When Leticia “Tish” James strut onto the podium to be sworn in as New York City’s 4th Public Advocate, I was instantly reminded of Sojourner Truth’s own strutting to the podium on another historic day in 1851 at a Women’s Rights Convention in Akron, Ohio to give her “Ain’t I A Woman?” speech. Back then, Women, Black people, and Children lived enslaved to a system that did not consider them worthy of human dignity. On that date, Truth defined the reputation of a Black woman as a public advocate with a powerful voice. She also encouraged all women to see themselves as extraordinarily resilient. As the speaker remarked personally, “I could work as much and eat as a man – when I could get it – and bear the lash as well. And ain’t I a woman?” Truth believed that this voice worked best as a public service for society’s most vulnerable members. The public advocate, true to her word, used her voice, her power, to advocate for the human rights and dignity of her Black sisters.
Even before that, as early as 1831, Maria Stewart, the first Black woman to speak on women rights issues in the United States, suggested through her public speeches that the moral wellbeing of Black girls and women must be the priority of local states, and of the Nation. In one her most prominent speeches, Stewart argued that we should “let our girls possess what amiable qualities of soul they may; let their characters be fair and spotless as innocence itself.” Stewart encouraged putting into place positive support systems, including customs and beliefs which reinforced respect and equality for all classes of women, safe and secure housing, educational opportunities, respectable employment without discrimination, and fair wages. Stewart used her reputation as a public advocate to platform the moral uplift of Black women as a national priority.
In this way, Ms. James is not the “first,” woman of color to hold such a position, at least not technically. Her historic “first” relates to her 2013 city-wide election to replace Mayor Bill De Blasio. Created in 1993, the Public Advocate’s office operates as a voice for New York City’s citizenry. Section 24 of the city charter created this office to provide oversight of city agencies, and to listen to and address citizen complaints about city shortcomings. The P.A. also serves on the committee to select the director of the independent budget office. While the office has existed in our City for the last 20 years, Ms. James joins a legacy of female public servants who for the last two centuries used their voices to advocate for the legal, social and moral uplift of Black women. And so, as we begin a new administration, I encourage Ms. James to honor her heritage, and its blessings, but to also to continue to maintain this voice for women.
Ms. James, it is your duty to ensure that our women have access to healthcare, employment, education and housing. This must be a priority from day one. Ms. James, I hope that you may present the urgency of ending domestic violence and violent crimes against Black women, namely rape and kidnapping. Ms. James, please use this moment to fight for the fair hiring of Black women in respectable jobs at excellent, fair pay, equal to their male counterparts. Please use your voice to give speeches signaling the intention of the City to prioritize the moral development of a key voting bloc and demographic. You have a proven record of getting the job done. Your outstanding work with the Legal Aid Society, and as an Assistant Attorney General for Brooklyn, ensured a champion for low income children and families. You’ve worked with the Civil Rights Division to address the NYPD’s policy on Stop and Frisk. You were an important player in the council’s passage of the Safe Housing Act (2007) which required accountability on the part of landlords to provide prompt and humane housing repairs. You also continue to fight for afterschool funding and services. This gives us high hopes about you.
Ms. James, I pray that you may be a voice for our young Black girls. I pray that you may be an advocate for Black women, for all women, regardless of class, sexuality, race or any other distinctive quality. This has to be the priority of your tenure and the test for which your legacy will be determined. Will you continue what your foremothers began of using voice to advocate a safer, healthier world for women? You are a product of Howard University, which I believe has done more if not the most to further the advancements of Black women in our world. I can name a few: Zora Neale Hurston, Toni Morrison, Dr. Tracey Walters. These fantastic Black women remembered why God gifted them with a voice; they remembered why they were chosen to become celebrity; they remembered why they were called to election. I mean this both in secular terms and also in spiritual terms.
Ms. James, your election is a God-given sign with a specific purpose. Your purpose in 2014 is to advocate for the voiceless, the poor, the suffering, the needy, and the vulnerable. As we jumpstart this new beginning, full of hope and moral courage, I encourage you to remember the women. Ms. James, remember our girls.
The author is a Grenada-born SUNY, Afrocentric educator and author.