In the opening scenes of Zora Neale Hurston’s classic novel “Their Eyes Were Watching God,” the protagonist Janie’s return to her hometown after many years away sets off rumors about what she has been doing for all these years. She grants her friend Pheoby permission to share her tale with their gossipy neighbors, trusting Pheoby to correct any malicious lies. “You can tell ‘em what Ah say if you want to,” Janie says. “Dat’s just de same as me ‘cause mah tongue is in mah friend’s mouf.”
I was reminded of that passage this week during the confirmation hearings for Supreme Court nominee Ketanji Brown Jackson, who would be the first Black woman on the high court. For two blistering days, Jackson was harangued and subjected to degrading questioning from Republican senators who twisted her record and undermined her authority. But there were a few bright spots — and, not surprisingly, most of them arose from Black female friendship.
University of Pennsylvania law professor Lisa Fairfax introduced her college friend’s scholarly and judicial qualifications as well as her personal qualities, “her heart of gold that always shows up from the first call you make for advice about your career to the first knock you hear on the door after learning you’re diagnosed with cancer. She’s always there.” Asked what advice Jackson would offer young people, the nominee relayed an anecdote from her Harvard days, when, feeling like a fish out of water on campus one day, a Black woman she didn’t know leaned over unsolicited to say: “Persevere.”
Black women have had to rely on each other for support because, so often, no one else will come to their aid. Their multiple marginalized identities, which Kimberlé Crenshaw captured when she coined the term intersectionality in 1989, mean that the ways they are mistreated have roots in both racism and sexism. The intersectional nature of their experiences has meant that others often struggle to recognize the specific ways that Black women are disrespected. It’s why professor Moya Bailey coined the term “misogynoir” to describe the particular phenomenon of bias against Black women. Political scientist Melissa Harris-Perry has compared Black women’s experience of living in the racist and sexist world to field dependence studies in cognitive psychology: “When they confront race and gender stereotypes, black women are standing in a crooked room, and they have to figure out which way is up. Bombarded with warped images of their humanity, some black women tilt and bend themselves to fit the distortion … It can be hard to stand up in a crooked room.” Black women are mirrors for each other in a world that would otherwise depict them as incompetent, undeserving or angry. Our Black female friends, our sisters are uniquely positioned to see us and see through all the lies others might tell about us.
In literature and in history, Black women have shown up for each other over and over again. As others have noted, it seemed many times this week that Democrats, especially Senate Judiciary Chairman Richard J. Durbin (Ill.), did not sufficiently protect Jackson from inappropriate and aggressive questioning from Republicans. A notable exception was Sen. Cory Booker (D-N.J.), whose words of encouragement brought Jackson to tears Wednesday evening. Black women recognized and were horrified by the disrespect some committee members showed to Jackson. In the absence of broader Democratic Party support, other Black women stood in the breech.
There is a long history of Black women supporting each other in the political realm. In 2015, members of Delta Sigma Theta Sorority filled the audience at Loretta E. Lynch’s Senate confirmation hearing, dressed in their colors, to support their sorority sister in the face of opposition from Republicans. The rows of Black women of all ages dressed in red sent a message: She is one of us and we support her. More recently, the women of another historically Black sorority, Alpha Kappa Alpha Sorority organized in support of now Vice President Harris and President Biden’s 2020 campaign. Their advocacy eventually produced a larger campaign led by the Divine Nine historically Black sororities to get out the vote.
And, of course, 20 years ago, almost 1,600 Black women signed a statement in support of Anita Hill after she was publicly pilloried for accusing then Supreme Court nominee Clarence Thomas of sexual harassment. The statement, titled “African American Women in Defense of Ourselves,” was drafted by three Black women scholars, Barbara Ransby, Deborah King and Elsa Barkley Brown, and published in multiple newspapers including the New York Times, publicly declaring, “In 1991, we cannot tolerate this type of dismissal of any one Black woman’s experience or this attack upon our collective character without protest, outrage, and resistance.”
At the end of “Their Eyes Were Watching God,” when Janie has finished recounting her story, Pheoby responds with affirmation and gratitude: “’Lawd!’ Pheoby breathed out heavily, “Ah done growed ten feet higher from jus’ listenin’ tuh you, Janie. Ah ain’t satisfied wid mahself no mo’. Ah means tuh make Sam take me fishin’ wid him after this. Nobody better not criticize yuh in mah hearin.’” Her story and her strength reflect back on Pheoby, causing her to desire more for herself. Hurston’s novel ends with the two friends parting after “Pheoby hugged Janie real hard.” Like Janie and Pheoby, Jackson and her college and law school friends empowered each other through affirmations and support and, hopefully, will be able to hug each other in thanks and celebration once Jackson is confirmed.