Shani Akilah, 35, Co-Founder of Black and Brown Workers Cooperative
Shani Akilah does not endorse any political representatives in the Black History Untold project.
Black women are the reason I’m still alive.
I’m an incest survivor. I grew up in a domestically violent household. It took a lot of healing and forgiveness around it. If it wasn’t for the Black women in my life, I probably would’ve taken my own. So, everything I do is in the service of Black women. Everything.
We live in a white supremacist society and an anti-Black society. Particularly an anti-Black woman society. I argue that when Black women are free, everyone else gets free, because that is how much violence we face.
I think about R-Kelly and what was able to happen and still happen because it was happening to Black women and girls.
We live in a society that not only makes it a possibility for Black women to be murdered and/or raped, but it is an absolute. We live in a rape culture. Black women are targeted the most.
Because no one’s going to go looking for a Black woman.
There was a police officer, Daniel Holtzclaw, who was found kidnapping and raping Black, poor women in particular. I remember that story going viral and thinking, “Wow, this actually went viral.” How many of those officers are out there? Countless. When we think about Black trans women, when we think about Black queer women, when we think about disabled Black women, when we think about undocumented Black women, in every category, they are the most marginalized.
There are national anti-violence organizations created by and for Black and Brown women. Tonya Lovelace Davis, who's the creator of the National Women of Color Network, has been one of my mentors. She politicized me years ago. Now, as a labor organizer, the fact that I focus on Black and Brown people came from Tonya Lovelace and her comrades. They were doing a national qualitative data research project that collected the narratives of Black and Brown advocates within the domestic violence sector. After they did this extensive research, they came up with this term “the endangered advocate” and that advocate was describing Black and Brown women. They were the folks in the domestic violence movement who were being pushed out due to the intersections of sexism and racism. Nationally, we know that mostly white middle-class straight women are the executive directors of domestic violence organizations across the country, which really doesn’t reflect who is disproportionately impacted. That really is where my critical consciousness around labor really got solidified.
I can tell you what I focus on doing everyday. I focus on collective action. Building in solidarity with other Black people, because we can’t do this alone. We shouldn’t have to do this alone. That is the trick of white supremacy. It is individualistic. It’s done on purpose, so we can’t organize, and yet we organize still. Even on slave plantations there were uprisings.
In the Black and Brown Workers Cooperative, we talk a lot about root work. We think of our work that way. Before I do a talk or a training, I see myself rolling back my sleeves like a surgeon, ready to go in. That is the work. Things that are just band-aids, we have to call out. Diversity and inclusion trainings? They lack an analysis of power. It’s not honest. Instead of talking about the systems of oppression that created why people are walking around with these implicit biases, they make it about the individual.
I think a lot about womanism, our indigenous sisters, our third world feminists, and I draw from them. This is ultimately a deep decolonial unlearning process.
It’s an anti-Black women world, from the way black women dress to how black women choose to where their hair. How do we get to that place where the decisions that Black women make, because they get to have that autonomy, that we support them? When do we stop allowing other people to come along and devalue Black women? Because that’s what has to happen.
For me, that looks like walking down the street and I make eye contact with a Black woman and I’m like, “Sis, you look beautiful today.” And I keep it moving. That is a source of light and reaching in. Saying, “I see you.” Join organizations that are Black-led and look to shift paradigms. We are not just looking for diversity and inclusion. We are looking for a complete shift in the way society runs, who runs it, who has power, who doesn't and we’re looking for an expanse of democracy.
I came out as queer ten years ago.
Before that, I was in a six-year relationship with a guy my whole family thought I was going to marry. Something told me to ask him one day, “Do you see me as your equal?” He answered honestly and for that I’m grateful. He said, “No.” That is when I understood that I could never again be invested in a partnership that could not hold my entire humanity. I’m lucky to have my partner today who’s incredible. Who not only holds my whole humanity but affirms every part of me, doesn’t ask me to be different and loves who I am. Because of [my partner], I believe in soulmates, but it was a journey to get there.
We are hurt. And it’s hard to get Black people to reciprocate the love Black women give, when we are so hurt.
We are walking around with our ancestor’s wounds. That’s part of why we are agitated, because it’s time for full Black liberation. Because until we get free, Black women will be raped, murdered and will go missing and nobody will look for them. No, time is up. Time is up. We can’t keep leaving it to people who don’t care about us. We can do it ourselves. We’ve been doing it. As folks invested in the complete liberation of Black women, we don't have time to wait for incremental change. I know we can see this liberation in our lifetime.
Shani’s Revolutionary Picks:
“There are national anti-violence organizations created by and for Black and Brown women. Tonya Lovelace Davis, who's the creator of the National Women of Color Network, has been one of my mentors. She politicized me years ago. Now, as a labor organizer, the fact that I focus on Black and Brown people came from Tonya Lovelace and her comrades.”