Amplifying the voices of Black women

Mount Holyoke’s Riché J. Daniel Barnes studies the Black experience in the diaspora from an anthropological viewpoint.

By Sasha Nyary

 Associate Professor Riché J. Daniel Barnes is a sociocultural anthropologist who studies the Black American experience as a cultural exploration. The chair of the gender studies department, she is interested in the history of how African-American and Black diasporic cultures came together and were able to continue, despite all the challenges of the transatlantic slave trade and colonialism. 

Her first book, “Raising the Race: Black Career Women Redefine Marriage, Motherhood, and Community,” won the Distinguished Book Award for the Race, Gender, Class section of the American Sociological Association in 2017. In it, Barnes developed a conceptual framework she called “Black strategic mothering” to help her understand how Black women navigated motherhood and work. What literature she could find on the subject often pathologized Black families, portraying them as dysfunctional. 

But her research revealed that Black women were talking about family and work from a perspective of resistance and strategy — in her research, they are powerful strategic decision makers in their homes. 

Building on that foundation, Barnes is now exploring school choice, particularly around public school education. 

Where are you doing your latest research? 

I’m looking at a particular community in Atlanta that has been navigating the context of changes in policy over time as it relates to housing and education and some of the inequalities that have come up. Inequalities that are a result of policies that haven’t historically worked well for Black communities.

And so this project is looking at this question from the community perspective, a focus on Black women’s strategies, and also the perspective of policies that have affected how K-12 schools in Black neighborhoods have been resourced or not, and how communities have responded to those disparities.

What are you finding? 

What’s happened in the community I focus on is that the demographics have changed. The community transitioned from a very affluent majority-Black neighborhood — with a corresponding very good public high school and students attending from all over the city — to more families with lower means. The original, more affluent community’s children are now grown up. As they’ve moved away, new families of the same class have not moved in. 

Over time, the school has had largely the same teachers but the student population has changed in terms of class. And so the perception of the school has changed. Now the perception is that the school isn’t as good as it once was. And so families that would have sent their kids there don’t anymore. They don’t even think about it. If they had continued to believe in the structure of the school, the curriculum, and what the school had to offer, then the school would presumably still be a good school. It’s challenging.

It seems as though the voices of Black women are being elevated more than ever — and that that’s really changed the tenor of the conversation. What are your thoughts?

It has always been the case that Black women have been at the forefront — not always getting credit for it — but always on the front lines.

It took so long to get Breonna Taylor’s name mentioned alongside George Floyd and Ahmaud Arbery. It doesn’t matter how loudly Black women are speaking and writing about these issues. We always have been, but our stories still are not the ones that are being told.

Even if it’s a male person who has been killed, moms and sisters and daughters and grandmothers are left to deal with that trauma. I recently participated in a conversation with women who have lost daughters or sisters to police violence. We often say they “lost” their loved one. But they said their loved ones were “taken.” These are situations where people are taken. They’re not lost.

Over and over again, Black women are told that they’re, one, invisible and two, not valuable or valued in any larger context. For the moment, people are interested in what Black people have to say. Black women are putting a lot of things out there and people are listening. But I have to say that I find it hard to be optimistic. What we see with the election is not new, the racial unrest in response to police violence is not new. I know I’m supposed to be more optimistic but I struggle.

There was a video circulating this summer of a young Black woman yelling at police officers, really sobbing more than yelling. She’s pleading with them to stop killing us over and over again while the officer just stands there as if she’s not saying anything. Towards the end of the clip she says “I want my children to be able to walk free.” This clip perfectly illustrates the point of my work. It’s capturing the ways in which Black women are always standing up to racism while being ignored. It is that will to stand up despite this invisibility that gives me hope.