MAXWELL:

Showing women’s rights include black women, too

8/22/1999 – Printed in the PERSPECTIVE section of the St Petersburg Times Newspaper

 

As the nation’s economy hums along and the quality of life for many Americans improves, a disproportionately high number of African-American women and their children remain trapped in dead-end circumstances.

Why?

Sharon Russ, a 38-year-old English major at St. Petersburg Junior College, believes she knows a major part of the answer. She also believes she has a few solutions.

An avowed feminist who admires abolitionist Sojourner Truth, Russ maintains that African-American women _ natural victims of a sexist, race-conscious society _ have let themselves become permanently marginalized. “We black women have rights that were never affirmed by the civil rights movement,” she said. “We worked side-by-side with the black man, but when it was over, black women still didn’t have equal rights.”

This is the message Russ will deliver Thursday, when all area chapters of the League of Women Voters, the National Organization for Women and the Campus Women’s Collective celebrate national Women’s Equality Day, which commemorates 80 years of women’s right to vote.

As one of a handful of African-Americans in NOW locally and nationwide, Russ intends to speak directly to her sisters in low-income environments, whose lives are shaped by drugs, alcohol, pregnancy and unreliable men.

Her words are unadorned and blunt. “Black men contribute to the oppression of black women by leaving them with a houseful of children and then bragging about it,” Russ said. “They need to stop introducing young girls to crack (cocaine) so they can use them. Black men need to take responsibility for their children and become role models.”

Russ speaks from personal experience. Born in the Florida Panhandle, she fell in love with the man with whom she had three boys, now 18, 20 and 21. After the union broke up, she vowed that she would not fail her children _ or herself. When youngest son Todd, now a senior at Pinellas Park High School, was born with cerebral palsy, Russ dedicated herself to his security. Although the family lived on welfare and was surrounded by drugs and violence, Russ turned their string of modest apartments and houses into oases.

Today, she is more determined than ever to succeed. “After what I’ve been through, nothing can stop me from taking charge of my life,” she said.

Five days a week, she works from 3 a.m. to 9 a.m. as a sorter at United Parcel Service. After work, she stops at home to shower and then heads to campus, where she takes a full academic load of 14 credits. She also tutors elementary pupils 20 hours a week through a college work-study program. She wants to teach English for a few years before applying to law school.

Her example is a guiding force in the lives of her children. Rodney, the 20-year-old, will attend Florida A&M University this fall. He will study business. Reginald, who won a basketball scholarship, attends Morehouse College in Atlanta.

“These boys give 100 percent,” Russ said. “They’ve won awards and are outstanding students. They’re miraculous.”

As a child, Russ, like most black women of her generation and earlier, drew inspiration from the strong African-American women in her extended family. Today, she is nurtured by the friends and acquaintances in the St. Petersburg chapter of NOW and by other NOW members she meets from around the country.

An obvious question, of course, is why turn to NOW, when very few black women have ever belonged to it or have ever called themselves feminists? For Russ, the answer is a no-brainer. All she, a black woman, has to do is observe the many strides white women have made through NOW to realize that she, too, has much to gain by joining.

“Why are black women not in NOW to get the same support I have received, which has encouraged and supported me to get a college education?” she asks. “Attending college and belonging to NOW have helped me keep my kids off drugs and out of jail. I have learned to hold my head up.

“Many (black) women on the south side of St. Petersburg and other cities nationwide have lost their way. They’re being used by men and by the system. Some women have five or more children by different men. Where does it get these women? What does it get their children? These women need to be taking charge of their lives and their children’s future. No one else will. A man is not the answer. Education is. Black women don’t need to have a man or have a baby to be somebody. They need to get self-respect.”

Russ’ other black mentors, bell hooks, a noted feminist author, and Mary Willis, a professor at the college she attends, gave her the courage to challenge her old ways of thinking and to take risks. Her dream is that more African-American women nationwide join NOW so that they can discover their “real womanhood” and forge successful futures.