It’s easy to think that feminism is a singular cause. It’s the fight for women to make a space open to women…no, not only a space but a normalcy for women’s rights, their stories, their truths and their testimony. But not everything regarding women can be so easily boxed. Minority rights and how women of color are viewed, is as poignant a cause, which needs as much, if not more attention. Minority women have a double burden, they face both racism and sexism. They are shining heroes who must rise above privilege, the privilege of both white men and women, and the privilege that men hold in general. There are many women who can bear witness to this double binding, who have fought and spoken to loosen their shackles and…Open Wide the Freedom Gates. A memoir by Dorothy Height, it is more than just her story but the story of hundreds and thousands of women, mostly black, who pushed, marched, cried, spoke, prayed, sang, preached, and rallied, for the cause of women and civil rights. This post is dedicated to the testimony of Dorothy Height.
Dorothy Height was born on March 24, 1912 in Richmond, Virginia into a large and loving family. Both her parents had children of other marriages, so she had not only her “whole” brothers and sisters but also “half” siblings with whom she shared a special bond that is called family. When she was four, she and her family moved to Rankin, Pennsylvania in a tide that moved many southern black families north in hopes of opportunity. Height possessed: a great intellect, which allowed her to fully immerse herself in her studies and do well; a great faith, fostered by her family’s Christian faith and her father’s ties to the Church as deacon and choirmaster; and a great passion, which never allowed her to rest when she saw injustice for her fellow women and blacks. She was part of the organization of many meetings and marches that changed the course of civil and women’s rights in the 1960s, including sitting on the stage during the famous “I have a dream” speech. She spoke with presidents, worked closely with First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt, participated on a board with major civil rights leaders such as Dr. King, Malcom X, Roy Wilkins of the NAACP, and many more. Height worked extensively in high leadership positions with the Young Woman’s Christian Association, the Home Relief Bureau and the National Council of Negro Woman, often as a volunteer. She died April 20, 2010.
Dorothy Height’s life is spectacular. Hours could be spent describing her work; her memoir is just one window into this phenomenal woman’s life. There are key moments in her memoir that I believe will make this woman come alive and bring to discussion issues that women and people of color are still fighting in various forms today. I mention only a few.
On page 65, Height and a colleague were criticized in their unceasing insistence that youth should be a greater part of United Christian Youth Movement board, which was composed primarily of older folks, after they two had been allowed to join. The treasurer, Mr. Howlett said to them “Don’t you two have any other message that you want to bring to this board? We want to hear what you think, not just your complaint…”
How many times has fighting for a cause crumpled down to only complaining about it? If things could change by only complaining about them, this world would have a whole lot less problems than it does today. Dialogue has power, later in her memoir, Height writes “Dialogue is action” (p149). But dialogue is more than just an airing of grievances. Women have made much progress in terms of rights. But is the woman’s life normal, as in, is her story and voice considered a part of everyday narrative or is it still termed as other? Blogs such as this one are discussions of the feminist’s experience. What is the next step? Height states that in the moment Mr. Howlett said this to her, she realized a very important lesson. As a representative, often the sole representative of her sex and race on a board or in an association, she not only had to think of her cause (and the cause she represented) as her only goal, but had to work within the group to further the group’s work, bringing her experiences, her voice and her expertise to the table and encouraging others to do the same so that the group’s vision could include and improve the passions of all the group members.
This blog is made up of many members, and that community is extended to the people who read it, comment on it and want to guest post. It is by the dialogue of these important issues that what is often considered the complaint of women for equal rights is elevated to action. For example by disrupting some dinner parties. The voices of many white bloggers and LGBTQ bloggers have been heard, and I would like to identify mine, as a representative of minority voices, to this chorus of feminist writers. I am biracial, and for me, my fight has always been not only for women’s rights, but for women of color’s rights. Let us take what Height says and weave together all the dialogues of this shared community and work to open wide the freedom gates to advance the rights of all.
Another key concept that Height brings to light in her memoir is the idea that all civil and women’s rights work is not a battle that can be won once and then resolved for all time. It is a step process. Many times, Height was sent on assignments as a part of the Young Women’s Christian Association, in order to evaluate and facilitate the integration of white and black branches of the YWCA in different cities. Many of her visits where discouraging; the binds of racism on the hearts of women were strong. Height discovered that “efforts towards desegregation rested heavily on experiences that gave people the courage to be themselves.” (120). The same can be applied to the efforts of many different types of groups, represented here on this blog and in other communities. The essence of this message is respect. Height calls for people of all races, genders, sexes and faiths to respect their brother and sister’s testimony and value them for their experiences, their stories and allow them to be what they are without categorizing them into a hierarchy.
Part of that understanding and acceptance of all people comes from reflection. It is so easy to react, and lash out in anger or sorrow, happiness or excitement about an issue, article, speech, etc. But true reflection requires a peace of mind that takes the immediate and places it beside the lessons of the past and the hopes for the future to make an informed opinion. Height, in her pursuit of breaking down racism between the women in her association said in response to a comment that much progress had been made on eliminating racism, “we have made progress in building bridges of understanding. But now we had to look at why the bridges needed to be built.” (126). How many times do you reflect a day? Personally, if I have a moment to myself, I usually take it to try to think of nothing and quell all the worries about work and finance from my mind. Usually it is right before sleep that I have time to evaluate all the various missiles of stimulus that have bombarded me all day. Height reminds us that it is only by reflection, re-evaluation and understanding that the bridges we have struggled to build can withstand the challenges and foot traffic it is assailed by every day.
After this paragraph, I would like that my voice end, and the voices of others take hold and show the power and passion that Dorothy Height brought with her when she entered the world. One of Height’s closest friends and fellow leaders who represented both women and blacks was Mrs. Bethune. She once said “Next to God…we are indebted to women, first for life itself, and then for making it worth having.” (84). I believe that this quote could apply to Dorothy Height and the work she did, often quietly, in pursuit of her passion. A poem and a hymn best conclude how much of a legacy Dorothy Height had in women and black rights advocacy and the living legacy she has bestowed upon everyone today. The hymn (67) was written by Paul Deitz for the United Christian Youth Movement called “We Would Be Building”. I urge you to read this hymn more than once and reflect on its meaning. It is more than its religious origin but a song that lifts the efforts of all towards a concerted unity to make normal the voice of all “others”. Height learned from her father that a hymn (or any writing piece) should never be broken down. It loses its meaning in the summary and that its power comes from reading it from start to finish (66). Following the hymn is a poem (xi) that Maya Angelou includes in the forward to the memoir. Maya Angelou writes, “Mari Evans in her poem “I Am A Black Woman,” describes Dorothy Irene Height and helps us to see how we can use the life Height has lived and is living to improve our own.” Thank you Dorothy Height.
We would be building; temples still undone, O’er crumbling walls their crosses scarcely lift; Waiting til love can raise the broken stone And hearts creative bridge the human rift; We would be building; Master, let thy plan Reveal the life that God would give to man. Teach us to build; upon the solid rock We set the dream that hardens into deed Ribbed with the steel that time and change doth mock, Th’unfailing purpose of our noblest creed; Teach us to build; O Master, lend us sight To see the towers gleaming in the light. O, keep us building, Master; may our hands Ne’er falter when the dream is in our hearts, When to our ears there come divine commands And all the pride of sinful will departs; We build with thee; O, grant enduring worth Until the heavenly kingdom comes on earth.
am a black woman
tall as a cypress
beyond all definition still
on me and be
Height, Dorothy. Open Wide the Freedom Gates: A Memoir. New York: Public Affairs, 2003. Print.
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