Labor Abuse in a Factory Setting: A Look at India’s Garment Industry

By Eliza Ferdinando
Eliza is an undergraduate student at Sarah Lawrence and will graduate in 2022.

“It won’t be a sin if people kill you and get rid of you; you should be shot and disposed of.” (1)  This is just one example of the verbal and physical abuse that the Workers Rights Consortium, or WRC, documented in Bangalore garment factories. The woman in these factories are at a high risk of physical, sexual, and emotional abuse. They are forced to choose between their safety, their employment, and their monetary freedom. Three years ago, a group of eleven women wrote to a local union in South India outlining the abuse they had suffered at the hands of their section supervisor, including a threat to “pluck out their pubic hair” (Human Rights Watch). The women made it clear that they could not give their names out of fear of recourse, and asked for help.

For most women employed in India’s garment industry, finding another job is not an option. Unmarried women are oftentimes supporting themselves and their families until marriage, and married women are usually supporting their household and children. Unionizing can be extremely difficult due to inter-union conflict and the focus on gender roles. This robs many workers of the ability to seek recourse for the abuse they have to endure. Violence comes from both from their superiors and their male colleagues. (2) Many women find that their pain is minimized or dismissed, and they receive no support from supervisors when they report inappropriate behavior from male colleagues. One woman was told, when reporting her male co-worker’s inappropriate comments, that she needed to get over it or leave. In one factory located in Southern India, auditors found that women who had requested clean bathrooms, especially when they were menstruating, had been laughed out of their supervisor’s office. Menstruation remains a taboo subject in India, something that has sparked protests in 2018.

Ninety percent of the workforce in the garment industry is composed of women. Those who work in the industry are at a higher risk for depression, anxiety, and workplace fatigue syndrome. These workers are penalized for missing work or working too slowly. As they age the workers are at a higher risk for bladder and kidney problems as a result of working long hours without breaks. The high stress environment can also lead to heart problems and high blood pressure. Because production targets are extremely high and extremely variable, there is little time for any ill or injured workers to recuperate, which gives physical and psychological problems a longer time to incubate and worsen their effects. The work can also be physically demanding, requiring long hours spent standing or hunched over a garment doing fine finishing work.

The majority of India’s garment industry is production for export. Large brands, such as Tommy Hilfiger, H&M, Uniqlo, Walmart, and many more use India’s cheap labor to produce their goods. They are responsible for the abuse that millions of women suffer every single year, and part of a larger system of export and exploitation centered around the garment industry. By outsourcing their labor to various third party contractors, corporations are able to absolve themselves and their customers of accountability for labor violations by not being personally responsible for labor violations.

This past year, women in India took action in a call for labor rights. (3) Starting in Kerala, women began participating in a human wall in protest of gender based discrimination in a variety of public and private spaces. These women were demanding, among other things, labor policy reforms and a change in the attitude towards women’s work. Attitudes towards female labor are shifting, as more women are entering the workforce. This shift in attitude, however, has not lined up with legal reforms and social convention, and the attitude remains that young women should get married and stay home with their children while running a household.

Serious reform is needed in the garment industry and in the greater world of fashion. Many organizations have agreed that there are better ways to safely manufacture the immense amount of clothing India exports to the United States and Europe. Anti-harassment training is needed for workers and supervisors, as are legal reforms to ensure that abuse is dealt with in a timely manner and that medical care and breaks are provided to victims. A clear system to address grievances is also a necessity to address the problem. More frequent and unannounced audits need to be conducted to accurately assess working conditions. The formation of unions should always be encouraged, so that workers have security when seeking recourse for abuse.

The women most at risk for abuse in factories are minorities. Immigrants, religious minorities, or just poor workers from outside the cities are lured in with the promise of good wages only to suffer horrifically. In India, the caste system still operates systemically, despite having been legally abolished for almost 70 years. Lower caste women face derision from authorities for both their caste and their gender. Almost 99% of assault cases go unreported in India, and this number is higher among subjugated groups who already face obstacles in the workforce. (4) Women who report violence risk being ostracized by their communities for being ‘impure,’ losing their income, and being the victim of retaliatory actions for their reports. As one woman in Southern India said, “We want justice…. Is it our fault that we are poor?” (5) Nobody deserves to be abused. Nobody deserves to be forced to live in fear. Nobody deserves to be forced to choose between a job and safety. Nobody deserves the uncertainty that such a life brings them, the hurt and the pain that follow them from those experiences.

Sources

 

  1. WRC Finds Beatings, Death Threats at Indian Factory Supplying University Apparel to Columbia Sportswear, by Scott Nova and Ben Hensler, for Workers Rights Consortium, http://www.workersrights.org, June 20th 2018
  2. One in seven women in Bengaluru garment factories face sexual violence, report says, by Anuradha Nagaraj, for Reuters, http://www.reuters.com, June 24th 2016
  3. For more on this topic see India’s garment workers continue to fight against exploitation, by Aarthi Gunnupuri, for Equal Times, http://www.equaltimes.org, November 22nd 2016 
  4. For more on sexual violence in India, see A Closer Look at Statistics on Sexual Violence in India, by Sujan Bandyopadhyay, for The Wire, www.thewire.in, May 8th 2018 
  5. Combating Sexual Harassment in the Garment Industry, by Human Rights Watch, www.hrw.org, February 2nd 2019 

The Stakes of the Savoy: Black Women and the Lindy Hop

By Shaelyn Casey
Shaelyn is a first year MFA Dance student at Sarah Lawrence College.

As students of dance history, we are often asked to question and challenge the narratives that get written into history. Too often, we are only taught the canon of major figures in dance history that mostly constitute the individual contributions of choreographers. As with almost any type of history, this often leaves out the voices of women, people of color, LGBTQ+ people, and many others. In the graduate dance program at Sarah Lawrence College, we work towards the idea of destabilizing the canon by studying the figures that often get written out of history. I believe it is also just as important to look at the contributions of dancers and the influence of social dance and the collective. In this blog, I want to illustrate one example of how social dance served as an outlet for black women to express their creative freedom and reclaim ownership over their own bodies through the popular dance of the 1920s and 30s, the Lindy Hop.

The Harlem Renaissance was a time of questioning social norms, including those of gender, sexuality, labor politics, and racial limitations. Kendra Unruh writes in The Journal of Pan African Studies in 2011 about the liberation of black women during the Harlem Renaissance through the use of the Lindy Hop. Lindy Hop was a very popular social dance at the time that involved partnering, physically demanding lifts, and high-energy foot work. It was often performed at dance clubs in New York City, most famously, at the Savoy Ballroom. Located in Harlem, the Savoy Ballroom hosted a mix of black and white performers and dancers of mixed economic and social backgrounds. The Savoy Ballroom offered “Kitchen Mechanics’ Nights” on Thursdays, since that was the night that many black domestic workers, who worked all weekend, normally had off. On these nights, many black women came to dance, let loose, and maybe even participate in the dance contests the club held.

Though very popular with the young Harlem crowds, the Lindy Hop was considered problematic by both white elites and the older generation of African Americans. This generation, along with the black bourgeoisie, felt beholden to the strict terms of respectability politics, which encapsulated the idea that black people needed to act with extra social decorum in line with white social expectations in order to have a chance to have any social upward mobility. The energetic, potentially sexualized, social dancing undermined this ideal of a submissive, quiet, and reserved woman. White employers also thought that women gathering and dancing in their free time might open their ideas about what types of work they could be doing, and potentially begin rejecting the idea of working in white households.

By choosing what to do with their own leisure time, and choosing to dance, the women reclaimed an element of freedom over their own bodies and identities. They chose to express their sexuality in public and to be proud of their skills. They challenged notions of white femininity by redefining what it was for a woman to work and to be active in displaying their working bodies. They affirmed that their bodies were more than just for labor. They made their mark on one of the most popular dance forms of the Jazz Era.

As a hopeful future dance educator, I believe strongly in the importance of questioning and challenging the norms of what gets taught in dance history. By highlighting stories such as those of the women in Harlem dancing the Lindy Hop, I hope to continue to explore how to expand whose contributions we value in the ever-evolving art form of dance.

References

  1. Spring, Howard. “Swing and the Lindy Hop: Dance, Venue, Media, and Tradition.” American Music, vol. 15, no. 2, 1997, pp. 183–207. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/3052731.
  2. Unruh, Kendra. “From Kitchen Mechanics to ‘Jubilant Spirits of Freedom’: Black, Working-Class Women Dancing the Lindy Hop.” Journal of Pan African Studies, vol. 4, no. 6, 2011.

Buried or Planted?

By Meybol Escoto Montilla
Meybol is the Faculty Support Coordinator for the Office of the Provost and Dean of Faculty at Sarah Lawrence College.

I thought that my life was finally lined up with my plans; have a job, good health and family stability, and out of nowhere, Pum! A bomb exploded inside my house and everything fell apart… I discovered I was married to a man I did not know and he was 100% the opposite of what I saw.

There was never a lack of mistreatment splashed with sugar to disguise the great monster that was in him. In a blink, I found myself on the street with my children who did not understand what was happening. We went from living a comfortable and stable life to living in a shelter full of rats and missing everything that can make a life normal, specially for a kid.

I told myself: “this should not fade my plans.” Instead, this will be the platform that will allow us to enter our promised land, because we had already traveled a lot to get there.

When things do not work and our loved ones abuse us and turn their backs on us, we feel we cannot move forward, freeze, get depressed and see our lives falling apart when they are actually just falling into place. We were not born seeds, but we can definitely learn how to be one, and this is the right time to do it!

When everything goes wrong, when people throw mud on you, when everything turns dark and dirty around you, just think that to be planted for a good harvest, the seed has to go through this too. It has to be surrounded by dirty things, deeply sunken, with a large weight on top, probably cold and sometimes dry and lonely.

But when all these elements come together and you feel that a bucket of cold water falls on you, don’t think is a punishment… a good seed will ALWAYS bear good fruit, but it must be processed.

Rejoice if they betrayed you and made fun of you when you thought everything was fine, if suddenly you were left alone in the middle of nowhere. The seeds are not buried, they are planted deep. Those who has no experience sowing, but harvesting, think you will not be reborn, but now is the time to germinate and show that all the damage that seemed irreparable has become only the roots to make you stronger.  

Glow!!! Let them see a new woman stronger, safer, only dedicated to what really matters to her, and with the firm conviction that she has to do what she wants for her and for those she loves.

You did not bury me, you just planted me on solid ground, and I thank you, because now I will bear fruits; fruits that nobody can take from me unless I want them to, because with this process I have learned who should or should not be around me. Above all, I learned that I could love with all my heart and soul because there are hands that bury, but also hands that plant – water and care to make you grow as a new plant, as a new creature…

Love does not end because that person, who did not know how to value you, tried to bury you. Rather, it is born when, in the midst of your loneliness, pain, bitterness and sadness you find a light that teaches you the way to be reborn and germinate!!!

Move forward, woman, a mistreatment is just another experience that shows that whoever did it needs more than you do!

 

Be planted, germinate, bear fruits and over all… shine!

Equity Within End Zones: Seattle E.N.D., Ultimate Frisbee, and the Decolonization of Social Space (Excerpt)

By Bella Rowland-Reid
Bella is a second year undergraduate student at Sarah Lawrence College.

Growing up in Seattle, it’s not uncommon to identify with either the “Northend” or “Southend” parts of the city. In the elite bubble that makes up the Seattle Ultimate Frisbee scene, there is a clear division between the regions, not only in culture and style of play, but in resource accessibility and financial support, particularly at the youth level. There’s the Northend, known for posh neighborhood communities and resource-abundant Ultimate programs; and the Southend, with majority low-income residents, Amazon-induced gentrification, and teams primarily made up of students of color. Each area’s respective public high school Ultimate Frisbee teams–three in the North, three in the South–embody their regions accurately, both in demographics and the relative privileges and oppressions that derive from said racial makeup. Northend teams typically receive more funding, newer gear, and nicer fields, while Southend players are struggling to find rides uptown to games and face systemic oppression in the white-dominated space of Ultimate. Although both sides of the city produce an abundance of talented players each year, the region’s visible fragmentation is representative of global race, class, and gender oppression within the sport.

Many Ultimate players have what they call a “Frisbee nickname,” or a name teammates call them on the field. A Frisbee nickname is easy to shout from the sidelines during hectic games and unique enough to differentiate similarly-named players. My nickname is BellaR, pronounced like bell-are, given to me my senior year of high school. The Southend has a Frisbee nickname of its own: Soufend, often shortened to just “Souf.” The nickname is a phonetic translation of the slang many Southend teenagers use. This past summer it was used as the inspiration for the Southend’s new elite club teams: the Men’s program “S.O.U.F.” which stands for “Strictly Only Us, Fam” and the Women’s counterpart, “E.N.D.” or “Empowered N Decolonized.” Teams made of marginalized Southenders, both S.O.U.F. and E.N.D., were created as a way to make high-level Ultimate accessible to players of color who could not afford the high cost of local teams. These teams are the antithesis to everything that is elite Ultimate: rich, white, privileged, inaccessible to many. In E.N.D.’s creation, they became a bridge for marginalized players to exist within high-level Ultimate and propel discussions about what it means to be a diverse, just, and inclusive sport.

Seattle E.N.D. was birthed from the need to decolonize Ultimate, Aileen Perez, one of the team’s founders, told me over the phone. “Going into E.N.D. this summer was a confirmation of all the things I’ve felt throughout the years as an Ultimate player. [My co-founder] and I wanted to build a team where it represented a lot of what we knew in high school and growing up and playing ultimate, but at a higher level,” Perez explained.

The systemic divide in the North and South ends are not only prevalent within the sport; it’s part of a larger issue of systemic inequality that has plagued the city for decades. In October, a local news website reported that the Roosevelt High School PTSA—a school located in the Northend neighborhood of Ravenna—had 3.5 million dollars in total assets. Just half an hour South, Rainier Beach High School—along with Franklin High School and Chief Sealth, two other Southend schools—had a total of zero dollars in assets. The divide amongst wealth and race creates a barrier between the communities and has resulted in an increased sense of community within the Southend. As Perez describes, even though Southend schools have coveted on-field rivalries, once the cleats come off, everyone becomes family again.

“At the end of the day we are all one big community,” said Perez.

Because Ultimate is not a physical space, but rather a collection of individual players, the community operates similar to a hub. Gathering for practice, games, and tournaments, social space is created and divided within teams and communal discussions. Perez believes that this community structure becomes vital to the team’s mission of decolonization. Social space can change as more marginalized people are represented at all levels.

In efforts to decolonize Ultimate, E.N.D. has taken down many of the barriers faced by low-income players of color to intentionally create space for marginalized people within the sport. The team was funded entirely through GoFundMe and community fundraisers. They’ve also been invited to tournaments and events to facilitate discussions about diversity, such as with the Ski Town Classic, an elite women’s tournament in which the team attended last August in Salt Lake City. The team’s Twitter asks the community to examine their own privileges within the sport, discussing the role of transphobia in the game’s gender divisions and asking players to list why they wear #BlackLivesMatter headbands. In an homage to the women who raised them, and as a form of resistance to the overwhelming presence of patriarchy within communities of color, players have their mother’s birth surname printed on the back of their jerseys. Every part of E.N.D. was created with marginalized communities in mind.

While E.N.D. is an independent team, it has deep ties to the Southend’s rich social justice community. The team’s founders all work for All Girl Everything Ultimate Program, or AGE UP, a non-profit based on teaching Southend youth of color about social justice and organizing skills through Ultimate. As many E.N.D. teammates are AGE UP alumni, the team becomes another arm of the non-profit, where older players can discuss social justice within Ultimate long after they leave the program.

In their efforts to decolonize Ultimate, Seattle E.N.D. centers marginalized players within discussions of race, gender, and class. The team has used the power of solidarity and community to demand social space in the overwhelmingly white, male, financially inaccessible sphere of elite-level Ultimate Frisbee. As the cost of elite sports becomes a barrier to low-income participants, the social space of these teams becomes skewed. In the world of Ultimate, a space like the Southend—youth-driven, community-oriented, and largely marginalized—is an outlier. The focus of programs like AGE UP and E.N.D. is a sense of solidarity and community for players in a space where barriers leave them largely invisible. As Ultimate becomes an increasingly white and upper-income space, people of color face an implied exclusion through lack of visibility. As accessibility within athletics becomes a larger topic within Ultimate, teams prioritizing the voices and experiences of marginalized players become the key to decolonizing the social space within the sport.

Integrating The Transformational Writings of bell hooks Into Formal Education

By Hannah McCandless
Hannah is a first year student in the Women’s History Program.

Growing up in the South, my exposure to black women writers in an academic setting was far and few between. Though late in my academic career, I distinctly recall three instances that led me to uncovering the absolute importance and prolific writings of black women. It was not until a Women and Literature class in college first led me to the poetry of bell hooks. It was not until some free time during a gap year and a used bookstore’s 50% off sale led me to Maya Angelou’s I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings. And it was not until a Master’s level course on women’s history led me to the historical fiction novel, Beloved written by Toni Morrison. In each of these experiences, I found myself enveloped by the masterful writings of black women who, prior to a few years earlier, I had little to no knowledge of.

Reflecting on this absence gives an easy to find but troubling answer: the writings of white men are predominantly taught from kindergarten through college. This form of institutional racism and sexism is not necessarily a surprise to many, especially those studying race and gender, but it is frustrating nonetheless. Outside of two classes specifically focusing on women and women writers, and a stroke of luck in a bookstore, my exposure to black women writers was abysmal. The lack of available classes covering women and African American Studies were in large part to blame. But even then, this was at the collegiate level. What about the lack of black women writers in elementary through high school?

With that information in mind, this blog post aims to present the works of bell hooks, one of the most influential feminist writers of the past forty years, as one possible author whose work can be used by educators from kindergarten onwards. It is the hope that these examples will help educators integrate bell hooks, and other black women authors, into their curriculums in order to foster a more holistic and representative educational experience.

Something especially exciting about bell hooks’ work is that she also wrote children’s books in addition to writing poetry and feminist theories. Published in 1999 and illustrated by Chris Raschka, Happy to Be Nappy shows all of the exciting ways in which girls with “nappy” hair can wear and be proud of their hair styles. Published in 2002, Homemade Love is a story which helps children understand what it means to be unconditionally loved. Both books promote representation for black girls and are easily accessible for kids of all backgrounds. These books can easily be integrated into the story times of pre-K and kindergarten aged students, further broadening kids’ horizons.

Moving into upper elementary and middle school, much of hooks’ poetry, which can be found in her book And There We Wept, can be taught to students as an entry point in their exposure to poetry. Often a part of the Language Arts portion of learning, students begin learning about poetry as early as the first grade and continue through high school. Some of her more academic works, such as Ain’t I a Woman?: Black Women and Feminism, published in 1981, and Feminist Theory: From Margin to Center, published in 1984, are both books which can be as educational tools to inform students on the social importance and implications of feminism, as well as some of the earlier writings on intersectional feminism. Students in high school and college can be challenged to broaden their views of the world and on culture through her writings. hooks is especially accessible for students in this age range because many of her books, articles, and other published works do not rely on overly formal or academic writing.  

Looking back, I feel a deep sadness about my lack of exposure to black women writers. I wonder what my life might have been like had I read the works of Alice Walker, Audre Lorde, or Angela Davis much earlier. I truly believe that they would have changed my perspective on everything from politics to representation to feminism. With bell hooks specifically, her writing has been the most understandable and tangible for me to read and comprehend. Her theory is not bogged down by unnecessarily big words, and her writing is a critique of everyday life. This exposure can put many more on the path toward an intentional critique of culture and of self, opening the doors of activism for young people everywhere.

Educating students of all ages through the writings of black women is integral to a more whole and intersectional education, an education which teaches the ideas of many rather than a select few. School boards can be persuaded by those in the community to change their reading lists. School boards can also be voted out of office when they are not pushing for the best educational experience for students. As a citizen, you can use your power to advocate and vote for the inclusion and representation of black women writers in your school’s curriculum. For more information about your state’s educational requirements, visit your state’s Department of Education web page or contact your school district directly to find out what students are being taught.

Aida Overton Walker: Queen of the Cakewalk

By Hannah McCandless
Hannah is a first year student in the Women’s History Graduate Program.

In New York City on Valentine’s Day in 1880, Aida Overton Walker, originally named Ada Wilmon Overton, was born in Greenwich Village. Born to seamstress Pauline Whitfield and waiter Moses Overton, Ada was their second child with an instinctual love of dance. Recognizing her talent early, Overton’s parents enrolled Ada in a formal dance training program in Manhattan.

Graduating from Mrs. Thorp’s formal dance training school around 1897, Overton briefly toured with the Black Patti’s Troubadours before scoring an opportunity to model with Bert Williams and George Walker. The Troubadours were a group of musical and acrobatic acts comprised of trained classical dancers, singers, jugglers, and comedians. Though Overton was only briefly a part of this troupe, it is important to note that the leader of this troupe, Matilda Sissieretta Joyner Jones, was among the most successful entertainers of her time. Jones, among other firsts, was the first African American person to sing in the famous Music Hall in 1892, which was renamed Carnegie Hall the following year.

Williams and Walker debuted their popular vaudeville performance at the Koster and Bial’s Music Hall, making Overton’s modeling and later cakewalk performance with the men widely viewed. At the young age of fifteen, this visibility propelled Overton to join the Octoroons, one of the most successful black touring groups of the time. During her time with this group, one critic said, “I have just observed the greatest girl dancer.” Her popularity soared as she became a regular on the scene as a dancer and singer.

As her career developed, Overton began performing a sister act with Grace Halliday in 1898. By 1899, Overton began performing in more serious solo acts, singing songs like “Miss Hannah from Savannah” and “Leading Lady.” Her voice was described by one critic as having a “low-pitched… natural sob” which Overton knew “how to use with telling effect in putting over a song.” Another critic spoke of her dancing in all forms, whether a cakewalk, buck-and-wing, or any “grotesque” dancing as a performance full of “gracefulness of movement which was unsurpassed by anyone.”

Marrying George Walker in 1899, the two became the premiere cakewalking couple, performing a form of “black modernist expression” which wowed audiences including royalty, the white elite, and many a concert stage. The couple spent some years touring in Europe before returning to the US in hopes of changing and challenging the harmful stereotypes of black actors and actresses, as well as black people in general.

Changing her name from Ada to Aida in 1903, Overton Walker began performing more complicated and challenging pieces, as well as changing the form of dance known as the cakewalk. The cakewalk was originally part of a slave culture which allowed for black couples to gather and poke fun at the masters by walking as a couple down a line mimicking the slave owner. A cake was given to the couple who did the best walk. As a part of Overton Walker’s attempt to dispel the historically harmful stereotypes of the dance, the couple developed a form of dance they termed “the modern cakewalk” which included a graceful and elegant form of dance. This form of dance was performed in many dance halls and theaters.

The form of dance that the couple developed became an expression of their belief in “racial uplift,” a theory influenced by W. E. B. Dubois’s “talented tenth.” The “talented tenth” is an idea that designates a class of African Americans as leaders in the early 20th century. Overton and Walker began performing in such a way which they believed raised the status of all African American people.

Outside of their time working together to perform a modern take on the cakewalk, the couple performed in many other works, always refusing to perform roles which portrayed racial stereotypes. Among her goals, Overton Walker focused on a commitment to improving the lives of African American women morally, culturally, socially, and in material goods. Overton Walker often verbalized that her form of performance was a reaction to the stereotypes of actresses as “morally unfit,” stating “I venture to think and dare to state that our profession does more toward the alleviation of color prejudice than any other profession among colored people.” This early form of feminism was very empowering for other female African American performers.

In early 1911, Overton Walker’s husband, George Walker, fell ill and died. Though saddened by her loss, Overton Walker pushed on in her career, even dressing as “Bud Jenkins,” the character played by her husband before his death, in some performances. One of the first women to dress in drag, Overton Walker was widely acclaimed for her success in singing her husband’s song “Bon Bon Buddy.” From here, her solo career relaunched.

In July of the same year, Overton Walker formed her own vaudeville unnamed troupe with one male and eight females. Dressing up as and singing as a man became a part of her new performance in this troupe, something which many crowds enjoyed. Of the times she performed with her troupe and with others in the dance community, the only critique she regularly received was that she was not on stage enough, as audiences always seemed to be wanting more.

Though her last public appearance was in July of 1914, Aida danced up until two months before her early death in October of the same year. At the young age of 34, her death was caused by kidney disease. Aida Overton Walker is remembered today, the day after her birthday, as a woman who paved the way for a more whole and less problematic view of African American performers and African American women at large. Her work built a path for many who came after her, pushing the boundaries ever further toward acceptance on and off stage. On this day, we remember and thank a woman who broke barriers and set the stage for many black women performers to come.

Sources:

  1. https://www.revolvy.com/page/Aida-Overton-Walker
  2. https://www.rem.routledge.com/articles/walker-aida-overton-1880-1914
  3. http://racingnelliebly.com/strange_times/aida-overton-walker-broke-stereotypes-of-victorian-era-stage/
  4. http://memory.loc.gov/diglib/ihas/loc.music.tdabio.182/default.html
  5. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Aida_Overton_Walker

 

Redefining Representation in Comics: Jackie Ormes

By Marian Phillips
Marian is a first year graduate student in the Women’s History Program.

Zelda Mavin Jackson, famously known as Jackie Ormes was born in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania in 1911 to William and Mary Jackson. In 1917, an automobile accident resulted in the death of her father, causing she and her family to relocate to Monongahela, a suburb of the Pittsburgh area. During high school, Ormes realized her passion for drawing and writing. It wasn’t long until she submitted her pieces to the weekly African American newspaper, the Pittsburgh Courier. The first article she wrote covered a boxing match, resulting in her professional career as a full-time journalist at the paper.

While Ormes enjoyed writing on local and national news, as well as reporting on sporting events as an avid fan, her true passion was drawing. In 1937, the Courier distributed Ormes’s first comic strip Torchy Brown in Dixie to Harlem. Once the paper published Torchy, Jackie Ormes became the first African American woman cartoonist, and is regarded as such to this very day. While the strip only ran until 1938, she continued to create new and innovative cartoons that depicted African American life, family, and relationships.

Once having left the Pittsburgh based paper, Ormes moved to Chicago in 1942 and the single panel comic Candy appeared in The Chicago Defender. It was the longest running and most popular African American newspaper in the United States at the time. With Ormes as a contributor, the popularity of the paper continued to grow across the nation. Her short-lived panel in the Defender featured Candy, an attractive African American housemaid that was comical and wisecracking. When Ormes moved her work back to the Courier, she created her longest running comic titled Patty-Jo ‘n’ Ginger, featuring a big-little sister dynamic duo. Patty Jo, the younger sister, was a socially and politically aware child that called out injustices in public and in conversations with her older sister Ginger. As a result of the popularity of Patty-Jo, Ormes signed a contract with the Terri Lee doll company to produce the revolutionary Patty-Jo doll.

The doll held a larger meaning by symbolizing an empowered black girl that didn’t put up with social or political injustices. Patty-Jo was a remarkable and revolutionary character, and her sister Ginger symbolized feminine beauty and strength for African American women. She subverted media stereotypes of black womanhood as non-sexual and unattractive. Ginger was not a sex-symbol so to speak, she was a character that combated racist depictions of African American women by contradicting them.

After the eleven year run of Patty-Jo ‘n’ Ginger, Torchy reappeared in the Courier in 1950 as the eight-page color insert Torchy in Heartbeats. The insert featured the titular character searching for true love. On her journey, she rejected misogyny, sexism, and overtly sexual flirtations. Ormes’s intent to create an African American feminist icon were realized in Torchy. She was politically active, and in her last issue, so was her significant other. When the last comic featuring Torchy was released in 1954, she and her boyfriend combatted pollution and the environmental crisis. Ormes instilled the importance of activism in all sectors of life in the comics she created.

Shortly after the end of Torchy, Ormes retired from creating cartoons. While living in Chicago in 1985, Ormes unexpectedly passed away from a cerebral hemorrhage. The National Association of Black Journalists Hall of Fame posthumously inducted Ormes in 2014 for the activist work she portrayed through her comics. In 2018, the Will Eisner Comics Hall of Fame inducted her for redefining the representation of black women in comics. Truly a revolutionary, Ormes consistently fought against racism, sexism, misogyny, and political injustices. This Black History Month, I call on you, the reader, to look deeply at the materials that you are consuming, the creators behind them, and remain cognizant of the importance of representation in all platforms. Jackie Ormes ensured that African American women nationwide would witness empowering images of themselves and her activism continues to reverberate throughout generations.