Women’s March co-chair Tamika Mallory has spent her life in activism; her parents were founding members of civil rights leader Reverend Al Sharpton’s organization, National Action Network. She was born into what she calls “The Movement,” but found her own footing in social justice through personal tragedy. After losing the father of her son to gun violence, she was galvanized to fight for the lives of African American women and men. Becoming a single mother instilled solidarity in her and connected her with an experience many black women live through, while it remains largely ignored and unaddressed by American culture: single motherhood through violence.
Through her work, Mallory addresses this issue and so many more. One of her most public endeavors is the Women’s March, which quickly became an international phenomenon, drawing millions together in resistance against the current presidential administration, and the systemic sexism that’s woven in the fabric of American and global cultures. Mallory spoke to POPSUGAR about her leadership role in the Women’s March less than two weeks after its 2018 events. She also reflected on how her intersectional work within – and alongside – white feminist spaces affects and solidifies her commitment to the cause of black women’s rights and liberation.
Jordannah Elizabeth: Let’s go back to the morning of the first Women’s March in 2017. What was the moment when you realized it was going to be a massive, historic protest – bigger than had even been predicted – and what did that mean to you?
Tamika Mallory: I think around four o’clock in the morning, when I arrived at the site where the March was being held, and I saw a lot of women. I knew at the moment that the numbers were going to be [massive]. I think we kind of knew, already, leading into that day that the number was more than we originally expected. However, that morning it became real, because you could see people arriving in droves from all over as early as four o’clock. And somewhere around seven AM, there was a hill behind the stage that became full of people arriving to the march, and spreading out into the street. I think at the point, it was very clear that we had exceeded our own expectations that [people] would participate just in Washington, DC. Because of the cell-phone service being down, we were unable to see the numbers and crowds gathering in other states and countries. It wasn’t until the March was over and made it back to my hotel room that I was able to really grasp the magnitude of that day.
JE: I know there are so many life experiences that led you to become an activist. But what was a galvanizing moment for you, as a young person, that really shaped your understanding of how black women were viewed in America?
TM: Well, there’s a story that is close to me, that dictates how I got into the movement on my own. My parents were two of Reverend Al Sharpton’s first members when he started National Action Network. So, I grew up in the movement, always, as a little girl. And when my son’s father was murdered I started rallies on my own. I didn’t need my parents to tell me who to be or how to be involved. I didn’t need their guidance anymore. I wanted to pick up the movement and figure out what it meant for me and my situation. I think what really drove my experience, engagement, and my commitment – particularly when you talk about black women – [was that] I started to be contacted by so many other black women who had experienced the same things. I didn’t realize at the time that so many people had lost their children’s fathers to gun violence.
I realized, at that moment, I [had been] sort of embarrassed that he got killed. I’m a young woman coming from a two-parent home – very successful people. To get involved with a guy who ultimately got hooked up with the wrong crowd and was killed . . . it’s not a story you want to tell people. What I found out quickly was that there were so many black women like me, who were single parents. And I realized that people weren’t even talking about that, because it didn’t matter [to them]. It wasn’t a concern. Black families being split up. Black men being deceased. Black women being single. It wasn’t something that was a major concern to America. I realized that I had to commit myself to the movement to make sure that we were on the map, and that our issues mattered, and that people didn’t continue to marginalize us and ignore us and our experiences.
“I think what is important for people to know is that I had the same criticism that they had of Women’s March.”
JE: There was some vocal criticism in 2017 concerning the Women’s March being centered on and/or dominated by cisgender, white women. Do you feel that this year’s March did a better job of putting the voices of women of color at the forefront?
TM: I think what is important for people to know is that I had the same criticism that they had of Women’s March. They don’t have a criticism that I’m trying to defend [against]. I’m not defending the network of Women’s March that is in place [as] perfect, or in any way refines what we know about feminism. That is the reason why I am so committed to standing in the way of an organization from being able to gather resources – whether it be monetary or with the support of large foundations in general – without our issues being at the table, and ensuring that those resources are being directed toward our communities and toward things that matter to black women. For me, this is not about giving the Women’s March a nod of approval. It’s more about ensuring that this time, in history, we have the power to determine what Women’s March will be by working from the inside out, instead of sitting on the outside and allowing it to happen without our presence.
To be very honest, what frustrates me about black women is that there have been many times when I have worked in spaces where white women were not there, and I still was unable to garner the support of black women the way that I feel we should be at the table. There are a lot of other black women who will say that, within their organizing spaces, we’re not always there. We have a lot of negative things to say, we have a tendency to find fault in every space we go to. So, I’m not so sure that it’s the Women’s March that we have a problem with, or if we are so broken as a people, and have been beaten and abused so much, that we’re having a hard time in stepping into a space and make it what it ought to be for our communities to get what we truly deserve.
“We’re dealing with a megalomaniac as president of this country and white women are largely to blame for that . . . White women have been voting the wrong way.”
JE: On that very subject, you yourself gave such a powerful speech at Power to the Polls, about the need for white women to step up and prove they are allies with their actions and their vote. Why was that message one you felt was so vital to get out?
TM: I think that’s the moment that we’re in. We’re not really interested in hearing white women talk about how much they want to work with us, and how much they want to be allies, and how much they appreciate us, and all those great things. We don’t want to hear that, because we continue to see – in places like Alabama – and as we approach the State of the Union, we’re dealing with a megalomaniac as president of this country and white women are largely to blame for that. They are largely the cause of it. White women have been voting the wrong way. And it’s happening in an overwhelming percentage.
And even within the Women’s March space, we have situations where, when women of color attempt to lead, white women are threatened by our leadership and create tension and confusion because they are unable to step aside and allow women of color to not just lead, but create space that will ultimately impact the lives of all people. They have trouble stepping aside and not being the center of attention. So, when I gave the speech of Jan. 21st at the one-year anniversary, after going through [the] experience of a year within the Women’s March space, I thought it was important for me to say what so many black women are thinking. Stop saying that you want to work with me, and then you have white supremacy running through your own blood, and are not willing to address it and accept it. They may be the cause, but they benefit from it and should check themselves.
JE: What would you say is the biggest issue or challenge specifically facing black women today, and how do you hope to bring awareness and change?
TM: I don’t know how to speak to the biggest challenge because none of us are the same, it’s difficult to pinpoint what the overall challenge is. But I will say the economy, as the president is lying about black employment being the lowest it’s ever been. I can promise that there are people in states all across this country who are experiencing hardship at this time, and they don’t know where these jobs are that he’s speaking of. The economy is an issue that plays into many communities. If you are able to give a young person a job, you are more likely to keep a gun out of their hands. So many black mothers who are raising black sons are constantly concerned about what will happen with their young people when they walk out of the door, but not only are there external issues like police brutality, there are internal issues within the community and black families that young people are constantly battling with.
JE: As an activist fighting some of the most important battles of our time, how do you renew yourself? I’m thinking of Audre Lorde’s quote: “Caring for myself is not self-indulgence, it is self-preservation, and that is an act of political warfare.”
TM: For me, I found the most inspirational and incredible women in the movement that help sustain me mentally and emotionally. It’s refreshing in moments when I am challenged with the most. I’m able to turn to them as my sisters, and we can find a laugh in the midst of so much pain. I would say that having the right type of people around is necessary because they pull me out. Sometimes, I’m so deep in that having their love, support, and their concerns pulls me out. I also have a wonderful family. I’m a people person, so you’ll probably hear within the self-care conversation a lot from me about the idea of having and people around who can help heal the distress that one can be under in this movement. It’s very difficult, not always to deal with white women, but to deal with black women and women of color who are sometimes as divisive. It feels good to be able to look into the eyes of people who can tell you that you’re more than that social media post where someone calls you out [by] your name and that the work that you’re doing matters to people who are unheard.
JE: How do you see yourself carrying on a legacy of black women activists in America? And who in the next generation do you have your eye on to eventually carry on your legacy?
TM: I think, in the legacy of black women who came before me, I can be proud that I try, that I step up and I was willing to be in the fire, and be in the space that was most uncomfortable – but yet the most necessary – on behalf of my people. And that people, after they beat me down, and didn’t understand, I was still willing to stand up for them and with them. I think that is the legacy I want to leave behind, and if people say that about me, I’ve done a good job.