Skip to content

Does DGRI endorse the radical politics of the Rad Women images they are displaying all over downtown Grand Rapids?

April 14, 2019

In honor of International Women’s Day and Women’s History Month 2019, Downtown Grand Rapids Inc. (DGRI) announces a sweeping public art project to recognize and celebrate the contributions women have made to the United States of America.

The above statement was posted in early March from DGRI, the quasi-government entity that includes the Downtown Development Authority, the Downtown Improvement District and the Monroe North Tax Increment Finance Authority. These groups are represented by most government and business people who have been responsible for the ongoing development of the greater downtown area of Grand Rapids, a development process that has served the interests of the Grand Rapids Power Structure

Thus, the announcement that DGRI would be not only celebrating women’s history month, but celebrating women who are the subjects of the book, Rad American Women A – Z, written by Kate Schatz and Illustrated by Miriam Klein Stahl, was rather surprising to me, especially considering what many of the women celebrated in the book represent. Indeed, these women were/are engaged in radical politics and radical imagination in such a way that would actually challenge and confront the kinds of activities that DGRI engages in.

Lets take a look at these women and the kinds of work, vision and commitment they collectively have brought to many of the social movements throughout US history. Since the book presents these women alphabetically, let’s provide a summary of their collective herstory alphabetically.

Angela Davis – Angela Davis was a member of the US Communist Party, a revolutionary that went to prison for being part of the Black Power Movement. Davis has been a professor for decades teaching radical theory and history, has written numerous books on black liberation and black radical theory and has been part of the movement to Abolish Prisons. She is an anti-capitalist who is known throughout the world and has been deeply committed to the liberation of black, brown, Indigenous and Palestinian people.

Billie Jean King – The famous US tennis player who not only fought for equal pay for women tennis players, but was one of the first lesbian athletes to publicly challenge  heteronormative politics in the US.

Carol Burnett – Carol Burnett has been an entertainer for decades and challenged the Patriarchy in Hollywood for as long as she has been an entertainer. Carol Burnett has also made us laugh, which in the US can been seen as both subversive and liberating and the same time.

Dolores Huerta – One of the leaders of the United Farm Workers, Dolores Huerta not only demonstrated the power of organized workers vs organized wealth, she taught us the power of collective action, of cooperative politics and the power of non-violent direct action.

Ella Baker – Ella Baker was one of the most important organizers in the black freedom struggle, often referred to as the Civil rights Movement. Ella Baker taught a whole generation of young black and brown organizers and was part of the NAACP, the Southern Christian Leadership Conference and the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee. Ella Baker was one of the most important organizers of the 20th century and believed in the power of direct action to challenge systems of oppression.

Florence Griffith-Joyner – Florence was an Olympic sprinter that amazed us with her speed and her grace. Known as Flo Jo, she wore spectacular running outfits that were matched by her powerful physique.

The Grimke Sisters – Sarah and Angela Grimke were the daughters of slave owners, who rejected their families and went on the become part of the Abolitionist Movement, the Women’s Suffrage Movement and the early US Labor Movement. The Grimke sisters saw women’s liberation, black liberation and the liberation of workers as part of the same thread of freedom.

Hazel Scott – Hazel Scott was a jazz and classical pianist, a singer and an actor that performed in the US in the 1930s, 40s and 50s. She was the first black female to have her own TV show. However, Scott was investigated by the House Un-American Activities Committee for her politics and was Blacklisted. Like many other black performers in that era, she moved to Paris to continue her career, but eventually moved back to the US in 1967.

Isadora Duncan – Isadora Duncan was a performer who loved to dance. Duncan loved dancing so much that she wanted to teach others, especially children and opened numerous dance schools throughout her career. Duncan hated the commercial aspect of performing, so she committed most of her life to teaching. Isadora was also a feminist, an atheist and drawn to communism in the later part of her life. She moved to Russia in 1921, shortly after the revolution.

Jovita Idar – Jovita Idar was a teacher, a journalist and an organizer, primarily in the Mexican-American and Chicano movements. Idar was originally from Laredo, Texas where she first experienced the way that Mexicans were treated in the US. Idar was part of many groups, including the League of Mexican Women, the Primer Congreso Mexicanista and during the Mexican Revolution went to Mexico to care for the wounded and to protest the US military invasion of northern Mexico.

Kate Bornstein – Kate Bornstein was one of the first persons to challenge the gender binary in the US. They wrote about many topics, but is best know for their work on challenging the gender binary. Bornstein was also a playwright and performance artist who is best know for their book Gender Outlaws.

Lucy Parsons – Lucy Parsons was a radical organizer, anarchist, anti-racist and anti-capitalist. Parsons was a Latinx woman who was married to Albert Parsons, also a radical organizer and one of the four men arrested during the Haymarket riot. Albert was eventually executed, but Lucy kept organizing and speaking out against the evils of capitalism and White Supremacy until she died.

Maya Lin – Maya Lin is a famous artist and architect who is best known for her urban land art. Lin designed the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, DC and has created urban memorials all across the US, including the Civil Rights Memorial in Montgomery, Alabama.

Nellie Bly – Nellie Bly was a journalist in the early part of the 20th century, famous for making a trip around the world in 72 days. However, Bly’s more important work was her contribution to investigative journalism, especially the journalism she practiced by exposing the brutal practices of mental health institutions and asylums in the US.

Odetta – Odetta Holmes was a singer, actress, guitarist and lyricist who became known as the “Voice of the Civil Rights Movement.” Odetta performed for the 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom. Odetta’s music spanned decades and influenced the likes of Harry Belafonte, Bob Dylan, Joan Biaz and Janis Joplin.

Patti Smith – Patti Smith has been an American singer, songwriter and performer for decades and was influential in the early Punk Rock scene in New York City. Patti has played in numerous bands and collaborated with other musicians over the years. She has also done benefit concerts for the anti-war movement, in support of AIDS activism and a number of other social movements over the years.

Queen Bessie Coleman – Queen Bessie Coleman was only 32 when she died. She was the first African American and Native American pilot to get a pilot license in the US.Queen Bessie was also part of an activist community in Florida in the 1920s, a community connected to the Mount Zion Missionary Baptist Church.

Rachel Carson – Rachel Carson was a scientist, ecologist and feminist who gave us one of the most important environmental books of the 20th century, Silent Spring. Carson’s research proved that pesticide use was having a negative impact on species, eco-systems and humans.

Sonia Sotomayor – Sonia Sotomayor is a member of the US Supreme Court. Nominated to the court in 2009, Sotomayor became the first Latina to rise to that position.

Temple Grandin – Temple Grandin is a professor of animal science and consultant to the livestock industry. Grandin is also one of the first persons with autism to publicly talk about her lived experience with autism and invented what is now called the “hug box.”

Ursula K. LeGuin – Ursula K. LeGuin is one of the best science fiction writers in US history. LeGuin, was a feminist, who imagined what the world would look like through a feminist and futurist lens. LeGuin practiced radical imagination in her writing and was an outspoken critic on many social issues during her lifetime.

Virginia Apgar – Virginia Apgar was an American obstetrical anesthesiologist and developed a methodology for assessing the health of new born babies, known as the Apgar score.

Wilma Mankiller – Wilma Mankiller was an activist, community developer and the first woman elected to be Chief of the Cherokee Nation. Mankiller took part in the occupation of Alcatraz and was influenced by the American Indian Movement. She adopted lots of programs from AIM and developed those programs within her Cherokee community.

Yuri Kochiyama – Yuri Kochiyama was an American activist that was influenced deeply by her parents who were forced into Japanese Internment Camps in the US during WWII. Yuri was a friend of Malcolm X, supported Black separatists, the anti-war movement and later worked for reparations for Japanese American internees.

Zora Neale Hurston – Zora Neale Hurston was one of the most important black writers of the early 20th century. Hurston gave us such works as, Mules and Men; Moses, Man of the Mountain; and Their Eyes were Watching God. Hurston was also an anthropologist who did extensive research on Haitian Voodoo.

One can see that many of these radical women were engaged in important social movements and in abolitionist politics. Imagine what Angela Davis, the Grimke sisters, Lucy Parsons, Dolores Huerta and Ella Baker would have to say about the racist gentrification of Grand Rapids, the police brutality of black and brown communities or the celebration of wealth that is so much of the Grand Rapids community. Imagine what artists and performers like Carol Burnett, Maya Lin, Odetta, Patti Smith and journalist Nellie Bly would have to say about spectacles like ArtPrize. Imagine was feminists like Ursula LeGuin, Rachel Carson, Wilma Mankiller and critic of the gender binary theorist Kate Bernstein would have to say about the homophobia, transphobia and rich, white, male power structure of Grand Rapids.

Lastly, considering that most of these radical women believed in the power of direct action, does this mean that DGRI is endorsing grassroots tactics and movements that are fighting against gentrification, white supremacy, capitalism and state violence that harms black, brown and immigrant communities every day in Grand Rapids? You can’t use the images of radical women and then engage in politics that undermines the very things they fought for.

Comments are closed.

%d bloggers like this: