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March 11, 2011

Black women are at the nexus of two history months

It is often asked of Black History Month: Why is it only a month? After all, the history of black people in the United States is the history of the United States. It is one of the bones thrown to “minority” groups like African Americans, Latinos, women and LGBT people to have their own months.

February is for black people. March is for women. Latinos get from September 15 to October 15, which makes sense only when you take into account that five Latin American countries celebrate their independence on September 15. Asians and Pacific Islanders have May, while October is LGBT History Month, despite the Stonewall Riots occurring in June.

Now, when Black History Month rolls around, with the exception perhaps of Audre Lorde, a few singers and Angela Davis, almost everyone mentioned tends to be male. In Women’s History Month, most of the people tend to be white. Somehow, the twain never seem to meet, despite the large numbers of incredibly active and talented African American women working for equality.

It’s time to correct that injustice, starting right in Cleveland.

Leslye Huff, for instance, is an attorney, has held a National Institutes for Mental Health fellowship, and is a former steering committee member of Freedom to Marry.

While she is short in stature, she is a giant in the community, ready to throw down the gauntlet wherever she sees injustice. She served in both the Law Department of the City of Cleveland as well as in the position of field supervisor for the Ohio Civil Rights Commission, and is now the board treasurer of the National Black Justice Coalition, the leading African American LGBT rights organization in the country.

Joining her on the board as second vice chair is another Cleveland native, comedian and founder of the Humor and Healing Arts Institute, Karen Williams. Like Huff, Williams is the fruit of Cleveland State University, where she graduated summa cum laude with a personalized major in humor and healing, before going on to get a master of education degree from CSU.

Williams’ feats are plentiful, from founding the National Women’s Comedy Conference to being a former president of the Association of Women’s Music and Culture.

While both women work at least tangentially in politics, Barbara Jordan made a career in it. Her list of firsts was as long as a Texas summer: first African American woman to serve in the Texas Senate, first African American woman to lead a legislative body in the United States after being elected president pro tem of the Texas senate in 1972, six years after her first victory.

Later that year, she became the first African American woman from a southern state elected to Congress, and in 1976 was the first woman to deliver a keynote address at a national political convention with her speech to the Democratic convention.

She was given the Congressional Medal of Honor in 1994, and after her death two years later, it was revealed that she had been in a 20-year relationship with Nancy Earl, whom she met on a camping trip in the 1960s.

Cheryl Dunye, meanwhile, was born in Liberia in the year Jordan was first elected to the Texas Senate. Since then, she has taught at the University of California, Temple University, Pitzer College and California College of the Arts. What she is known for, however, is her film career.

At the age of 30, after creating six short films, she made her feature debut with The Watermelon Woman, exploring the history of black women, and lesbians particularly, in film. She directed the telepicture Stranger Inside, about black lesbians in prison, and The Owls, about a group of “older, wiser lesbians” who accidentally kill a younger woman and try to cover up the crime. Her latest film, Adventures in the 419, is about advanced-fee scams among the immigrant community in Amsterdam.

Sapphire, born in 1950 as Ramona Lofton, is perhaps one of the most visible African American lesbians writing today, perhaps second only to Jewell Gomez.

Growing up in California, she spent the 1970s in San Francisco, circumnavigating the Black Power movement and the drug culture, writing and performing poetry. She chose her nom de plume because it represented a pugnacious, tough black woman in African American culture, and she like the image. She really blossomed in a literary sense in the 1980s, publishing poetry and short stories. One of her poems was targeted by foes of the National Endowment for the Arts for speaking in the voice of a boy who was molested by a priest.

She is perhaps best known for her 1996 novel Push, which was turned into the Academy Award-winning film Precious.

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