TransLash Guide to Black History Month

From left to right: CeCe McDonald (1989-present), Frances Thompson (1840-1876), Miss Major (1940-present), Marsha P. Johnson (1945-1992), and Andrea Jenkins (1961-present)

For as long as Black people have existed, so have Black trans people; breaking barriers and creating new possibility models for all Black people.

We at TransLash uplift Black History Month to remind everyone of our nuanced legacies, and that there is no liberation without Black trans liberation.

Black History Month’s ‘Negro History Week’ Origins (1926)

In 1926, historian Carter G. Woodson and the Association for the Study of Negro Life and History (ASNLH) announced the second week of February to be “Negro History Week”. This week was chosen because it coincided with the birthday of Abraham Lincoln on February 12th and that of Frederick Douglass on February 14th, dates which Black communities had celebrated together since the late 19th century. In 1915, Woodson had participated in the Lincoln Jubilee, a celebration of the 50-years since emancipation from slavery held in Bronzeville, Chicago. The summer-long Jubilee drew thousands of attendees to see exhibitions of heritage and culture, inspiring Woodson to draw organized focus to the history of Black people. He led the founding of the ASNLH that fall.

At the time of Negro History Week’s launch, Woodson emphasized that the teaching of Black History was essential to ensure the physical and intellectual survival of the race within broader society:

If a race has no history, it has no worthwhile tradition, it becomes a negligible factor in the thought of the world, and it stands in danger of being exterminated.

Negro History Week grew in popularity throughout the following decades, with mayors across the United States endorsing it as a holiday.

Black History Month: Brought to you by Black Scholars

Black History Month was first conceived of by Black educators and the Black United Students at Kent State University in February 1969. The first celebration of Black History Month took place at Kent State from January 2 to February 28, 1970.

Six years later, Black History Month was being celebrated all across the country. President Gerald Ford recognized Black History Month in 1976, during the celebration of the United States Bicentennial. He urged Americans to “seize the opportunity to honor the too-often neglected accomplishments of Black Americans in every area of endeavor throughout our history“.

In the Black community, Black History Month prompted the creation of Black history clubs, an increase in interest among teachers, and interest from non-Black allies.

On February 21, 2016, 106-year Washington, D.C., resident and school volunteer Virginia McLaurin visited the White House as part of Black History Month.

When asked by President Barack Obama why she was there, McLaurin said: “A Black president. A Black wife. And I’m here to celebrate Black history. That’s what I’m here for.”

Black Transgender History

When we celebrate Black History Month, it is important to remember that we are equally celebrating the lives and legacies of all Black people — transgender and cisgender — who paved the way for all Black people who have faced oppression and tyranny.

Here are just some of our Black ancestors & transcestors to honor this month — and every month.

Trancestry

Documenting Black trans legacies is related to “trancestry,” a concept credited to Black trans activist CeCe McDonald. Transcestry is the practice of telling the stories of transgender people to honor their historical significance. Frances Thompson is an example of a transcestor; a Black trans woman living openly, according to her own gender identity, long before the existence of Black History Month. Cece stands on the shoulders of Frances Thompson as a Black trans woman who fought for her rights in a very public legal battle.

Frances Thompson

In 1866, Frances Thompson was the first out Black trans woman, the first Black woman, and the first out transgender person to testify during a hearing held by the US Congress about being sexually assaulted by white men. She spoke on behalf of herself and a cisgender woman who was also assaulted. Ten years later in 1876, after a decade of being targeted for speaking out, Thompson was arrested for “being a man dressed in women’s clothing”, and died that same year. Even behind bars, Thompson never lost her fight, answering rude questions about her gender with “none of your damn business.”

Today, the Frances Thompson Education Foundation facilitates Black transgender and non-binary scholarship and advancement, through direct financial, written, and oral scholarship.

Frances Thompson is Black History, and she stood on the shoulders of Sojourner Truth, a Black cisgender woman, who in 1851, in front of a crowd of mostly white cisgender women, demanded body autonomy & rights for Black women in her legendary speech “Aint I A Woman?” at the Women’s Convention in Akron, Ohio.

Both Frances Thompson and Sojourner Truth fought for Black women long before the white feminist movement even considered Black women worthy of equal rights. While white women in the United States earned the right to vote in 1920, Black women and many women of color had to wait nearly five more decades to actually exercise that right.

For Black cisgender and transgender people, representation in media has helped to shift public perception of Black lives and Black achievements, and to inspire action. Today in 2022, there is still a long way to go (#BlackLivesMatter and #Blacktranslivesmatter are still relevant hashtags) in our fight for equality and equity, but we are inspired by Black trans and cisgender legacies that continue to make an impact today.

Black Cisgender & Transgender Representation in Media

The world’s first television stations first started appearing in America in the late 1920s and early 1930s, and Ethel Waters, a cisgender Black woman, was the first Black performer seen on television. Her one-night variety special, The Ethel Waters Show, aired on NBC in 1939, and paved the way for many Black entertainers. Ethel Waters is Black History.

By the 1950s, nuanced representations of Black people in media were still lacking; many white people were accustomed to strictly seeing Black people on television primarily as sources of entertainment: singers, dancers, athletes — and in news footage as targets of police brutality, as the civil rights movement gained more screen time in homes across America.

In 1955, Black and non-Black people could turn on their televisions and see footage from protests such as the Montgomery Bus Boycott, and then change the channel and see Black entertainers on The Nat King Cole Show. For many Black people of all genders during this era, Black representation in media felt like a double-edged sword. Racist tropes abounded. For some Black viewers, Martin Luther King Jr.‘s brilliance and charisma on their flickering TV sets emboldened them to keep fighting for their rights.

But despite more visibility for Black actors in the 50s and 60s, white network and studio heads, directors, writers and actors continued to perpetuate anti-Black notions about who Black people are and what they deserve.

Black trans entertainers were featured even less on stages and screens during this era, but we existed; our trancestor Sir Lady Java was an entertainer and activist who successfully fought against an anti-crossdressing ordinance in Los Angeles in the late 1960s.

In 1976, Java portrayed herself in the Dolemite sequel The Human Tornado. In 1978, Java performed with Lena Horne at a birthday party for nightclub owner and columnist Gertrude Gipson. Since the 1980s, Java has kept a lower public profile. After retiring from performance and recovering from a stroke, she made a limited return to public life, appearing locally in southern California and giving interviews. In June 2016, she was a guest of honor at the 18th annual Trans Pride L.A. festival alongside CeCe McDonald. Lady Java is Black History.

Willmer Broadnax (1916-1992) , also known as “Little Axe,” “Wilbur,” “Willie,” and “Wilmer,” was a Black trans man who moved to Southern California from Houston, Texas, in the 1930s with his brother to join the Southern Gospel Singers. He and his brother later formed their own group called “Little Axe and the Golden Echoes.” Eventually the brothers parted ways and joined various other groups throughout their musical careers. In retirement, Broadnax continued to record new material occasionally with the Blind Boys into the 1970s and 1980s.

As Black trans blogger, writer, and transgender rights advocate Monica Roberts documented, there is a dispute as to when Broadnax actually died.  Various sources claim it was 1994, but the Untitled Black Lesbian Elder Project website asserts that he met his untimely demise in Philadelphia in 1992. He and his girlfriend Lavinia Richardson were arguing when she stabbed him on May 23, 1992, and he subsequently died on June 1, 1992. It was on the autopsy table that Willmer Broadnax was ultimately revealed to be a trans man. Little Axe is Black History.

Prismatic Blackness: A Threat to White America

Respectability politics rooted in anti-Blackness and homophobia dictated how Black people of all genders were judged in white and Black-led media. Malcolm X, a Black cisgender man who was vocal advocate for Black empowerment, did not receive the same reception as Martin Luther King Jr.; Malcolm X was even featured in a 1959 New York City television broadcast about the Nation of Islam, The Hate That Hate Produced.

Reactions to Malcolm X’s assassination in 1965 were varied. But in a telegram to Betty Shabazz, Martin Luther King Jr. expressed his sadness at “the shocking and tragic assassination of your husband.” He said:

While we did not always see eye to eye on methods to solve the race problem, I always had a deep affection for Malcolm and felt that he had a great ability to put his finger on the existence and root of the problem. He was an eloquent spokesman for his point of view and no one can honestly doubt that Malcolm had a great concern for the problems that we face as a race.

Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X are Black History.

Time and time again, when a Black person stood up for their rights vocally in media, they were vilified and persecuted by people invested in upholding white supremacy in America.

In his 1997 essay, “Remembering Civil Rights: Television, Memory, and the ’60s,” the media scholar Herman Gray lays out his theory of what was acceptable to show on network television. “Black people portrayed in news coverage of the civil-rights and Black Power movements appeared either as decent but aggrieved Blacks who simply wanted to become a part of the American dream, or as threats to the very notion of citizenship and nation.”

For many white people, witnessing Black people fighting for their rights felt like a threat to their power.

Not everything that is faced can be changed, but nothing can be changed until it is faced.

James Baldwin

Interracial relationships on TV and in film were especially controversial. It wasn’t until 1967 that American audiences saw a nuanced film about the topic: Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner, produced and directed by Stanley Kramer, starred the legend Sidney Poitier (February 20, 1927 – January 6, 2022).

Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner was one of the few films of the time to depict an interracial marriage in a positive light, as interracial marriage historically had been illegal in many states of the United States. It was still illegal in 17 states, until June 12, 1967, six months before the film was released and scenes were filmed just before anti-miscegenation laws were struck down by the Supreme Court in Loving v. Virginia.

The first Black-White kiss on American network television didn’t even take place until November 22, 1968, and is credited to the Star Trek episode, “Plato’s Stepchildren.” In this episode, the Platonians used their telekinetic powers to force Captain Kirk, played by William Shatner, a white actor, and Lieutenant Uhura, played by Nichelle Nichols (1932-present), a Black cisgender actress, to kiss. 

Sidney Poitier and Nichelle Nichols stand on the shoulders & brilliance of James Baldwin, a gay Black writer and thought leader who in 1956, published Giovanni’s Room, one of the first American novels to deal with the topic of homosexuality. Baldwin spoke truth to power in ways that compelled many people of all backgrounds to examine the systemic harm of white supremacy, anti-Blackness, and homophobia. Poitier, Nichols, and Baldwin are Black History.

Black Trans Media Representation: An Evolving Legacy

It wasn’t until decades later that the first-ever Black-White cisgender-transgender/TGNC “romance” would take place on the big screen: in The Crying Game (1992), actor Jaye Davidson, a Black mixed cisgender gay man, plays transgender woman Dil. This film doubled down on the on-screen transphobic trope of the deceptive trans woman who tricks the cisgender man, and what followed was relentless transphobic and anti-Black “jokes” on TV about this film for years to come (learn more about this in the documentary film DISCLOSURE).

Audiences wouldn’t see a Black transgender woman consistently & authentically playing a Black trans woman character on any mainstream network or streaming platform until over a decade later, in Orange Is the New Black (2012-2019). OITNB star Laverne Cox’s big breakthrough happened after years in the industry, when she was cast as Sophia Burset on the Netflix television drama. Cox’s character Burset, a transgender woman, is in prison trying to get hormone treatments.

For her performance, Cox was nominated for a Primetime Emmy in 2014, 2017, and 2019. After the show ended in 2019, Cox continued to take on acting roles in movies and on television. Her later credits included the films Charlie’s Angels (2019), Promising Young Woman (2020), and Jolt (2021).

A year after Laverne Cox appeared in the first season of Orange Is the New Black, Sasha Alexander
founded Black Trans Media & #blacktranseverything in 2013, which addresses the intersections of racism and transphobia by reframing the value & worth of Black trans people.

Sasha stands on the shoulders of Laverne Cox and Dr. Kortney Ryan Ziegler, who directed the independent film STILL BLACK: a Portrait of Black Transmen (2008); a collection of six short black-and-white films conceived during the years Ziegler was a doctoral student in the department of African-American studies at Northwestern University. The film explores the theme of FTM transition in the Black community. Upon release to the queer film festival circuit, STILL BLACK: a Portrait of Black Transmen became one of the most sought after and talked about films representing the Black trans man experience, showing to sold-out crowds in cities such as Los Angeles, Toronto, Seattle, Chicago, and Tel-Aviv.

Ziegler, Alexander, and Cox all stand on the shoulders of Janet Mock, a Black trans woman who began her transition as a freshman in high school, and funded her medical transition by earning money as a sex worker in her teens. Mock earned a Master of Arts in Journalism from New York University in 2006. Her career in journalism shifted from editor to media advocate when she came out publicly as a trans woman in a 2011 Marie Claire article.

Mock’s memoir about her teenage years, Redefining Realness: My Path to Womanhood, Identity, Love & So Much More, was released in February 2014. It is the first book written by a trans person who transitioned as a young person, and made The New York Times bestseller list for hardcover nonfiction.

Another 2014 breakthrough: Angelica Ross, a Black trans actress, businesswoman, and transgender rights advocate (and self-taught computer programmer), founded TransTech Social Enterprises, a firm that helps employ transgender people in the tech industry. Ross then began her acting career in the web series Her Story (2016), after which she received critical acclaim for her starring roles in the drama series Pose (2018–2021) and the anthology horror series American Horror Story (2019–present). Ross is the first trans person to star in two season regular roles, consecutively.

Over 100 years later, Black trans people continue to fulfill Carter G. Woodson‘s vision for preserving Black history for future generations — all Black history.

In 2017, three Black trans women founded Compton’s Transgender Cultural District in San Francisco, CA; the first legally recognized transgender district in the world. Originally named after the first documented uprising of transgender and queer people in United States history, the Compton’s Cafeteria Riots of 1966, the district encompasses 6 blocks in the southeastern Tenderloin and crosses over Market Street to include two blocks of 6th street. In 2016, the City of San Francisco renamed portions of Turk and Taylor to commemorate the historic contributions of transgender people, renaming them “Compton’s Cafeteria Way” and “Vikki Mar Lane” respectively. January 31, 2022, marked Compton’s Transgender Cultural District‘s five year anniversary.

A year after the launch of Compton’s Transgender Cultural District, TransLash Media founder Imara Jones, a Black trans woman, released the first in a series of Black trans-affirming short documentary films entitled TransLash Episode 1: Transitioning Genders in Trump’s America (2018). The documentary series was the catalyst for Jones’ platform TransLash Media (2019-present), a nonprofit organization that tells trans stories to save trans lives, all while documenting trans lives through a Black trans lens.

In 2020, TransLash honored Monica Roberts (May 4, 1962 – October 5, 2020), a Black trans blogger, writer, and transgender rights advocate. She was the founding editor of TransGriot, a blog focusing on issues pertaining to trans women, particularly Black and other women of color. Roberts’ coverage of transgender homicide victims in the United States is credited for bringing national attention to the issue.

TransLash Media stands on the shoulders of Monica Roberts, and we at TransLash continue to honor Roberts’ legacy through our Commemorations Project.

In 2021, two Black-trans led orgs focused on technology overlapped in a beautiful way: TransTech Social Enterprises and TransLash Media were beneficiaries of Pride Live‘s  Stonewall Day 2021 fundraising initiative. Folks could text REBEL to 243725 to donate funds to TransLash Media and TransTech Social Enterprises during Pride Month (watch the livestream replay here). Black Trans History is Black History.

Black Trans Representation: 2022 and Beyond

Today, Black transgender people can see themselves onscreen more than ever before, with one seminal series continuing to make waves: POSE (2018 –2021). Set during the height of the HIV/AIDS epidemic in New York City, the groundbreaking series depicts NYC Ball culture in the late ’80s, early ’90s. The television series premiered on June 3, 2018, on FX. Janet Mock was a writer, director, and producer on the show, and was the first Black trans woman hired as a writer for a TV series in history.

POSE boasts multiple Black & Afro-Latinx transgender/TGNC actors, including Mj Rodriguez (Blanca Rodriguez-Evangelista), Indya Moore (Angel Evangelista), Dominique Jackson (Elektra Abundance), and Angelica Ross (Candy Abundance/Ferocity). On July 13, 2021, Mj Rodriguez made Emmy history by becoming the first trans lead ever nominated for Primetime Emmy Award for Outstanding Lead Actress In A Drama Series.

While we still have a long way to go to attain expansive, prismatic representations of Black cisgender and transgender people in media, things are changing.

Black trans people have innovated and set trends in almost every industry, including the fashion world. Tracey “Africa” Norman, aka Tracey Africa, is an American fashion model, and the first Black trans woman model to achieve prominence in the fashion industry.

Originally from Newark, New Jersey, Norman has modeled and been photographed for such publications as EssenceVogue Italia and Harper’s Bazaar India. Whether she knew it or not back in the 1970s, Norman paved the way for Black trans models today such as Jari Jones and Aaron Rose Philip. Tracey Africa, along with every Black trans & cis person mentioned in this article, is Black History.

Black Trans Reading List

These are some Black trans & Black LGBTQIA-affirming books to add to your collection during Black History Month and beyond. Did we miss anything? Let us know and we’ll update the list!

Give Them Their Flowers: Black Trans Led-Orgs

Here are just a few sources to find Black trans leaders and Black trans-led organizations to support.

  • Andrea Jenkins is an American politician, writer, performance artist, poet, and transgender activist. Jenkins made history in 2017 as the first Black openly trans woman to be elected to office in the United States.
  • Phillipe Cunningham, a Black trans man and another Democrat on the Minneapolis City Council, lost his bid to represent Ward 4 for a second term in 2022, but his impact continues today.
  • Mauree Turner is an American politician and community organizer. A member of the Democratic Party, they have served as a member of the Oklahoma House of Representatives since 2021. Turner is the first publicly non-binary U.S. state lawmaker and the first Muslim member of the Oklahoma Legislature.
  • Stanley Martin, a Democrat who won a city council seat in Rochester, New York, in 2021, joins the shortlist as one of the country’s few Black trans and nonbinary elected officials.
  • Miss Major is a trans activist who began much of her work during the Stonewall uprising of 1969. As a teen in the late 1950s, she came out and faced abuse. Major ended up homeless and relied on sex work and other illegal activities as a means of survival for more than 20 years. She became the executive director for the Transgender, Gender Variant and Intersex Justice Project, which advocates for incarcerated trans women. She coordinated one of the earliest needle exchange programs in the San Francisco Bay Area and also served the community through various HIV/AIDS organizations. The documentary Major chronicles her life, including her children, romantic partners and her status as one of the most celebrated Black trans figures of our time.
  • This list by Raquel Willis is an evolving, community-sourced list of organizations and initiatives that are led by and/or predominantly serve Black transgender, gender nonbinary (NB), and gender-nonconforming (GNC) people.
  • Watch The Future of Trans (2020) to learn about even more Black trans leaders.

Before you click away, the latest episode of TransLash Podcast with Imara Jones is a must-listen!

Did you find this resource helpful? Consider supporting TransLash today with a tax-deductible donation.

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