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Barack Obama Wins the Sojourner Truth Vote

Friday, May 16, 2008

West Virginia primary polling data has underscored Hillary Clinton's claim to the allegiance of white voters who aren't comfortable with black leadership. Rev. Valda Jean Combs says that helps explain why so many black women are going for Obama.

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West Virginia primary polling data has underscored Hillary Clinton's claim to the allegiance of white voters who aren't comfortable with black leadership. Rev. Valda Jean Combs says that helps explain why so many black women are going for Obama.
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Rev. Valda Jean Combs

(WOMENSENEWS)--The post-primary polling data out of West Virginia this week has been hitting us with the central message that race strongly factored into Sen. Hillary Clinton's lopsided victory.

So now, as the race cards are spread right out there on the national table, I have a question: Does anyone still wonder why so many black women are going for Sen. Barack Obama?

Some of Clinton's backers this campaign season have tried to make a vote for their candidate seem like a vote for all women.

Younger women drawn to Obama's message of change have demurred. So have peace activist women horrified by Clinton's vote to authorize the use of force in Iraq.

Black women also have our own reasons--rooted in the history of this country and the two waves of women's rights activism--to make another choice. And I'd like to talk about that.

But first, let me make it plain that my support of Barack Obama is not a failure to understand the damage patriarchy has done to our community. Instead it's an intentional embrace of a brother who eschews paternalism and who himself embraces community.

This contrasts with Bill and Hillary Clinton. Both have marginalized Obama at different times: "He gives good speeches," "he's not electable," "he's another Jesse Jackson" and most recently "hard working whites support me." It's an encoded drumbeat that spreads the message that Obama is "not like us."


Racism Affirmed

Rather than challenge racism, the Clintons have affirmed those for whom race is a barrier to supporting a black Democratic nominee. In their quest for the White House, the Clintons have sacrificed the black vote and the black loyalty that helped to put Bill Clinton in office.

We have a saying in my community, "It is a sorry child who forgets those who helped them along the way."

At the Ohio Women's Rights Convention in 1851 Sojourner Truth, an emancipated slave,

posed a defiant question to white men and women when she asked, "Ain't I a woman?"

Sister Sojourner spoke out despite the pleas of white female suffragists who thought that demanding the vote for former slaves would doom their cause to failure. Sojourner felt then, as I do, what the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. called "the fierce urgency of now."

But the dialogue she sought did not occur. Sojourner's place was to speak when she was asked, and to sit down and shut up when her agenda diverged from that of her suffragist sisters. Sister Sojourner experienced sexism, but it was racism that caused her children to be sold away and racism that forced her to plow the fields like a man.

When black women press for inclusion, white women have historically been hard of hearing. As a result, far from viewing white women as partners in the struggle, women of color have the historical knowledge of white women in partnership with their men as oppressors.


Slavery's Still-Sour Taste

Slavery left a sour taste in the mouths of black women whose forebears suckled and nurtured white children while their own children were neglected or sold away. Slavery bred antipathy between the black slave woman forced to endure rape at the hands of the white male slave owner and mistreatment at the hands of the white female slave owner. And then there were the black men lynched, murdered and prosecuted based on false accusations by white women.

While leading feminists often acknowledge this historical truth, this acknowledgement did not equal inclusion. Women of color fought alongside white feminists in the 1970s and 1980s, but found our perspective elbowed aside; our loyalty taken for granted.

Feminism's almost exclusive focus on the worth of woman's work outside the home was a non-issue for black women who worked inside and outside the home and whose work was devalued in both realms.

But when we raised the problematic irony of women of color working outside their own homes in the homes of white women--where they were paid low wages with no benefits--this was often lost on white feminists. They seemed more riveted on breaking down the gender barriers to elite schools and high-paying professions.

Feminism could not, or would not, grasp the loyalty of black women to a patriarchal church that has marginalized and sometimes oppressed us; our insistence that we will not leave our men behind; and a moral vision, borne out of oppression, that seeks a just society for all humanity, with equal opportunities and rights for all groups.


'Ain't I a Woman?' Yet Again

In the middle of feminism's second wave black feminists were experiencing deja vu all over again. Like Sister Sojourner we were once again demanding of white feminists, "Ain't I a woman?"

Out of that demand grew the movement we call "womanism," a term that Pulitzer Prize-winning writer Alice Walker coined in the introduction to her 1983 book "In Search of Our Mothers' Gardens: Womanist Prose."

Womanism recognizes that--at least for now--only black women can articulate the complex nature of our history, our theology, our community, our voice and the fierce power of our love.

Implicit in that love is the embrace of church, family and women, but also our men. For women who experience oppression more intensely, we require a more intense liberation movement.

Finally, while feminism places priority on women, womanism places priority on the collective whole. While feminism speaks to sexism, womanism speaks to sexism, racism, classism and ethnocentrism. As an endnote to her definition of womanism, Walker writes, "Womanist is to feminist as purple is to lavender," an acknowledgement that womanism expands the parameters of white feminism to include issues important to women of color and women in poverty.

My support for Obama is a repudiation of the politics that have reigned supreme since Sojourner Truth, a politics that says my dream must wait until someone else's has been realized.

Obama stands for the proposition that we can go forward together, as one. This is what my 94-year-old grandmother and her 84-year-old sister have prayed for, stood for and hoped for. The fierce urgency of now is up against the fierce arrogance of now.

Black women supporting Obama now dare to believe that change can come in our time. A change that offers our boys hope that they, too, can become president; a change that offers our community hope that black families can survive and thrive; and change that says out of oppression can come liberation for not just some of us, but all of us. If we have learned anything from Sister Sojourner, it is that we must speak now, for we are women too.

Valda Jean Combs is a pastor in the United Methodist Church, an ordained Baptist minister and licensed attorney. Combs heads Full Proof HIV Ministry, an organization that educates, raises awareness and combats stigma associated with HIV/AIDS in faith institutions.

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