Black women are leading in the boardroom, in courtrooms, and on the court. We are collectively snatching degrees and culturally snatching wigs. We started this decade as the first lady of the United States of America via Michelle Obama and are ending this decade as Miss Universe via Zozibini Tunzi of South Africa.
Despite all this success in the public eye, it is what happens when we clock out, behind closed doors and in our bedrooms, that we need to be mindful of as we start this new decade. Additionally, it is clear that our collectivity and unity around key issues has been and will continue to be the energy we need to harness in order to push for more equity and to demand better life outcomes for us all. As Audre Lorde said, “I am not free while any woman is unfree, even when her shackles are very different from my own.”
Here then, in no particular order, are some of the most defining Black woman moments of the past decade.
Reverse migration, first lady Michelle Obama, and the politics of the decade
At the beginning of this decade, 55% of Black people in the United States lived in the South, 18% in the Midwest, 17% in the Northeast, and 10% in the West. There has been a mass exodus from north to south that many are calling “reverse migration.” That said, no matter where Black women lived in this country, we led the nation in voter turnout. Some 55% of eligible Black women voters cast ballots in November 2018, a rate higher than the national turnout, according to Fortune.
In addition to our forever first lady, Michelle Obama, becoming the first Black first lady of the United States, we witnessed the ascent of our first Black woman attorney general, Loretta Lynch, in 2015, and we watched Georgia’s Stacey Abrams galvanize the entire nation after she became the first Black woman to be a majority party state governor nominee. These were groundbreaking gains in a nation known for its discrimination and racism.
Our collectivity and unity around key issues will continue to be the energy we need to harness for more equity and better life outcomes for us all.
Near the end of the decade, we saw yet more firsts. Andrea Jenkins, vice president of the Minneapolis City Council, became the first openly Black transgender woman to be elected to public office in 2017. Of the 100 largest cities in the United States, seven mayors were Black women. (Click here for a full report on Black women in office.) With the ascension of Meghan Markle, we also saw our first American Black princess marry into the British monarchy. While many White people talked trash, we, for the most part, embraced “our” princess.
One questions we frequently asked ourselves this past decade: What does it mean to be Black? We saw that debate play out via Senator Kamala Harris’ presidential run. In my research about Black women in politics, I found that many of the sites that track demographic and gender information about candidates did not count Senator Harris as Black, due to her being multiracial, which is indicative of how divided we are over this issue. This also spilled over into the question of reparations and uncomfortable discussions pitting immigrant Africans against descendants of enslaved Africans.
Film, music, and other delights
The role Black women play in front of and behind the lens is significant, because this is often where people’s opinions about us are shaped and begin to crystallize. Historically, film was used to color public perceptions of specific groups in order to advance specific social, political, and economic agendas. This decade, we (largely) controlled our narrative. It started with the Oprah Winfrey Network launching in 2011, a feat that Oprah herself feared might fail. She even suffered the signs of a nervous breakdown in early 2013 before righting that ship. Apparently though, she had her own aha moment and manifested OWN into a massive network. In 2013, Cheryl Boone became the first African American president of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences; shortly thereafter, April Reign created #OscarsSoWhite, highlighting the lack of representation and equity in the academy. Laverne Cox, known for her role as Sophia Burset in Netflix’s Orange Is the New Black, became the first openly transgender person to be nominated for an acting category at the Emmys. Ava DuVernay became the first African American woman to be nominated for a Best Director award at the Golden Globes.
We all returned to appointment TV because Shonda Rhimes’ genre-breaking Scandal and How to Get Away With Murder proved to television advertisers that Black leads bring the viewers and the advertising dollars. Regina King won an Oscar. Issa Rae transitioned from YouTube to cable TV, and Lena Waithe (also making history with her own Emmy in 2017 for comedy writing) created cult followings. Black Panther introduced the world to kick-ass (albeit imaginary) Black women scientists and warriors who helped that film break record after record. And Victoria Mahoney, with the 2019 megahit The Rise of Skywalker, became the first Black woman to direct a film in the Star Wars franchise.
Not to be outdone, female rappers ditched their male crews to become solo stars. Nicki Minaj, Cardi B, and Megan Thee Stallion all ushered us into and through the early parts of this period. Rihanna became the wealthiest female musician this year, according to Forbes. Beyoncé broke YouTube’s viewership records with her 105-minute Coachella performance that paid homage to the HBCU band experience. And Lemonade, with its unapologetic Blackness, became our album of the decade.
Marching toward social justice
Black women once again walked to the front of the picket lines to protest gender and racial injustice. We were bold and unflinching in the fight against racism and sexism. Alicia Garza, Opal Tometi, and Patrisse Cullors founded Black Lives Matter during a deadly time for Black women, men, and children. Tarana Burke’s #MeToo movement picked up tremendous steam in recent years, and for nearly one solid year, we heard from actors who seemed relieved to admit they were blacklisted from roles by despicable men. We applauded them all for speaking up.
This past decade, we were bold and unflinching in the fight against racism and sexism.
Bree Newsome removed the Confederate flag from the South Carolina statehouse. Therese Okoumou scaled the Statue of Liberty long before reports surfaced that it was actually created to celebrate the freedom of enslaved people, not immigrants. And while we know the names of Trayvon Martin, Mike Brown, and Eric Garner, it was the work of their mothers and their female family members — Sybrina Fulton, Lesley McSpadden, and Erica Garner — who despite unimaginable grief, individually and collectively pushed for accountability and change.
Memories of Sandra Bland, who died in 2015 in a Texas jail, continue to echo in our minds and hearts, even as her mother, Geneva Reed-Veal, and sisters Sharon Cooper, Shante Needham, Shavon Bland, and Sierra Cole continue to push for answers and accountability. We don’t believe she harmed herself that night, especially after testimony that a jailer falsified Sandra’s jail log. Dream Hampton’s work is also worth mentioning as it arguably led to multiple charges against singer R. Kelly. But the work isn’t finished. At the end of the decade, we found that Black trans women were being killed at alarming rates, and there was an overall increase in news coverage of Black women being kidnapped, coming up missing, and being forced into sex trafficking.
On the court and in the boardroom
As a society, we have always used sports as a space to explore race and gender questions. When one of “us” wins, we claim it as a win for all of us. In 2016, we witnessed Serena Williams become the highest-paid female athlete. In 2012, Gabby Douglas became the first African American gymnast to win the women’s artistic all-around. In 2013, Simone Biles became the first African American gymnast to win the women’s artistic all-around at the World Artistic Gymnastic Championships, and we are all still recovering from Biles’ triple double flip this past summer. We also watched with collective excitement as Olympic sprinter Allyson Felix broke one of Usain Bolt’s world records.
In the business of sports, this year Nicole Lynn became the first Black woman to represent a top three pick in the NFL draft, while Michelle Roberts became the first woman to hold her union leadership position as executive director of the National Basketball Players Association. Pam El took the helm as the chief marketing officer at the NBA. Oprah Winfrey became the second-ever Black woman billionaire this past decade, with Sheila Johnson becoming the first in 2000, according to Forbes. Johnson has an ownership stake in three sports franchises, including the Washington Mystics (WNBA), Washington Wizards (NBA), and Washington Capitals (NHL), also a first for Black women. Equity becomes a much easier conversation to have when women are in leadership positions.
On our health and wealth
Despite the great strides we’ve made individually in, well, everything, we are still dying from heart disease, stroke, and diabetes. We are more likely to die from breast cancer than are White women, despite having a lower chance of developing the disease. This past decade reminded us that we suffer from higher rates of intimate partner violence, rape, and homicide and “disproportionately experience violence at home, at school, on the job, and in their neighborhoods.” Despite higher rates of labor participation than any other group of women and an increase of 165% in Black women–created businesses since 2007, we still face discrimination when it comes to wages and access to capital. Black women also account for the largest share of new HIV diagnoses, and we are more likely to get infected through heterosexual transmission and not injection drug use.
As a group, we are so great about caring for our families, our partners, and our communities, but must center ourselves and start practicing true self-care this next decade to ensure that we are centering our healing, growth, and success. As Audre Lorde said, “Caring for myself is not self-indulgence. It is self-preservation, and that is an act of political warfare.”
Let’s end this decade by lifting up the Black women who have recently passed on. Here we mention but a handful, but all who transitioned are remembered in spirit:
Dorothy Height (2010), Whitney Houston (2012), Donna Summer (2012), Etta James (2012), Dr. Maya Angelou (2014), Natalie Cole (2015), Gwen Ifill (2016), Aretha Franklin (2018), Toni Morrison (2019) and Diahann Carroll (2019).