By Donna Bullock
I finally said those words at a Black Lives Matter gathering, the words that had been buried deep inside me, and a burden was lifted.
After the murder of George Floyd, members of the Pennsylvania Legislative Black Caucus successfully led the prosecution to pass several common sense police reform bills, but by the end of the legislative term, many of our bills law remained intact in Republican-controlled committees.
As a state legislator, I wonder if we are doing enough to bridge the racial and economic divide that puts the lives of black people at risk. Are we ever going to bring in meaningful bills to fight gun violence, keep black mothers alive, or reduce lead exposure in schools? It’s frustrating.
I rarely admit my anger. It would mean that I am the angry black woman and can be discredited for that simple fact. But the lack of progress on the issues that matter to me as a black woman and mother of two black boys has drained my soul.
It happened during my first few weeks in office. I was sitting next to a former statesman, an older white man whom I respected and who I thought wanted to be a mentor. Colleagues were debating a budgetary impasse. He leaned down to speak.
“I like you,” he said. “You are accessible. You’re not loud like those other black women. He looked over his glasses at a colleague who was on the podium, speaking passionately about his constituents.
His comment, well-intentioned or not, was a warning. It forced me to strategically determine when and how to express myself.
Like many black women in white male spaces, I avoided the perception of being the angry black woman at all costs. I tried to assimilate, work across the aisle, ignore racial and gender divisions. It was tiring. Finally, the “compliment” from this former statesman and everything that followed silenced me.
When I dared to break that silence, I learned that the voices of black lawmakers, especially black women, were too often rejected. It was depressing and traumatic. This comment haunted me as I walked the halls of the Capitol.
“You, black woman, have no place here.” In my first five years in office, there were only nine black women in the General Assembly at any given time. There are 253 state officials and senators.
Nationally, women represent less than 30% of state legislators. The number of women of color who are state legislators is even lower. However, recently there has been a 68% increase in the number of women of color running for state seats, according to an analysis by Reflective Democracy Campaign, a non-partisan organization that works to change the demographics of elected officials.
On Jan. 5, 10 black women were sworn in to the Pennsylvania state legislature – an increase – and the first black woman was elected caucus leader. Hope, yes. Inspiring, yes. But there is still a lot to do.
My experience in the Pennsylvania Legislature is a microcosm of what our country is going through. Today, the people who demand representation and accountability from our government are demonized. We are told that protesting is bad and that we should get back to law and order or just get back to normal. Who exactly is this normal we’re talking about? In other words, you can’t get angry if you’re Black, but we have every right to be and to be heard.
Anger is a precious commodity. Anger is an injustice that is heard. Constructive anger can promote understanding and healing. I embrace this anger.
After all, angry black women have been behind every movement – voting rights, labor rights, women’s rights and civil rights.
America, I am an angry black woman. I agree with that. You should be too.
Donna Bullock is the elected state representative for the 195th District of North Philadelphia.