By Maura Reilly on May 25, 2021
Despite historic achievements, accomplishments and advancements Black women have made throughout U.S. history, their stories are often overlooked and left out of the history books. A problem that 2Leaf Press, “a small press with big ideas,” is hoping to help correct with their latest book TRAILBLAZERS: Black Women Who Helped Make America Great.
The first of six volumes, TRAILBLAZERS: American Firsts/American Icons, features sixty-five activists, dancers and athletes who have blazed trails, broken records, and made history from the founding of the country to present day. Volume one is set to be released in June 2021, and is sponsored by: the Open Meadows Foundation, the Women’s Sports Foundation (WSF), the New York Women’s Foundation, and the National Sorority of Phi Delta Kappa, Inc. (NSPDK).
With the upcoming book release RepresentWomen talked with the book’s author Gabrielle David, a multi-disciplinary artist, to discuss the process of writing the book and what she hopes all readers will get from it.
Q: What inspired the idea for TRAILBLAZERS?
The backstory is that 2Leaf Press is a black/brown, female led non-profit press based here in New York. We are small press publishing books about diversity, about race, and about social issues; and you know we’re not selling as many books as we wanted. So I had this bright idea that we needed a best seller or at least a sturdy mid list and when I asked some of the writers to whip out some best-selling material, they kind of scoffed and said “No, I write for myself.”
And between that and just being totally depressed about the election in 2016, I mean I refused to look at the news, and since I’m from New York, I know about Trump. And you, know I was just depressed about “Make America Great Again,” what does that mean? It’s code for making America white again, which it never was; because we live in Indian country. In response to the negativity about Black people in general and talking about “shithole countries,” and really looking down on all women of any race but particularly Black women, I said you know what there seems to be this idea that Black women have not done anything for this country. So I took a negative into a positive and I said, TRAILBLAZERS: Black Women Who Helped Make America Great. I turned it around and had this idea of a book that I would write.
It started out as just one book, and as I did more research I realized that there are a lot of great Black women out there that people don’t know about who have made serious contributions to this country. So then it went from one volume to two volumes, and then two volumes to four, and then it went from four to six. So now we have a six volume series.
The book is divided up into three sections and each section I write an introduction, a historical overview. So for example, the first book coming out in June is activists, dance and sports. So there is an introduction of the history from the beginning to the end followed by a sampling of bios of the women who made those contributions.
You know, some people say “this is something you’ve been wanting to do for years,” it was sort of done out of necessity in terms of the press (2Leaf Press) and it was done out of necessity because whatever it was I was going to do, had to make some sort of statement and this statement seems to resonate with a lot of people.
Q: Was there anything that surprised you when you started researching and writing this book?
I consider myself a storyteller, I’m not a scholar, I don’t have a PhD. I grew up in a household that was multicultural by nature, I’m Black but my mother taught us it was important to learn about other people’s cultures and about our history; so I have always been an avid reader. So a lot of people who know me will say “oh, she knows a lot,” and doing the research on this I discovered so many different things that I hadn’t realized had happened or had existed.
And putting the story together of Black women activists and what they went through, you know they weren’t allowed to be up front, they were left in the background so that people like Martin Luther King Jr. or Malcolm X and all these other people could be in the foreground. Because of the times that they lived in, that’s what women did, women stayed in the kitchen. But in reality, in any of the movements that you see in this country, women have always played a major role. Not just the cooking and taking care of the kids, they played a role in organizing, getting the word out, making sure that everything was in place, connecting to other organizations. This is the stuff that women have done for centuries; but men have gotten all the credit for and so it is for the Civil Rights movement. A lot of Black women did great stuff, Ella Baker, Rosa Parks and so on.
They were relegated to behind the scenes, when you look at the 1963 March on Washington, the women weren’t allowed to speak, the women weren’t allowed to march at the front with the men, and the women weren’t allowed to go to the White House to meet with Kennedy. But it was the women like Dorothy Height, like Pauli Murray, all these women they were responsible for helping to organize this event, to make it happen. And they weren’t allowed to really speak. They were told “let the men speak,” “the men are in charge;” but, if it weren’t for the women there wouldn’t have been a March in 1963. You can be assured of that, because who do you think put the whole thing together, Martin Luther King Jr. or his cohorts, they didn’t do it, it was the women. African-American scholarship is catching up to this fact in the last twenty years, and they’ve been writing about Pauli Murray. Who you’ve probably never heard about; but, her book about race was what Thurgood Marshall used to develop Brown v. Board of Education. Dorothy Height, who was around for many years and had the ear of all Presidents and all leaders of all different organizations, she was the one who stood alongside Martin Luther King Jr. in terms of making decisions privately but publicly not so much. So you have these women who are out there doing stuff, so all of this has been coming out in the last twenty years. Great scholarship about these Black women who we know very little about but had their fingers in all of the pies, they were involved in everything.
Many people think Rosa Parks’ feet were tired; but Rosa Parks was an activist before she decided to not take the seat. All of these women were trained and very well aware of what was going on; there were no happy accidents in the work that they did. Expanding the NAACP, expanding the court, even going as far as the Black Panther Party there were women on the top rung helping to organize. They were all over the place and you just don’t see them; not because you don’t want to see them but because we’re conditioned about what women do and what women don’t do. That was the big surprise to me, there is more to this history than meets the eye. When you isolate the history and just address Black women it’s just a completely different perspective that you’ve never taken into consideration. And anybody reading the book, black or white will say “wow, I didn’t know that.”
Q: What do you think are the unique lessons we can learn from the history of Black women innovators as we grapple with systemic racism and misogyny?
I think that when you look at the suffrage movement and you work your way through to the opening of the women’s liberation movement in the 1950s, when its blown out in the 1960s and ’70s with Gloria Steinem and that whole crew, and when you look at the #MeToo movement of today, there is the issue that Black women have to deal with two things. They have to deal with race and gender; and early on Black women realised, especially after the suffragists abandoned them after the vote came in 1920, they realised they could not deal with both, so their priority was always race. In the mid 1960s and early 1970s Black women started dealing with feminism, womanism and really began tackling the two; and they had to deal with two fronts, they had to deal with Black men and White women. Because White women’s ideas of what liberation was and what women of color’s ideas of liberation were two different things.
For example, Black women and women of color have always had to work while white women were fighting to get into professions. While white women were fighting to get their names on bank accounts and credit cards, Black women were fighting for good schooling and good places to live. So the areas of what each group wanted was different and it never kind of came together. But you have to look at the history of the relationship between Black women and White women, key in all of this, which really begins with slavery. The white men were siring children with slaves and having those children work for their wives. So, I think what we’ve seen in the last couple of years is that there has been some improvements, some open discussions about this. I think going forward, women all have to come together, I think that it shouldn’t be a white feminist movement or a Black feminist movement; but it is not something that will happen overnight. Because I think all women should be able to come together to fight gender issues and be on the same playing field, of the needs of the Brown community versus the needs of the white community or the Asian community or the Native American community, all of that should be more pulled together. It is going to take a long time to heal those divisions, but we are seeing evidence of it with more white folks recognizing Black Lives Matter and speaking out. So it’s a slow process, but it’s going to happen eventually.
Q: What do you hope readers will take away from TRAILBLAZERS?
Well, TRAILBLAZERS was written for everyone, it’s not a Black book for only Black people. It’s a book for everybody, and Black women need to read it, white women need to read it, men need to read it, people from different nationalities need to read it, Americans need to read it. It’s a book that talks about an aspect of our history that’s been hidden for many years. Some of the names are familiar of course, but there is a lot more going into what these women have done. A lot of these women did not plan to be trailblazers, they planned to just try and do something and they were told they couldn’t do it and they fought to be able to. They didn’t wake up one morning and decide they want to be famous, they woke up and decided “I want to vote in the election,” or they woke up one morning and decided “I don’t want to sit on the back of the bus.” These women put their lives on the line in order to get to the next level.
One of the other things that the book does beside naming the women who blazed the trail is also talk about the women who have followed in their footsteps up to the present. So you have a lot of young women in here who are doing great things and are doing things in a different way; because there are new issues, there are environmental issues, reproductive issues and justice issues, but are still pounding the pavement trying to make things happen. I want people to read it with an open mind and learn a little about these women’s lives, what they contributed to our nation, and I want readers to recognize the work all women, and Black womens in particular, have done throughout history and to make America great.