Thursday, December 2, 2010

Claudette Colvin v. Rosa Parks

recently, the anniversary arose of the time Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat on the bus, which became a catalyst for the civil rights movement and many subsequent movements. her individual contribution should be celebrated and appreciated for as long as our memories permit. however, i would like to talk about another case that was very similar to Rosa Parks but did not warrant the national outcry and media attention as Rosa's case.

the story of Claudette Colvin is one few people know mainly because they weren't supposed to know. 9 months prior to the Parks incident, Colvin refused to give up her seat to a white person, was forced off the bus, and arrested. similar to the Parks incident in nearly every aspect with the exception of the individual doing the civil disobedience. Colvin was dark-skinned, 15 years old, and living in a less than middle class neighborhood. soon after her arrest, she got pregnant out of wedlock, which, to the bible-thumpers of the movement, was a ticket to hell.

in the past year or so i've been learning more and more about the black female perspective of the civil rights movement, and it's very disheartening, if not frustrating. the article noted this- "Garrow believes attention to Colvin is a healthy corrective, because "the real reality of the movement was often young people and often more than 50 percent women." The images you most often see are men in suits." this is patriarchy at its finest, and at worst, eurocentrism.
what does it say about the leaders of the movement when they waited until the "right" ("right" meaning light-skinned, middle-class and uber-christian) person came along?
i think it is the epitome of assimilation to want to present ourselves to the oppressor only in the way the oppressor deems fit. white people judged us by Eurocentric standards, and we began to do the same. so much so, that we compromised the integrity of a supposed revolution for it. and all this is aside from the way the Black Panthers treated their female counterparts, or the fact that women weren't allowed to speak at Martin Luther King Jr's March to Washington.

one could argue that this as an attempt at a well-planned revolution. and had Rosa not been "presentable" in her appearance, we might still be fighting for basic things like desegregation (although i personally would side with segregation). but we should not and should never have compromised our realities for a revolution. the reality was that not all blacks were light-skinned and well versed in the bible and waiting for marriage to have sex. some of us didn't have "good hair" or resume-worthy social lives. and they needed to see that; WE needed to see that in order to know just how necessary and cathartic this movement was.
and this is why i personally would have sided with the Black Panthers and maybe even the Nation of Islam. i feel too many times that the movement led by Martin Luther King Jr. was too acceptable; too presentable. too often it feels as though they were asking the oppressor for equality, whereas the alternative (black panthers/nation of islam) was saying "this is my afro. my name is Blackity Black Black. say hello to my rifle....bitch". and thats how it should have been! we were angry and were beyond justified in that rage. a revolution is a REVOLUTION. it is not something planned out and calculated by certain patriarchal males sitting at a round table judging whether female A refusing to give up her seat on the bus has skin light enough to present to the white oppressor. theres a reason why we're STILL having issues of racism, colorism, and sexism in this country as well as within the black community.

if anything, i think more stories like these should come out so that we as a community can analyze and critique every single aspect of it.....and maybe get on with a real revolution...

think. comment. criticize.


  1. This was an eye-opener! I've heard of Claudette Colvin but what you're written here just drives home a point. I was recently discussing Fela's sexism which presents itself in some of his songs, most particularly 'Lady'. I've concluded that movements lead by men hardly ever include women's perspectives and can sometimes even be hostile towards them.

    Le sigh.

  2. I was just talking about this kind of thing with my dad. Real talk, you can't talk about racism without sexism, and the fact that Claudette Colvin wasn't deemed an "acceptable" representative of the civil rights movement is an illustration of the intersection of race and gender, not to mention class ans socioeconomics as well.

    Although the sexism in the Black Panther Party has been well-documented, I understand your point. You shouldn't have to make yourself presentable in the eyes of your oppressors when you're demanding basic human rights. The fact that Colvin was 15 and dark skinned and later became pregnant as a teenager doesn't mitigate her courage and her willingness to stand up and fight. She should be as well known as Rosa Parks, Medgar Evers, Fannie Lou Hamer, etc.

    Thank you for posting this.

  3. yay more comments! =)
    @eccentric yoruba:
    when i read this story, i was thinking "is this real?". i just felt it had to be false in some way, because it is just so blatant-the preferences of the civil rights leaders. and i wonder if the same standards would have applied for a male that refused to give up his seat on the bus.
    what kind of sexism did Fela promote or participate in? i'll have to go look up that song.
    yes, exactly. most of them do not include women and/or spent a lot of time trying to silence the female voice. it was a big factor in the breakdown of the Panther Party-they wanted Angela and Kathleen in the kitchen preparing the free breakfast and they weren't having that.

    yes yes exactly. and i think especially being women of color, it is most often one in the same (sexism and racism). many a times when i'm trying to discuss sexism with a man of color, i have to put things in terms of race in order for them to see sexism as i see sexism. breaking down the way a man thinks patriarchy doesn't exist to the same way many white people don't think racism exists is like second nature to me; to us. yea, i think more than anything it was her economic background that played the biggest part in not having her story heard. this is exactly why we need more of the all-inclusive feminism that attempts to tackle not only sexism but also racism and classism.
    yea, she should be as famous as these other women. too often, i think we're too eager to make heroes out of people. but this is/should be/always has been a movement for the people; of the people. we should have a day in which we honor people who did little contributions like these and are never recognized for it.
    and thanks for reading! =)

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  5. Oh Fela promoted the kind that said a 'real African woman' accepts that a man is her master and cooks for him and what not. I discussed this topic here and here's a link to the song in question, Lady. The lyrics are entirely in pidgin though.

  6. wow! i didn't know that, thats very interesting. i wouldn't have pegged him as a sexist, but happens to the best of them...