town, and she meant to make a stand.
Today, the Athens movement against racial injustices is led by many Black women like Johnson. It’s a continuation of history in the U.S., where Black women have put themselves on the line to lead a movement for change.
From the color of their skin to the gender and sexuality they identify with, Black women hold multiple identities which leads to multiple layers of discrimination, whether that means being discriminated for being Black, a woman, transgender or queer or for all of those identities and more. This culmination of experiences means these women have a unique perspective on the movement and what groups may be alienated in the fight for justice.
“I would say that Black men have a harder time being more vocal or being able to stand up and it’s less risky for us [Black women] to stand up than it is for them,” said Johnson, an activist and candidate for state House District 117. “They have more of a target on their back.”
Johnson’s words are echoed by Tifara Brown, a University of Georgia alumna and speaker at Johnson’s rallies. Brown said that the people left behind when Black men are killed are women — wives, mothers, sisters, daughters and friends.
Though the movement calls for justice in the names of all Black people who are victims of police brutality and white supremacy, many forget the murders of Black women.
Ashley Crooks-Allen, a sociology doctoral candidate at UGA and social media activist, dedicated a chapter in their thesis to how women perceive the Black Lives Matter movement. In many of their interviews, women would say the movement is about Black men being killed by police.
“It’s so interesting … that this narrative has taken over the discourse, that this is what Black Lives Matter movement is about, when we know it was founded by three Black women and the work continues to be done by these Black women,” Crooks-Allen said. Crooks-Allen identifies as Afro-Latinx, Black and genderqueer.
While the men and women in the community are killed and the women are victimized due to multiple layers of discrimination, the Black women activists in Athens grapple with how to present themselves to the community while fighting for Black lives and the exhaustion they endure from seeing little change.
Layers of identities
The identities these women hold are a key factor in their leadership in these movements.
“Black women are the only people that can be trusted to do the work for Black women because other people are going to not show up and are going to forget Black women, so Black women have to show up to do the work because if not, they’re going to be left out,” Crooks-Allen said.
Activist Imani Scott-Blackwell and Brown also mentioned that the position Black women hold as mothers, nurturers and caretakers puts them in a position to hear different perspectives on the problems they face which plays into their roles as activists.
“The role that she [Johnson] plays as a mother in her home is not separate from that powerhouse that was up there speaking at the rally,” Brown said. “It’s the same woman, it’s the same experience and what she does and what Black women do to keep the home running, that’s the strength that she draws from to be able to fight for the community.”
“We founded the movement, we started the movement, we grew the movement.”
– Mokah Jasmine Johnson, local activist
Black women also have to navigate how they present themselves to the community, from daily activities to standing up on stage and leading a rally.
The women described it as wearing multiple hats or showing different parts of their identities. Johnson said when she is up on stage speaking at a rally or leading marches, she is very conscious over how she must present herself to the community from the tone of her voice to the words she says. She makes a choice in how much anger she shows.
“It’s a constant thing to where you know that you can offend somebody by being yourself by speaking your truth and by being yourself, you might end up arguing with somebody because they don’t understand your perspective and they don’t live it,” Johnson said.
For Mariah Parker, this identity navigation is prevalent in her roles as activist and politician. Parker, an Athens-Clarke County commissioner and hip-hop artist, has juggled her energy in social movements such as Black Lives Matter while campaigning to defund the police.
Over time, Parker has found the intersectionality between her commission work, activism and identity — she said each role helps enhance the others. She recognizes what her background brings to the table of mostly white men in her career.
“As a politician, even as a hip-hop artist, I’m either the only Black woman or only queer Black woman in the room,” Parker said. “I’ve adapted and I’ve embraced it.”
These layers of discrimination also apply to Black women in the LGBTQ+ community. Crooks-Allen said that some of the most oppressed individuals are “queer Black disabled women.”
“There’s a lot of people that they might be down with Black Lives Matter but then it’s like, ‘Wait, no, you can’t say Black Lives Matter, and have sex with women, that’s too much,’” Scott-Blackwell, who identifies as queer, said.
Black women also face the erasure of their stories. In order to make sure these stories are heard, they face the task of leading the movement.
Remember her name
Her name was Breonna Taylor and she was killed in March in Louisville, Kentucky, by police issuing a “no knock warrant” at her home and shooting her while she was asleep in her bed. She was killed weeks before George Floyd, whose murder in Minneapolis was documented by video and has since been seen around the world.
“It is important to record when we look at social movement, tactics and framing, like there is no more clear cut, perfect [example] than Breonna Taylor. She was in her own home. She wasn’t an outcome. You can’t make that into an accident. You can’t villainize her,” Crooks-Allen said.
The police officers involved in Floyd’s death have all been charged in relation to his death. The officers who killed Taylor in March have not been charged. And while Floyd’s death has been seen and protested across the world, Taylor’s story has not received the same amount of attention.
From forgetting Taylor’s name to the overshadowing from their male counterparts in the movement, Black women are facing an erasure of their part and leadership in the fight for racial justice.
“We founded the movement, we started the movement, we grew the movement,” Johnson said. “Men come in and they really can’t take direction from a woman. They get offended.”
In her own political profession, Parker has grappled with being overlooked and underheard by her white counterparts.
“Russell Edwards in one of our very recent [commission] meetings skipped over what I said but accepted it when it was phrased slightly differently by a white man that was sitting on the commission,” Parker said. Edwards is the district 7 ACC commissioner.
Since the time she was elected in 2018, Parker said she’s dealt with similar situations and the narrative of being an angry Black woman. She said she’s had her voice “marginalized or silenced” by City Hall but has learned how to fight against it.
While these Black women fight for their communities, grapple with how raise their voices so their experiences and names are heard, they are exhausted, not necessarily from the work but from the lack of change.
“What I’m tired of is the fact that people don’t listen,” Johnson said. “I’m tired of the fact that we’re fighting for the same issues that they were fighting for before in this Civil Rights Act. I’m tired of people playing games with people’s lives and of the political climate. I’m tired of being used or Black people being used as a hashtag, or for political gain. I’m just tired.”
Parker urges Black women and those in the queer community not to take their community or power for granted. She said society teaches Black women that they aren’t enough. Both her and Scott-Blackwell emphasize self-love. Scott-Blackwell specifically said that it is a revolutionary act for Black women to take care of themselves, heal themselves and experience joy.
Despite their exhaustion, these women press on.
“One thing I do understand about this work — it’s never ending, it never stops, it is not going to stop,” Johnson said. “We’re not going to eliminate these problems where we never have to address some kind of injustice.”
Gabriela Miranda contributed to this story.