When Your Story Isn’t the One that Matters

“You’ve got to rattle your cage door. You’ve got to let them know that you’re in there, and that you want out. Make noise. Cause trouble. You may not win right away, but you’ll sure have a lot more fun.”

-Florynce Kennedy

Inhale. Exhale.

[Long pause]

I don’t know about you, but I spent this past week mourning, listening, learning, contemplating, dissecting, introspecting, trying, acting, and ultimately, surrendering.

I seriously questioned whether my voice even deserves a place in the world right now when the voices of Black people, and Black women especially, are so much more critically-needed than my own.

Credit: Courtesy Shirien Damra

Ultimately, I decided that writing is better than remaining silent, even if the writing is of a privileged white woman, as long as it attempts to further the cause of racial equality in some way.

Please note: I’m not so delusional to think my little blog is a platform of any real significance, but it’s the only one I have. And I’m also not so self righteous to believe my words could make a meaningful difference for anyone, much less a group of people who have been oppressed and discriminated against and subjugated and abused and terrorized and neglected and gaslighted for centuries.

But if something I write here can help, even in the most minute of ways, then I think it’s the very least I could do. And only as a first small step.

Credit: Courtesy Shirien Damra

The protests and other events of this week gave rise to a steady stream of thoughts and metaphors that could be useful to share here. But because I want to use this post primarily to highlight the purpose-driven life of an activist whose story is much more impactful and inspiring than my own, I’m just going to share just one.

Have you ever been in an argument where you felt like the other person wasn’t really listening to anything you were saying? And during one of those arguments, has the other person ever tried to tell you how you should feel, or said, either directly or indirectly, that you’re wrong to feel the way that you do? Or maybe you’ve been in a fight where the other person said you were “overreacting?”

As someone who has been married for almost eight years and had longterm relationships before that, I cannot imagine this to be a completely foreign experience for any adult. (If you have not, then please share below what your secret is for all of us.)

If you can, try to think back to a particularly disheartening example of one of these arguments from your life. Now just notice how it makes you feel to relive it.

I don’t know about you, but I feel pretty pissed off right now. In fact, if I allow myself to recall every detail of a particularly painful fight where I felt misunderstood, alienated, unloved, and isolated, I start to get downright angry. Or, as Glennon Doyle would say, “Filled with white-hot rage.” In the moment, I might have described my feelings as sad or self-critical, but not anymore. While hurt and disappointment fades, fury can burn and smolder for years.

If this is how I react to one encounter that made me feel misunderstood or condescended to, then how could I even begin to think that I should know how someone who experienced degrees of this throughout his or her life should respond to the culmination of such attacks, especially when the consequences are so much more dire?

Credit: Courtesy Shirien Damra

“You can’t tell me how to feel.” Have you ever said that during a fight? I know I have. And even though the other person probably would have done anything to move past the argument, it’s not that easy. It’s never that easy when it’s something that feels so personal, is it? It wasn’t until I felt completely heard, understood, and validated that I was willing to move on and talk about anything else.

And just as in a longterm relationship where the source of conflict is largely not either person’s fault, because it stems mostly from differences in how you were raised and what is considered “normal” in your family, racism is also generally not a personal fault. Ibram X. Kendi, author of How to Be an Anti-Racist, explained it eloquently by saying that it’s like we’ve been standing in the rain, and until someone hands us an umbrella, we don’t even know that we’re wet.

As Kendi states, “It’s very difficult to grow up in a country or even a world that’s constantly raining racist ideas on your head and to never get wet. That’s how hard it is, essentially, to never consume any racist ideas, and so the first step is admitting that.” So, the first step is to admit that we all have had racist ideas or supported racist policies simply because we’ve been showered with racism our entire lives.

Once you’ve received the umbrella, though, how do you gracefully shed your soaked clothing and take positive action towards becoming an anti-racist, especially when you’re someone whose sense of self-worth has historically come from pleasing others by doing the “right thing”?

This is a question whose ultimate answer will take years to stumble through, but perhaps in addition to Kendi’s book, we can take helpful cues from this week’s purpose-driven life on how to move forward towards a better, more liberated future for everyone. Even if our attempts are unintentionally imperfect.

Florynce “Flo” Kennedy was an activist, lawyer, civil rights advocate, and feminist. She was an unabashed, proud Black woman who never shied away from speaking her mind and never felt compelled to adhere to anyone else’s ideals or expectations–especially when they belonged to “the establishment.”

What can we learn from Flo Kennedy about becoming part of the solution for equality and finding your purpose along the way? Let’s examine her exuberant life together.

Florynce Kennedy was born in 1916 in Kanas City, Missouri as the second of five daughters. She grew up in a mostly white neighborhood where her family was a target of the local Ku Klux Klan. In spite of what must have been constant fear, Kennedy described fond memories of her childhood and the support she received from her parents saying, “My parents gave us a fantastic sense of security and worth. By the time the bigots got around to telling us that we were nobody, we already knew we were somebody.”

Kennedy graduated high school at the top of her class and went on to try different vocations, including opening a hat shop and operating elevators. Around that time, though, the first spark of passion for activism ignited in her. After a local Coca-Cola bottling company refused to hire Black truck drivers, Kennedy organized a successful boycott of their products.

Illustration by Meaghan Elderkin

Kennedy’s mother tragically passed away a few years later, and she reacted by moving to New York City to began a new life in Harlem. Once she was in NYC, Kennedy began attending Columbia University. Although she excelled in academics, she was never truly passionate about her studies. As she said, “I really didn’t come [to New York] to go to school, but the schools were [t]here, so I went.” However, she did hone her persuasive writing skills and explored new ideas for social justice there. In a sociology course, Kennedy wrote a paper comparing race and gender issues with the hope that it could help build an alliance between feminists and Black activists, an idea that was central to her later work.

After college, Kennedy applied to law school at Columbia but was rejected. When she contacted the associate dean, he assured her that she was rejected was because she was a woman, and not because she was Black. Without hesitating, Kennedy requested a meeting with him and threatened to sue the school. Because she acted on her outrage and challenged the system, Kennedy was admitted as the only Black woman in her class.

After graduating from Columbia Law in 1951, Kennedy began her career as an attorney. She opened her own firm by 1954, and in 1956 she partnered with another attorney who represented Billie Holiday. This ultimately led to Kennedy representing the estates of both Billie Holiday and Charlie Parker.

Kennedy in 1959

Although her early cases primarily involved family law and criminal defense, an incident in 1965 caused Kennedy to change course and veer back towards her calling as a civil rights advocate. One evening when she was walking home to her apartment on East 48th Street, Kennedy was stopped by the police. They could not believe that a Black woman lived in that neighborhood, and so they arrested her on suspicion of a crime. Incensed, Kennedy decided as a result of this experience to shift her focus and concentrate on fighting racism and discrimination.

“Freedom is like taking a bath: You got to keep doing it every day.”

-Kennedy

Consequently, Kennedy took on more cases involving civil and women’s rights, and in her spare time she embarked on other activist efforts, including hosting a Media Workshop where participants learned how to challenge the media and use intersectionality, or advocating for multiple human rights issues, to further all causes. She picketed and lobbied media companies when they poorly represented Black people, and she threatened to boycott major retail companies if they failed to include Black people in their ads. Kennedy also represented prominent Black activists, including H. Rap Brown, Assata Shakur, and the Black Panthers, and she defended radical feminist Valerie Solanas when she was charged with the attempted murder of Andy Warhol. Towards the end of the decade, Kennedy helped to lead a Miss America protest against the exploitation of women, and she represented all of protestors who were arrested there.

Kennedy at a march in 1972. Photo by Bettye Lane.

In the 1970s, Kennedy expanded her horizons and solidified her reputation as a no-holds-barred activist with a wicked sense of humor. She began acting in films and television, and she even performed alongside Morgan Freeman in the 1971 film, Who Says I Can’t Ride a Rainbow. Kennedy also embarked on a lecture tour with Gloria Steinem around the country, employing her intersectionality strategy. When asked the common question men posed to feminists at that time, “Are you lesbians?” Kennedy would respond, “Are you my alternative?”

Kennedy and Gloria Steinem. Photo: Courtesy of New York Public Library.

In the early 70s, Kennedy also co-founded the National Women’s Political Caucus and the National Black Feminist Organization. As a prominent feminist, she advocated for abortion rights by co-authoring the book, Abortion Rap, filing tax evasion charges against the Catholic Church on the grounds that its anti-abortion campaign violated the First Amendment, and even working on the NY class action lawsuit that contributed to the later Roe v. Wade ruling legalizing abortion.

Courtesy of Schlesinger Library

Far more than just a standout activist, attorney, and speaker, Kennedy was a vibrant Black woman who lived her life out loud and made an impression on everyone around her. She was known to sport her signature cowboy hat, pink sunglasses, and “Daffy Duck” false eyelashes no matter the venue and without a care for what others thought of her. Kennedy also hosted gatherings in her NYC apartment and in her home on Fire Island to bring activists and thought leaders together at all hours of the day and night. And her sense of humor could not be matched. Once when addressing the fact that there were no women’s bathrooms at Harvard University, Kennedy led the women there to protest by pouring fake urine on the steps of those hallowed halls.

I’m just a loud-mouthed middle-aged colored lady…and a lot of people think I’m crazy. Maybe you do too, but I never stop to wonder why I’m not like other people. The mystery to me is why more people aren’t like me.”

-Kennedy

Flo Kennedy used everything she had at her disposal to rail against the system that oppressed her: the courts, the media, speeches, protests, grassroots action, and a disarming sense of humor. She was a powerful, impactful figure not in spite of her reaction to discrimination, but precisely because of it. If Kennedy had not responded to her rejection from Columbia law by demanding a meeting and threatening a lawsuit, she never would have had critical legal tools at her disposal. And if she reacted to being arrested in her NYC neighborhood by simmering politely, she could never had led the charge that influenced modern activists like Alicia Garza, Patrisse Cullors, and Opal Tometi, founders of the Black Lives Matter movement.

And so, the greatest lesson I think we can take from Flo Kennedy is one she offered us directly, in a way that only she could: “The biggest sin is sitting on your ass.”

While we as individuals might not have done anything intentionally to perpetuate the oppression that Kennedy and so many Black people, people of color, and indigenous people have historically faced and continue to face in America, we can choose to take actions going forward that are not only “not racist,” but “anti-racist”. We can look at our own lives and determine how we can help support these human rights, whether that’s by raising awareness, donating financially, volunteering time, taking a stand, emotionally supporting those on the front line, or some other tangible action.

“When a system of oppression has become institutionalized, it is unnecessary for individuals to be oppressive”

-Kennedy

And in terms of finding your purpose? Well, I also think Kennedy said it best when she said, “I’m going to do what I want, and I haven’t got time for anything else.” Her attitude of indifference towards the expectations and decorum of others was vital to her purpose of advocating for the rights of Black Americans and women using her own unique flair.

Similarly, I think we all can take a page from Kennedy’s book both in how we work toward becoming allies and in how we fight to find and live our purpose. The opinions of others who don’t understand or are not sympathetic should not distract or prevent us from taking the steps we know to be right.

“You can’t dump one cup of sugar into the ocean and expect to get syrup. If everybody sweetened her own cup of water, then things would begin to change.”

-Kennedy

And now, here are a few other quotes from Flo Kennedy that are too good not to share:

“I approve of anyone wearing what the establishment says you must not wear.”

“It’s interesting to speculate how it developed that in two of the most anti-feminist institutions, the church and the law court, the men are wearing the dresses.”

“Any woman who still thinks marriage is a fifty-fifty proposition is only proving that she doesn’t understand either men or percentages.”

“If men could get pregnant, abortion would be a sacrament.”

“When you want to get to the suites, start in the streets.”

“There are very few jobs that actually require a penis or vagina. All other jobs should be open to everybody.”

6 thoughts on “When Your Story Isn’t the One that Matters

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