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At Home With Jamia Wilson: Women in Media, the Equal Rights Amendment & Intersectional Feminism

In August 2020 Equality Now Board Member, Patricia Amira, sat down(virtually) with the author, activist, and movement builder, Jamia Wilson

Jamia, you have an incredible body of work behind you as an author and an activist, what led you into these fields, and what shaped your feminism?

Jamia: I love this question because I am thinking about it a lot right now. I am working on a book that is coming out in March called This Book is Feminist and it’s sort of an intersectional primer for feminists in training.

A big reason I am doing this is that it is forcing me to think about what is it that led me to this formation of my identity and taking on feminism as an identity. And what do I want to share with people who are taking on the identity themselves? When I look back at those experiences, there are a couple of really tangible ones I can name. 

So one was when I was a young woman and going into middle school, that was when we had the hearings for Clarence Thomas in the Supreme Court and the accusations around sexual violence and sexual harassment. And for me, seeing the men and women in my family fight over whether or not Anita Hill was telling the truth, I remember saying “I believe Anita Hill.”

Then I had a lot of men in my family telling me that I had to support this man to become the second Black male supreme court justice and that I should do it for the culture and hold back my belief in this woman who looked like me. So I began calling myself a feminist then.

And then one of the older men in my family said “you can’t be a feminist because Black women can’t be feminists.” And I remember really wanting to push back at that and research that. And then I went to my mother and grandmother and found out they also identified as feminists.

When I was in a broadcast journalism program, I remember being told by an older white male professor that I would never have a career, no matter how talented I was, no matter what skills or marks I got, if I didn’t change my hair.

At the time I had my hair in braids and I have them in dreadlocks now (I’ve been wearing my hair naturally for a very long time). He continued to say, “I just hate to see someone of your caliber doing so well in my class but knowing you will never be able to be successful unless you adopt a more polished look.”

I’ve realized now, in the work that I’ve done, that him not having faith in me and thinking he was helping when he was actually hurting, had a really deep impact on me. One, I wanted to prove him wrong and have a voice with the very hair on my head being exactly the way it is. And second, what does it mean in a media industry that he couldn’t actually think past the constructs of that system. So that led me to really want to change this, it has been good fuel for me.

I’ve also been really big into this idea that we should reclaim feminism because most of what we know of now and intersectional feminism and the origins of feminism actually came from women of color and maybe they weren’t calling it feminism then but a lot of it was. So we (women of color) need to reclaim it.

It really is a sadness and violence that not enough credit has been given to women of color, around the world who have been living the tenets of feminism in their everyday lives, whether they call it that or not, but we can be in a process of reclaiming, renaming and transforming.

We can let go of the parts of feminism that don’t serve us in terms of a feminism that leaves out those that are most marginalized and instead champion a feminism that is about equality, socially, politically, culturally, economically, etc. 

You’ve written a few books for younger audiences – what do you think young people are learning right now, in the context of COVID, climate change, Black Lives Matter, #MeToo, about themselves, and about their role in society? And can you talk to us about the importance of interweaving activism into children’s books, rather than just works for adults?

Jamia: The title of my second book for young readers is what I hope young readers are taking in, but that all of us are taking in. I even have to return to this book, even for myself. It is called Step into Your Power. That is what I want young people to know. You have power. Your voice matters. You have value, you have insights and you are leaders. You don’t need to wait to get permission to be your full selves. It is your birthright. There is nothing wrong with you, the system is wrong and that is why we need to change it.

In your book, which was featured on the Late Late Show Young Gifted and Black you detail the lives of 52 Black Heroes from Past and Present. The thread about resilience runs through each. Which story did you take most from and why?

Jamia: I felt like they were all coming to me like ancestors throughout writing it. In my world as a writer, these spirits come to me and they are loud. For me, depending on the day, there are different people I look to.

But Toni Morrison’s story really kept coming to me. I just really wanted to get it right. I wanted young people to know that this amazing woman from Lorraine, Ohio, didn’t become a name in publishing until she was 39, and then ended up becoming one of the most prominent editors and writers in the entire world. So she was one who really got under my skin.

And then another that I think is really important is Nelson Mandela. When I think about what he endured over the course of his life and how his story has been told. There is so much of his story that actually doesn’t have to do with the time he was incarcerated, so for me, it was important to also talk about what he learned in his childhood that gave him the tools to be the Nelson Mandela we know now. 

I loved your book, Together We Rise about the Women’s Marches around the world. What was the process of creating that book like? What do you think was the impact of the women’s marches worldwide and why did you want to document through writing?

Jamia: I have to say, it terrified me. I have a habit of taking on things that terrify me because they end up growing you and a few minutes after I do it I am like “wait what, why did I do this?” But you know they reached out to me and said we have all these people around the world who are organizing this march who are looking for someone who they can all agree upon to write the oral history and introduction to this book and it was me apparently. And then oh also, you have less than a month to write it.

I remember at the time thinking it was going to be a lot but then when I started to talk to all these people who organized the largest march in recorded history across the world, I thought, while if Tamika Mallory could be in conversation with Bob Bland while Bob Bland was in literal labor, then surely I can put my big girl pants on and figure out how to make this work. And their enthusiasm and belief in me felt very sacred. So we made it happen and it was wild. 

I wanted to ask your own thoughts on a question posed in the discussion guide you co-wrote with Equality Now for the documentary, On The Record – because it’s a fascinating one! How does the history of racism, slavery, and colonialism impact women of color’s access to justice?

Jamia: I am still learning, forming, and growing my thoughts on this. I think being in a coalition with more women of color from around the world and hearing how colonialism has affected them and the issues they prioritize as relates to their proximity to oppression and also the solutions for liberation has really grown me.

Growing up in Saudi Arabia as an American ex-pat really helped me frame my view around transnational feminism but then going to South Africa and meeting female activists on the ground who in some ways had more in common with our indigenous sisters, talking about land sovereignty being a really big important part to them addressing issues of violence in their communities, made me open my mind and heart.

I’m doing a lot of listening now and thinking about how in the diaspora we can all be in conversation about the solutions that work best for us and understand what our core values are. And also listening and trusting each other to know what is best for our communities. 

That’s why in Young, Gifted and Black, I recognize that I am an African American whose ancestors were mostly descendants of sharecroppers who were brought here on the middle passage, and some indigenous ancestors and some white slave-owning ancestors who raped my ancestors, therefore making me me and that also comes with a lot of privilege and power in the global world around a focus on my issues specifically as it relates to how they are reported on in the media, etc.

And so it’s a really complex one for me because I think that listening is really where I am right now. I have also been reading a lot lately and I have found it is so important for me to read the work of Black women and women of color whose experiences are not exactly like mine. 

How do you think the Black Lives Matter and MeToo movements intersect?

Jamia: What I like about the principles of Black Lives Matter, is that they are based on a liberation framework that holds for liberation for all of us, especially those with the least amount of access. #MeToo in its original formation, as created by a Black woman, Tarana Burke, was the same in its intersectional framework about power and access but became appropriated in a larger conversation that didn’t necessarily hold all of that and now we need to recenter its origins.

I love BLM and #MeToo’s intersection being named because I think the fact that they ever became binaries is something we need to integrate and something we need to fight for. If we had a world where all lives matter, we would not need a BLM movement or a #MeToo movement but because we do not, that is why we need a collective liberation movement for all of us. 

Next Wednesday, August 26th, is Women’s Equality Day in the U.S. and the 100 year anniversary of the 19th Amendment. What should this day mean to women? What are the fundamental things that have to change in the next 100 years?

Jamia: It is a bittersweet moment because when the 19th Amendment happened, there were Black women who were fighting for the vote along with white women, Black women still did not get suffrage with the 19th Amendment and neither did our indigenous sisters as well. So we continued to fight for the 19th Amendment and we find ourselves at a point now, where even after the Civil Rights Act, we still find ourselves facing increasing threats to voter access and increased voter suppression.

I am very committed to doing anything in the next 100 years that will help us to realize the late John Lewis’ dream of making that “good trouble” so that all of our votes can be counted and we can have racial justice.

I think back to my late grandfather who was born in 1911 and was committed to voter justice. He was active in the NAACP and was, at risk to his own life, going out in the deep south registering voters because he was someone who was college-educated and was able to pass those trumped-up literacy tests that they used to keep Black people out of being able to vote. So I think about him and his legacy a lot. It is important we remain vigilant and that we fight, not just for our own votes, but for the votes of everyone. 

Outside of your own books, what is a book you like to give to others to read?

Jamia: I give books a lot as gifts. So right now, I have been getting a lot of questions from white friends about what they can do and I have been giving them the book Me and White Supremacy by my friend Layla Saad. It is such an important book that all of us can learn from and use to explore our relationship with white supremacy and how to dismantle it.

And I love it because she has a global perspective and is the right voice to tackle this issue and reach a lot of people. I also really love all of the books by Toni Morrison. Her book Beloved is one that always sticks with me and I love to give it to people I love.