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At Black New England Conference, A Focus On The Power Of Female Resistance


The oppression of Black Americans has always been, to a certain extent, physical. Slavery, segregation and police violence represent just a few of the ways society has regulated Black bodies to maintain white dominance.

This weekend at the Black New England Conference, panelists will gather for a discussion on how women's resistance to this kind of oppression engages both body and spirit. Courtney Marshall, teacher at Phillips Exeter Academy, is one of the panelists and she spoke this week with NHPR's Peter Biello.

Peter Biello: So let's start by unpacking this concept for those who might not be familiar with it: the concept of Black bodies moving through white-dominated spaces. Since you're speaking on a panel about how Black women, in particular, move through a white male dominated space, what does that mean? What spaces are you referring to?

Courtney Marshall: Wow, that's good. So my paper is specifically about fitness, but it's about walking. So I am a group exercise instructor and I've been leading this kind of Black feminist fitness project for a few years. And so when I think about the space, I mean, in one sense I am thinking about like the gym as a space. But I think for this session in particular, it's more about Black women moving through spaces, through spaces where they might have been criminalized before for walking.

So I'm thinking about, I'm researching these vagrancy laws that come up after the Civil War around like unlawful assembly. And if Black people didn't look like they were at work, they were just kind of milling about, that could be something that they could be arrested or imprisoned for. So I'm kind of linking that type of criminalization of just movement to moments where Black people have used walking itself as a form of resistance. So everything from, say, you know, walking from the south to the north, right? For freedom and antebellum days to the Montgomery bus boycott. So I'm kind of looking at how walking has been used for these resistance purposes.

Peter Biello: And when we think about those examples you mentioned of walking, we don't think of them as necessarily done for fitness, more for the way of social justice and creating political change. But why is the fitness aspect important to you?

Courtney Marshall: Well, it's because a lot of the kind of the narrative around fitness in our culture is one that leaves Black women out, right? So when we see stories about Black women and fitness, it is usually about their hair, our hair, and Black women don't go to the gym because of hair. Or it's about the lack of Black fitness instructors. I think about work that has been done around Pilates, for example, or yoga. There are prominent Black women in those fields who talk about the dearth of representation, the ways it's difficult to become instructors and in those areas.

And so I wanted to challenge this narrative that Black people don't think about fitness or Black people don't think about exercise, because the activities they do don't look like fitness. So I was really thinking about how might we take these activities that have, again, been these sources of, as you said, social justice, but also community building, health advocacy and make those be important to discussions about fitness.

Peter Biello: Can you talk a little bit about Girl Trek and the Associated Black History boot camp?

Courtney Marshall: Yes. So Girl Trek is an organization that in their founding, so they say they want to have a health movement of Black women and girls who are using walking campaigns. They have really cool playlists that you can listen to, different meditations that you can do. And what they do is they have these campaigns. And so every day, and I've been a part of them, every day, your walking in the spirit of, you know, Ella Baker or Fannie Lou Hamer, and you learn something about that person. And that's connected to the community that is being built through the walking, as well as the education that you're getting about that person.

So Girl Trek has been just a phenomenal group for making the discussion about walking be something that everyone can join in. So the fact they find an activity that they say you don't have to leave your community, you don't have to get in the car and go and go away, you can get a group of people and you can walk right in your own neighborhood. And keeping it keeping it local, I think is just a wonderful thing that they've done.

Peter Biello: And we're speaking about this one day after we learned of one indictment in Louisville, Kentucky, related to the raid that led to the killing of Breonna Taylor. No charges for any of the officers who actually shot her, however. I imagine at a conference dedicated to Black women, the fate of Miss Taylor will be on many people's minds this weekend.

Courtney Marshall: Yes, I think so. And for my particular interests around walking, I think about how before the announcement of what was going to happen there in Kentucky, you know, movement was curtailed, right? So you do a state of emergency, or when acts of social uprising happen, it comes with curfew and it comes with barricades. So there's this criminalization of walking, of being together with people and moving through space. Whether you're singing, holding signs, throwing rocks, those are all different.

But the mere fact of people coming together, and walking together and being together in that way, the fact that that is such a healing thing, I think, for folks to do. Of course, knowing that we don't want to be ableist. We don't want to assume that everybody can do that. But that to me is really important. If that became more of the issue, like what are people going to do afterwards? How how are they going to take up public space? So I imagine it's going to be a very, very, as you said, very heavily weighting on people's hearts.

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