What Black History Can Teach Us About the Gender Binary

As Black History Month has ended and Women’s History Month now begins, I’m thinking about how important history can be for instilling a sense of worth and belonging in ourselves and especially in young people. Classroom lessons that teach our history can help young people make sense of where they come from and what kind of society they want to help create. I can think of nothing more important for my sense of my blackness than being proud of how Black people have survived and been so ingenious at resisting our dehumanization and fighting for our freedom. Those histories are the ones that inspire me to do my work as an educator and activist.

It’s in that vein that I think about my feelings of isolation when I realized that Black history had no place for queer and transgender Black people like me.

We in the Black community are starting to walk the walk of saying “All Black Lives Matter”, including queer and transgender Black people who are trying to survive in a world that’s openly hostile to our existence. This hostility doesn’t stop at the doors of the school. Part of fixing a problem is admitting that we have one, right? Black LGBTQ young people go to schools everyday where they are supported, loved, cared for, and encouraged to shine. Lots of us also went to schools where we were bullied and harassed; we dealt with not only the hostility of our peers but also teachers and administrators.

LGBTQ young people of color report being criminalized in their schools in the same way and in the same rates as their straight peers. They also reported being punished and criminalized by their schools because of their gender expression and sexuality; they tell stories of being punished for violating dress codes that restrict them to a gender they don’t identify with, and being blamed for their own harassment because they won’t conform to other people’s expectations? This question seems familiar: why are we punishing children for simply being who they are? Is our personal and institutional transphobia pushing children into the waiting arms of truancy officers, foster care, and juvenile prisons?

I don’t want any Black youth to go through that.

Teaching LGBTQ history is only one among many interventions needed to solve the pushout problem, but it’s an important one. We need to teach our youth better than we were taught; we need to teach them that young sissies, tomboys, transgender kids, everyone is so loved and that they have a future and a past. We need to do that through our actions.

Let’s start by being real Black about how we bring LGBTQ history into our curriculum. Here are some ways that Black history can help us bring that message into our education practice.

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The Black diaspora teaches us that gender has never been binary.

It’s no secret that Black queer and transgender young people are getting messages from everywhere that they’re not supposed to exist and that they’re not worthy. Are we giving them enough resources to see that’s not true? Far from being a “white thing” or a European disease, transgender and non-binary people (people who can’t be limited to either man or woman as their way of being) have existed forever throughout Africa and the Black diaspora.

In the Kingdom of Ndongo and Matamba, ruled by the legendary fierce Queen Nzinga in present-day Angola, third gender chibados were valued as advisors to rulers and chiefs, as leaders of spiritual rituals, and as those who buried the dead. Queen Nzinga herself kept a harem of men whom she dressed as women.

The Amhara people inhabit the northern and central highlands of Ethiopia, and were founders of the Ethiopian Empire (known as Abyssinia). Anthropologists who visited certain Amhara tribes saw “men dressed as women” (called wandarwarad) who were accepted among their people and hung out mainly with the women of the community.

European colonizers met non-binary people advising kings, and being spiritual leaders, warriors, and court eunuchs among nations and tribes as diverse as the Zulu, Buganda, and Amhara. Christianity and Islam coexisted with women warriors, men with long hair and braids, and women marrying each other for convenience and economic stability. The diaspora is no different; there are many examples from Brazil, Haiti, the U.S., and Cuba where African descendants break our normal expectations of men and women.

We’re so much more interesting than we give ourselves credit for.

Slavery, colonialism, and white supremacy made it REALLY hard for Black people to do gender freely

When many of our ancestors were kidnapped, they were unable to practice many of the cultural things they had been able to as free people. White slaveowners denied to Black women things they prized in white women, like chastity, motherly bond, and dainty femininity.

White lawmakers did everything they could to make sure that Black people were not seen as men and women, but slaves first and foremost.

Screen Shot 2018-03-01 at 7.21.20 AM.pngEver heard of the tignon laws? In 1700s Louisiana, free Black women were forced to cover their hair with scarves. Why? Because the way they wore and decorated their hair was attracting the attention of white men and the jealousy of white women. White supremacy is so petty it wouldn’t even let Black people be feminine or masculine in the ways that we wanted to because our creativity and brilliance are threatening.

In fact, Black people living under Jim Crow could not enter public bathrooms marked “men” and “women”. Instead they were forced to enter bathrooms with the gender-neutral term “Colored” emblazoned on the door. Make no mistake: these laws are as much about gender self-determination as they are about racism. The two go hand in hand when every part of life is structured to deny Black people the things that make us human.

Black power to me looks like a world where no one is denied the chance to define themself because of their race or gender. Our history attests to the need for us to free ourselves from constricting ideas of proper manhood and womanhood. Have we been enforcing rules and boxes that were not created to include us?

Black transgender people have always been on the front lines of Black struggle.

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While many are aware of the many contributions of activist Pauli Murray to the Civil Rights Movement, the fight to desegregate schools and buses, women’s rights, and human rights generally, few are aware that Murray identified as a man throughout much of their life. Some would ask why someone would fight for the rights of a group they didn’t fully identify with. Pauli Murray led powerful coalitions with many people who only shared parts of her experiences of living and being read as a Black person, a woman, and a worker. Perhaps it’s exactly this knowledge of having so many complexly interacting identities (and mis-identities) that instilled in them the necessity of the coalition work that has defined Black feminist organizing in the U.S.

In 1969, when Marsha P. Johnson, Sylvia Rivera, and Miss Major Griffin-Gracy fought back against police who regularly harassed and arrested them, they were fighting not only against the oppression they experienced as trans women but also against the lack of dignity they were allowed as Black and Latina women in society. In 1970, when Sylvia and Marsha unfurled the banner for the organization they founded to fight for the rights of drag queens for the first time, they were at a march against police brutality led by the Puerto Rican Young Lords Party in New York City. They knew intimately that Black Power was necessary for the changes in society that would make their freedom possible, and they threw themselves into the struggle with all their energy. It was their groundbreaking activism that partly inspired the Black Panther Party to expand their Ten Point Plan for Black liberation to include “and all oppressed people”.

With all of this beautiful history, how could we exclude the very people who have always been and will be a necessary part of our survival? Black queer and transgender students are not just our future; they’re among our present leaders. They are courageous and worthy of dignity in our past, present, and future. They are our present chance to do better, think better, and teach better. Let’s include these histories in our lessons, and in our mission to encourage Black people to shine in the way that we always have: brightly and truly.

Malcolm Shanks (they/them/theirs) is an activist and educator from Washington, DC. They create workshops, trainings, and other education media. Malcolm currently works as a Lead Trainer at Race Forward, where they provide training, coaching, and consulting for building racial equity practices at non-governmental organizations. They are also co-creator of the zine Decolonizing Gender: A Curriculum.

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