Women provided the muscle for the March on Washington: This too was freedom
Often history overlooks the work of Black women because it occurs in the sphere of the domestic rather than in hot streets behind a megaphone
James Baldwin was right. The March on Washington in 1963 compromised itself to mollify its white critics, delaying what he called “an hour of reckoning.” It is the hour we sit in now. The hour of a revival of a nationalist white supremacy. An hour that includes the killing of Black Americans by the police.
However, to jettison the whole march to the dustbin of redundancy because Black folks are still petitioning for rights is to make another mistake — the mistake of overlooking the politically useful and radical work of Black women that happened in coordination with the movement and the march. Work that occurred in the domestic realm rather than in the public, a work that imagined a future that did not require a benevolent politician to grant rights and privileges for its fruition, a work that imagined a free and autonomous Black future that was not tethered to the state but could be collectively enacted from within the Black community.
Often history and critics overlook the work of Black women because it occurs in the sphere of the domestic rather than in hot streets behind a megaphone and podium. Women’s lives become ignorable detail, detail subsumed in a portrait of something like a movement, a march where the emphasis is on the leaders, often male, who are making the speeches, meeting with the press and the politicos, standing next to the president while flashbulbs flare in the recording of these great meetings. Who and what is often ignored in the writing of the history of these moments, in the assessing of a movement’s efficacy, are the efforts of women — those who cooked the meals, darned the socks, and strategized with the big men of history while serving up a plate of collard greens, yams, and smothered pork chops. Those women who invited these leaders into living rooms long after the last flashbulb hissed its dying sizzle and spoke with them about boycotts and the best way to sustain the movement in the face of adversity.
I think of poet Remica Bingham’s Marchers Headed for Washington, Baltimore, 1963. In the poem, the speaker recounts the caring and careful work of one of these nameless women who fed activists and marchers headed to Washington in 1963 for the march. “She fed hundreds that way,” says the speaker, “never seeing/any face close enough to recall it/clearly, her name unknown by those saying grace.” It was these “unknown” women up and down the Eastern Seaboard who fed the sons and daughters of slaves and the sons and daughters of those who came to this land as free on front porches, with plates wrapped for those who could not stop as they descended on Washington to collectively demand freedom, justice, and jobs. It was these unknown, nameless women who marched not to Washington, but marched nevertheless “from kitchen to porch, then/steadily back again” offering plates of “smoked turkey,” “fried chicken battered/with whole flour and double-A eggs.” It was these women who offered the travelers sanctuary and encouraging words on their march: “This is for the journey … /in hopes none of you will ever stop.”
These countless, unnamed women were the ones who provided the ligature and tendons, the bone and muscle that allowed something like a civil rights movement or a March on Washington to rise, to walk, to work as a cohesive body. They are the without-which, the way-made-out-of-no-way, the inhabitation and manifestation of the impossible. There is no movement, no march with a hungry belly. Attending to the flesh, to its needs is not a banal act but a tending to the spirit. Political autonomy and sovereignty are not only sequestered to the statehouse and the lauding of civic ideas, but they rest in the ability to feed one’s community.
But hearth and home, the space of the domestic, is often ignored because, for so long, it was considered the realm of the private, a realm excluded from political mechanizations and thought. A realm for which the imagining of community, nation, sovereignty, and autonomy was allegedly absent.
Georgia Gilmore and the creation of The Club from Nowhere during the Montgomery, Alabama, bus boycott of 1956 offers us a counternarrative, a counter-history that contradicts this bifurcation of the domestic and the realm of political imagining and nation building. As part of the bus boycotts, the Montgomery Improvement Association offered Black citizens of Montgomery transportation to their jobs. According to Frederick Douglass Opie in Southern Food and Civil Rights: Feeding the Revolution, Gilmore and The Club from Nowhere baked and sold pies and pastries to support the maintenance of the fleet of vehicles that were used to drive housekeepers and cooks to work in white women’s houses throughout Montgomery. Gilmore and The Club from Nowhere chose to raise the money through bake sales because they knew that the sales would not provoke the ire of white folks. The white community who often bought their pies and pastries would not suspect that the money they gave to these Black women on the sides of dusty roads was being used to support the boycott and subvert white supremacy.
In fact, when Gilmore was asked where the raised money came from, she said “nowhere. The money came from nowhere.”
But this nowhere, this no place, is deployed because there is a whole world of possibility in its action and strategy. Nowhere is more than no place; it is a political practice, strategy, and organizing principle. Nowhere is the politically radical space of self-determination, autonomy, subversive fugitivity — a making of the invisible visible.
This nowhere of Gilmore, baking clubs, and cooks for the marchers heading to the march extends and continues the subversive work of Harriet Tubman, runaway slaves, and maroons who hid in swamps and built communities in the nowheres and out-theres that sat outside civil society, town, city, and plantation.
The overlooked detail resides in the space of nowhere. Nowhere is making the impossible possible. Of being outside of history, “out of sight and out of mind,” yet understanding that nowhere is the place to be.
Women like Gilmore and the grandmother in Bingham’s Marchers Head for Washington, Baltimore, 1963 who prepared meals for marchers and organizers understood the political, economic, and nurturing possibilities in inhabiting and working from this zone of nowhere. They understood that nowhere did not mean without or bereft. Or resourceless. Nowhere was as fecund and efficacious as anywhere. The zone of nowhere allowed for the subversive work of Black liberation to occur unimpeded and without retaliation because it was hidden. It was nowhere.
Nowhere was and is the future. It is beyond the future, because nowhere imagines without evidence of the past. And this imagining occurs and is enacted in the present.
The Club from Nowhere, the work of Black women like Gilmore and the unnamed women who cooked for marchers heading to Washington in 1963 was a practice of synthesis — synthesizing the corporeal and immediate needs of Black folks while simultaneously imagining and practicing a political future through building alternative methods of investment, alternative methods of circulating goods and resources in the Black community without exploitation and the fetishizing of Black bodies and labor. They did this work through embracing the space of nowhere and understanding that that was exactly the place to be. This, too, was freedom. This, too, was justice.