On Monday, May 1, thousands of people will convene in communities around the world to commemorate May Day, otherwise known as International Workers’ Day. On this day in 1886, men and women, many of them recent immigrants, organized a nationwide workers strike that led to the creation of the eight-hour workday and other basic protections for workers.
This May Day, that struggle continues as the Movement for Black Lives, wage activists and those who believe in freedom (“the Majority”) join forces in support of racial, gender, immigrant, disability, queer, economic and environmental justice. This resistance goes Beyond the Moment, beyond moments of outrage, beyond narrow concepts of sanctuary and beyond barriers between communities that have much at stake and so much in common. We will strike, rally and resist. We will amplify the voices of the unheard, recognize the labor of those who are silenced and marginalized, and lift up those people in this country for whom protection has never been guaranteed.
Malcolm X once said that “the most disrespected person in America is the black woman.” These words, unfortunately, are still true today decades after his death. Today and every day, we center and celebrate women and femmes of the past as we stand up for the future of our communities.
The contributions and labor of black women are erased in our stories of social change, in media, in our homes and workplaces, and in our movements. We cannot value what we cannot see. The erasure of black women’s work—by men and white women—and the rendering of that work as invisible contribute to its ongoing devaluation.
Domestic work is an example of how black women’s work has been devalued. Domestic work is rooted in the legacy of slavery, and today, this industry is largely made up of women of color and immigrant women. Domestic work is paid and unpaid labor that occurs inside the home, and it is the work that makes all other work possible. And yet domestic work, because it is done by black women, women of color and immigrant women, is not valued as work. It is seen as simply “what women are supposed to do.”
We’ve heard that women make 77 cents to every dollar that men make, and yet few address the racial disparities in the wage gaps between women and men (pdf), as well as between women of color and white women, and between transgender and cisgender women.
Historically, Martin Luther King Jr. is often credited with leading the civil rights movement, when we know that black women like Rosa Parks, Diane Nash, Fannie Lou Hamer and Ella Baker were its backbone. This legacy, unfortunately, continues today as the work and contributions of the women of color who organized the Women’s March on Washington were dismissed in favor of narratives that credited only white women for the largest mobilization in this nation’s history.
As we celebrate May Day, we also observe that this day is no exception.
During the 1886 Haymarket Uprising, a clash between thousands of workers striking for an eight-hour workday and Chicago police, Lucy Gonzales Parsons, a black, Mexican and indigenous woman, was allegedly described by a Chicago official as “more dangerous than a thousand rioters.”
Lucy Gonzales Parsons, firmly positioned at the center of the uprising, was one of the most dedicated and radical labor organizers this country has ever seen. She organized that famous Haymarket strike and should be considered an integral part of what we observe today as International Workers’ Day—but we rarely hear her name spoken in relation to the history of the labor movement in the United States. Her labor—alongside the labor of millions of black women, women of color and immigrant women—remains unseen and uncelebrated.
Unseen and unpaid labor built and maintains the American economy—an economy not only rooted in but also reliant on militaristic, anti-black, anti-worker and anti-women principles. The American economy functions because it pools the wealth of the people in the hands of the few, strategically disenfranchises black communities, and perpetuates the falsehood of a separate and inferior sphere of women’s work. Its function is enforced and maintained by a hypermilitarized police force whose primary directive is to keep those in power and those with wealth safe. But, as Lucy Gonzales Parsons declared in 1890, “When the prison, stake or scaffold can no longer silence the voice of the protesting minority, progress moves on a step, but not until then.”
We are no longer the protesting minority: we are the Majority. But we will achieve no progress on any of the issues we care about and organize around if our speech is repressed by law enforcement, our bodies are imprisoned behind bars and our voices are silenced while our work is erased. We will achieve no progress if the people who power our economy, who care for our children and elderly loved ones, continue to be erased.
We’ve seen firsthand that the people who believe in freedom, justice and humanity greatly outnumber those whose values are rooted in white supremacy, division and hatred. Each time we come together, we build a movement that is strong and diverse enough to protect one another.
This May Day, we are uniquely positioned to uplift and unify the voices of black and brown people, immigrant communities, the economically unstable, women, children, the disabled, the LGBTQ community, those working to protect our right to work, and those fighting for our right to clean air and water. Our collaboration is rooted in the shared principle that none of us will survive without all of us.
It will last #BeyondTheMoment.
The Root aims to foster and advance conversations about issues relevant to the black Diaspora by presenting a variety of opinions from all perspectives, whether or not those opinions are shared by our editorial staff.
Alicia Garza is a co-founder of the Black Lives Matter network, and the special-projects director at the National Domestic Workers Alliance. Follow her on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.
Carmen Perez is executive director of the Gathering for Justice, a nonprofit founded by Harry Belafonte, and served as one of four national co-chairs of the Women’s March on Washington.