“No other group in America has so had their identity socialized out of existence as have black women… When black people are talked about the focus tends to be on black men; and when women are talked about the focus tends to be on white women.”
― Bell Hooks
Over fourty thousand women were estimated to die this year alone from breast cancer according to the CDC and Breastcancer.org. About one in eight women will develop invasive breast cancer. Of those who develop breast cancer, black and white women get it at about the same rates, yet there are limited images of black women breast cancer survivors and their scars. After Ericka Hart had a double mastectomy due to her bilateral breast cancer it took her plastic surgeon two weeks to be able to find one image of a black woman who had reconstructive surgery. Ericka wanted to see what the scars would look like on a black woman like herself before moving forward with the surgery and was disturbed to find her likeness was unrepresented.
Ericka Hart’s mother died of breast cancer at the young age of 38 which doubled her risk of being diagnosed. By age 28 Ericka discovered a lump in her breast and was later diagnosed with bilateral breast cancer. Considering her mother passed from breast cancer and black women are statistically more likely to die from breast cancer the fact that there was no representation struck Ericka. Soon after she began using her body as a tool to shift the systems in place.
“…and that visibility which makes us most vulnerable is that which also is the source of our greatest strength.”
― Audre Lorde
In 2016 Ericka went to Afropunk Fest in Brooklyn. After seeing a topless man she decided to bear her breasts in what she called “topless activism.” She was able to begin to shift the dialogue around breast cancer. Part of her mission was to give visibility to other women of color, showing them that they are not alone in their diagnoses and to give them an example of what the scars could look like. Survivors of breast cancer who went through the same procedures Ericka did have since reached out to her to thank her for the much needed representation since they too searched tirelessly for photos of a woman of color post, reconstructive surgery.
But not without ableist commentary, “Now, taking my top off to show my scarred breasts in an attempt make a difference is wrapped up in how I manage to ‘be comfortable’ or ‘love my body’ to the extent that I would have the audacity to show it. What’s bigger to me than loving myself is making a difference.” Ericka stated in a post on Instagram, “I’m using my body as a tool to shift systems on behalf of black liberation and sexual liberation and freedom from gender oppression.” she continued.
Since her activism at Afropunk she has created a large platform for herself on social media. She has also been invited to speak all across the country and has been featured everywhere from Cosmopolitan to Viceland speaking to the much needed shift in conventional beauty standards, attitudes towards chronic illness and disability and the intersections of race and gender within these dynamics. “Conventionally pretty people are never asked how they deal with body image, it’s just assumed they love their bodies. They are beautiful after all, so why wouldn’t they love themselves like we, the world — legitimately and reasonably inside of white supremacy — do? So then the question is always posed to someone who lives on the margins of conventional beauty.” Ericka very candidly said via her Instagram.
“that reproductive liberty is essential to women’s political and social citizenship.”
― Dorothy Roberts
Before her recent topless activism Ericka has worked as a sex educator for elementary through high school kids for 10 years and is now a professor at Widener University as part of their Human Sexuality program. “In high school, I used to run around and answer my friends’ questions with AOL dial up trying to be the person that’s gonna answer questions about sex and sexuality that no one else was answering.” Ericka told us. “I was just being there for them.” Something that the abstinence-only-until-marriage (AOUM) programs have been lousy at.
A study done just last year by the Society for Adolescent Health and Medicine along with researchers from several universities called AOUMs consistently “a failure.” Not only do they not deter teens from having sex but they receive millions of dollars in funding that could be spent on actual education, they reinforce harmful gender stereotypes, ignore LGBTQIA people completely and are particularly harmful to those who have experienced sexual abuse. Ericka’s classes help children to understand everything from bodily autonomy and consent, sexual anatomy, the gender spectrum, puberty and of course, where babies come from— in a way that includes the intersections of race, gender, ability and class. “teaching to young people is super important.” Ericka explains.
Though this is a start, Ericka believes that often this curriculum is taught later than it should. “These things could be normalized for them at very young ages. A conversation around consent could happen at as young as four, where you have the concepts of that you shouldn’t touch other people when they don’t wanna be touched, and you don’t have to accept a hug from anyone if you don’t want a hug. In high school there’s already lots of ideas that have already been formulated… So now I have to undo it. Starting young, you give them the tools”
Not only does Ericka’s teaching strategies give children the tools they need but the parents and faculty as well. “All of my classrooms are gender neutral. Sometimes a school will be like, ‘We want them to be separated.’ No, gender isn’t binary, so we can’t separate them, and if I teach that it’s not binary while they’re separate, it won’t make any sense. And you have trans and gender non-conforming students at the school. I can’t separate students inside of a binary.” From the gender spectrum to sexuality, Ericka— a proud queer non-binary femme herself— champions acceptance. “A lot of times parents don’t want their youths to know about queer identity for fear that they’ll become queer, and I always just reassure parents, ‘They’re gonna be queer whether I teach them this or not. And it’s important that we not shame them.’”
I’m for truth, no matter who tells it. I’m for justice, no matter who it’s for or against.
— Malcolm X
Ericka’s work is focused on dismantling systems that have prioritized some while leaving many of us rejecting our very existence, and disrupting those toxic norms through resistance. “I just wanna see some accountability, some consequence to people’s behavior. Because perhaps if there was some sort of consequence it would stop. But if people can just do whatever they want and be harmful and then say sorry, then why would there be any consequence to anything.” Ericka expressed, going on to explain how performative activism has created a space of non-action. “We’ve kind of bought into this space of, ‘Oh, I could create a hashtag, and if it goes viral that means I did something.’” When in fact there was no measurable change, and the party being protested did not even acknowledge the “protest.” “Resistance looks like disrupting a space even one that I like.” Ericka insisted.
Ericka Hart’s Recommended Reading
Aint I a Woman by Bell Hooks
Uses of The Erotic by Audrey Lorde
The Autobiography of Malcom X by Malcom X
Killing The Black Body by Dorothy E. Roberts
Medical Apartheid by Harriet A. Washington