[All this week, in honor of Women’s History Month, I’ll be highlighting some exemplary American women. This is the first in the series.]
A tribute to a woman who is unfortunately best known for a malicious attack that entirely falsified her most inspiring work and qualities.
Conservative activist and propagandist Andrew Breitbart passed away this past week. Breitbart was only 43, and leaves behind a wife and four daughters, about whom I’ve tried to think a lot since I saw the news, so as to leaven some of my worst impulses in response to his death. Yet the complex truth is that we can recognize the tragedy of Breitbart’s death for his family and loved ones while at the same time noting that two of his most enduring legacies are not only representative of his work more generally but also, quite simply, among the very worst things that have happened in American political life over the last decade: the destruction of ACORN, an organization that had been for four decades a vital resource for lower-income Americans; and the smearing and character assassination of Shirley Sherrod, a woman whose career and life exemplify some of the very best of what American can be.
The central problem with Breitbart’s attack on Sherrod wasn’t just that he pulled a quote entirely out of the context of the speech to the NAACP in which she spoke it, and used that out of context sound bite to smear her work on behalf of American farmers as driven in part by anti-white racism (leading to her losing that job with the USDA). All of that was bad enough, of course. But the central problem was that Sherrod’s anecdote, as evidenced by the very next lines of her speech, served precisely the opposite purpose: it allowed her to identify some of her own past potential prejudices, and to argue for how important it had been for her to recognize and move past them, in order to do the best work she could on behalf of all those farmers (across racial and every other lines) who needed her and her organization’s support. Sherrod’s speech had thus exemplified both profoundly honest and inspiring self-reflection and the kind of cross-cultural community and transformation that, I have argued so many times in this space, is at the core of the most ideal American experiences and identities.
Moreover, the fuller details of Sherrod’s biography and career only amplify those inspiring qualities. In 1964, when Sherrod (then Miller) was only 17 (and living in Georgia), her father was killed by a local white farmer, who was then acquitted of all charges by an all-white grand jury. While in college at Albany State in 1967, she and her future husband, Charles Sherrod, worked with SNCC, confronting some of the South’s most enduring racisms and brutalities first-hand. And in 1969, the Sherrods’ efforts on behalf of a local collective farming group, New Communities, were met with extreme and racist opposition from white farmers, suppliers, and the state’s governor and political system, in the face of which the collective folded. Having experienced such personal, familial, regional, and professional discrimination, hatred, and violence (of all kinds), it would stand to reason that Sherrod would, at the very least, advocate first and foremost for the rights of African Americans. Certainly she did and has continued to do so—but at the same time she has consistently worked on behalf of all farmers, recognizing and embracing the interconnections and interdependences that have so long eluded white supremacists, critics of African American activism and of multiculturalism, and general purveyors of divisiveness like Breitbart.
More inspiring American women this coming week,
PS. Any women you’d nominate? Ideas, and even guest posts, very welcome!
3/3 Memory Day nominee: Beatrice Wood, the artist, sculptor and craftsperson, and writer who came to be known as the “Mama of Dada” for her profound influences on modern art and 20th century culture.
3/4 Memory Day nominees: A tie between Rebecca Gratz, whose late 18th and 19th century cultural and philanthropic contributions to Philadelphia and American society rival Ben Franklin’s; and Myrtilla Miner, the abolitionist and educator whose 1858 Washington, DC Colored Girls School represented a pioneering and powerfully influential American advance.
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