The Badass Black Women's History Project Celebrates Lesser-Known Trailblazers

By Kimberly Foster//

Black women have, for centuries, made sure the most important facts about our lives would not be lost to history. Memoirs from women like Harriet Jacobs, Ida B. Wells, and Jo Ann Robinson remind us that the liberties we desire must be continually fought for. Histories from scholars like Paula Giddings, Deborah Gray White and Thavolia Glymph make known critical stories of survival. The struggle to care for our legacies continues in the social media age with things like the Badass Black Women's History Project.

Every day of Black History Month, creator Ashley Ray-Harris features an incredible, under-celebrated Black woman. They're activists, scholars, athletes and entertainers with stories we're not taught in school.   Radical Black women have been doing this stuff.

Ashley Ray-Harris
Black women are badass because we transgress boundaries. We surmount obstacles. We blaze trails. The women who do that are not always well-behaved and perfectly palatable. Ray Harris explains, "I think it's about breaking down the stereotypes that says a respectable Black woman does this or respectable Black woman looks like this."

The Culture spoke with Ray-Harris about her project

I'm interested in what the inspiration for the Bad Ass Black Women's History Project was.
I feel like I started this project because I felt like we often hear about the same people over and over every Black History Month. Growing up, I went to this tiny private school [where] I was the only Black kid. Every Black History Month, they will stand up and read the same speech about Madame C. J. Walker. It's like, "She was the first Black millionaire, blah, blah blah." I just really felt like there are so many Black women in history who have done really radical things [and] were the first people to do things that people never even think about. Those women are left from history.

What type of women go under discussed?
I think particularly when it comes to queer Black women [and] trans Black women at the frontlines, those are the women who are most often forgotten. When you look at Lucy Hicks Anderson, who was the first black trans women to be arrested, she was a pioneer. She had her own business. People don't even know about her, and little is known about her life after her arrest.  The first Black woman to run for president. A lot of people think it was Shirley Chisholm. That's the one everybody talks about. She was the first one to run for a major party. In reality, the first person was Charlene Mitchell, who was from Chicago. She was poor, but no one ever talks about her because she was a socialist and communist. 

Radical Black women have been doing this stuff.  We've been integrating schools. We've been really changing things and becoming the face of movements, and then those movements kind of get categorized by men. If you look at Septima Clark, that's the one example where she's called the mother of the movement, but everybody just remembers MLK. She was kind of forgotten from the movement because she disagreed with MLK, and it's just that thing where Black women, when we disagree, when we do something different that people don't like, the first thing they want to do is silence us on or put us on the sidelines.

Where did you learn about the women?
I was a history major.  I was lucky enough to study African studies at Williams College under an amazing professor, Dr Leslie Brown, who really was just like, you guys are going to learn about people you have not learned about. She was a historian who traveled the south doing verbal histories of people. She would just interview people to actually get stories that no one had ever heard before,  and that inspired me to really dig in to find people who I think fall outside of the traditional realm of history.

One of my favorites is Jacci Gresham. She was the first Black female tattoo artists in the United States. For me that's one where it's like people don't even think about Black female tattoo artists, but here's this woman who started doing it in the sixties and opened up her own shop, and it still exists today. You can go get a tattoo from her.

I would really like to highlight how a lot of this isn't just the past, but it's living history that's building a black future.

So many of our conversations about social justice emphasize that everyone deserves dignity and respect. Does that motivate your work?
It definitely does.  Calling this the Badass Black Women's History Project has already gotten me some haters. People who are just like, "These women would never use such language. Oh my gosh!" I just think that that's bullshit. I think a lot of these women swear. I think people like Mara Brock Akil, who one of the first Black women TV screenwriter's would definitely swear.

I highlighted Missy Elliot and people like Betty Davis, Miles Davis's wife, not, you know, the one with the eyes. But Betty Davis who was so out there and revolutionary and who was open about her sexuality and drug use and everything like that. I think it's about breaking down the stereotypes that says a respectable Black woman does this or respectable Black woman looks like this.

Because I think an amazing, badass Black woman can look like Bessie Stringfield who was the first Black woman to ride a motorcycle alone across the United States. She's just this amazing motorcycle queen and a bad ass, but she's not really remembered for like everything she did to help change the highway system in our country because people thought, "Oh well. She's not the picture perfect idea of what we want to remember Black women for."

This is a very Black time, politically. Does that inspire you?
Absolutely. I think now's the time when people are really paying attention, and not just paying attention, but they want to see portrayals and depictions that fall, again, outside of that stereotype. People are really, really willing to learn about these queer black leaders and not just look at it and go, "Oh, well that's cute." They really want to tie it to our modern history, and what we can do to make changes today.

I think there's very little that's new. I think mostly where we're doing things that people have already done. We just don't often remember who did it first and how they did it.

Who's the audience for this project?
I think it's everyone. I get a lot of messages from Black women who are just like, "Thank you so much for highlighting these women that I never knew about." You know. Black women who are kind of embarrassed to be like, "I didn't know about this person. I had no idea that the first orator to speak to a mixed crowd was a Black woman."

It's partially the joy of educating my own people and saying, "No, look at how bad ass we have been! You don't need to buy into this narrative that Black women were [just] slaves and that a few of them helped with the Civil Rights Movement." We've been doing this for so long. And also, you know, non-Black people need to learn this stuff.