African American Women Leaders: What Do You See When You Look at Me?

Article excerpt

Leadership as a Construct

Leadership is a phenomenon involving the leader, the follower, and the situation. When examining leadership, we must include personality, physical traits, behaviors, the relationship between the leader and his or her followers, and how aspects of the situation affect the way a leader acts and influences.1 Not only a phenomenon, leadership has many definitions--from the ability to handle people so as to achieve the most with the least friction and the greatest cooperation, (2) to "actions that focus resources to creative desirable opportunities." (3) No matter the definition, being recognized as a leader in our country has been complex for African American women. As such, prominent African American women leaders have similar characteristics that have carried them through and helped to shape them into significant forces in our society. These characteristics include using a leadership style as an art, having a balance to be both rational and emotional, and having a social influence. (4)

A leader must have the skills to analyze and respond to situations in varying degrees and must stay calm in the eye of a storm; this is an art. When there is chaos, staying calm and analyzing the situation will help a leader focus on the problem, instead of becoming part of the problem. Leadership also involves actions based on inspiration and passion. Two of the nine dimensions of Afrocultural expression identified by researcher A.W. Boykin are affect and orality. Affect is placing a premium on feelings, emphasizing a special sensitivity to emotional cues, and cultivating emotional expression. Orality is a way of emphasizing oral and aural modes of communication. Both of these dimensions are traits of leadership for African Americans. (5) Included in the characteristics of African American women leaders is the art of balancing both rationalization and emotional appeal. Equilibrium among appealing to one's ethos (relating to one's audience through the use of common language), pathos (use of vivid, emotional expression), and logos (need for facts by providing informed decisions) must be maintained to be constructive, not destructive. (6)

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Fannie Lou Hamer's address at the Democratic National Convention in 1964 is an example of this equilibrium. She explained that because she and others tried to register to vote, she was arrested on a false charge and beaten savagely by police, almost to the point of death. Emotionally charged, yet rationally composed, Hamer closed her speech by asking:

   All of this is on account we want to register, to
   become first-class citizens. And if the Freedom
   Democratic Party is not seated now, I question
   America. Is this America, the land of the free and
   the home of the brave, where we have to sleep with
   our telephones off the hooks because our lives be
   threatened daily, because we want to live as decent
   human beings, in America? (7)

Hamer's speech has been said to have been electrifying and led her to become one of America's foremost voting rights activists and civil rights leaders.

The Political Struggle

The political struggle for women's suffrage has been documented, but some voices such as that of Amelia Boynton Robinson remain muted. Robinson risked her life to pave the way for everyone's right to vote. During a personal conversation, she was asked how she withstood staring death in the face, and she replied, "With faith and love." (8)

Educator Dr. Cornel West once said that leaders should place themselves within the larger history of this country and be attuned to the frightening obstacles that now perplex us. Lucinda Todd and Carlotta Walls LaNier were attuned to educational inequities in U.S. schools. Todd was the first plaintiff in Brown vs. Board of Education, the case that resulted in school desegregation. Desegregating schools was a landmark decision, but the struggle continued as young African Americans like LaNier walked through the doors of Little Rock Central High School. …