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The Insistent Invisibility of Black Women in Public Discourse

Photo: bakdc /

Earlier this fall, the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture (NMAAHC) hosted an event around journalist Ta-Nehisi Coates’ new book, We Were Eight Years in Power: An American Tragedy. A collection of previously published Atlantic pieces, with new short essay introductions, the book quickly made its way onto my Amazon wishlist, nestled between a wireless printer and a 12-pack of pens.

Months before the event, I set several reminders on my phone, not only to make sure that I woke up early, but also to ensure that I had enough time to send up several small prayers—I’d need a bit of luck to secure a ticket to the event via the NMAAHC’s website. Fortunately, unlike the many times before, luck I had: I snagged a ticket to hear Coates in conversation with former All Things Considered host (and the soundtrack to my NPR-fueled childhood car rides) Michele Norris.

The day of the event, I left my office early to make the 25-minute walk through the waves of D.C. tourists and to the museum. I had a three-hour wait—two of those hours were spent queueing outside the museum, and the other inside the museum, where I quietly prayed, again, that the event would start on time. (It didn’t.) As I waited, though, my thoughts bounced between the unserious—Would I break the ancient wooden folding chair like the person three seats down from me had done the last time I attended an NMAAHC event?—and the serious—Coates’ work primarily focuses on the interior and historical lives of black men and often ignores black women, but would this time be different?

I’ve grappled with that latter question a lot.

One time, in particular, I remember doing that kind of wrangling was last New Year’s Day. I was back home in Mississippi, on my bed, legs up the wall, finally making my way through Coates’ 2015 book of essays, Between the World and Me. I was disappointed, but not surprised, by how peripheral a role black women seemed to play in his unflinchingly honest love letter to his son. How could someone, I thought, who so carefully and powerfully writes about the construction and realities of race and racism, systemic inequalities, mass incarceration, and the destruction of and terror inflicted on black bodies, not make mention of the black women on whose intellectual shoulders he stands? Why couldn’t he, in other words, say their names?

To be fair, Coates does include a 2008 profile of Michelle Obama in We Were Eight Years in Power, in an essay called “American Girl.” (Coates admits, in the preface to the piece, that the title probably holds up better than the piece itself.) He recalls that the first time he saw Obama speak in person, he was taken back by how firmly she appeared to embrace “the heroic American narrative of work ethic and family,” as Coates puts it, and the “essential Americanness” she projected. Coates wonders: Where was the South Side woman who minored in African-American studies and wrote a Garveyite-like “call to arms” for her Princeton thesis?

But while Coates makes a gauzy attempt to explain Obama’s embrace of a “Horatio Alger tale” as her working to counter the “Angry Black Woman” narrative thrown at her, he simply doesn’t go far enough. In fact, he doesn’t really go at all. Instead, readers go on a tour of Chicago’s South Side, without truly examining the barriers and damning stereotypes black women face every day.

“American Girl” was a missed opportunity. It could have been a powerful look at the “crooked room” black women have been forced into—the ways in which “black women tilt and bend themselves to fit the distortion” of the “warped images of their humanity” they’re bombarded with. Political scientist and former MSNBC host Melissa Harris-Perry, whom Coates once referred to as “America’s foremost public intellectual,” developed the “crooked room” frame in her must-read book, Sister Citizen: Shame, Stereotypes, and Black Women in America. What does it mean that Obama chose to wax nostalgic about the “cocoon that surrounded [her] in her formative years,” while she was standing in a crooked room that told her that she’s angry, unladylike, and undesirable?

This was one of many questions I had while I read We Were Eight Years in Power, but it’s a question that went unanswered, because Coates, regrettably, never sought to ask it.

Back at the NMAAHC that warm October evening, Michele Norris asked Coates to name his intellectual heroes and favorite writers. After spending some time talking about his deep admiration for F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby, Coates rattled off a list of four or five other authors—all white men, with the exception of one white woman. Norris challenged Coates on this: Where are the black women? After a long, uncomfortable pause, he mentioned the historian Thavolia Glymph, and then, inexplicably, declared that he’s not an “activist.”

Coates is hardly the only public intellectual or culture critic seemingly unable to recognize—let alone put into words—the work of black women. And, I don’t doubt that he cares, deeply, about black women and girls. In 2016, for instance, Coates wrote a tremendous piece about singer (and activist) Nina Simone—about the challenges she faced both in life and in death, in no small part because of her black womanhood. These sorts of reflections, however, often appear to be more reactive to particular cultural conversations, than indelible components of Coates’ intellectual investigations. I’m sick of being forgotten and erased. I’m tired of being a second thought. Or, as my home state hero Fannie Lou Hamer once said, “I’m sick and tired of being sick and tired.”


S. Melody Frierson is project manager for New America’s Millennial Public Policy Fellowship, which seeks to create opportunities for promising young adults to deepen their engagement with public policy and advance solutions to challenges facing their generation.