Therese Patricia Okoumou in front of federal court after her arraignment (whole video at NBC New York)

On July 4, naturalized citizen Therese Patricia Okoumou climbs up the Statue of Liberty, which was once a deep brown and has now, due to time and weather, turned into the color of money. After protesting the detention of immigrant children with the organization Rise and Resist on the island, she made the choice to scale the statue, carrying the emotional weight of the lives of her fellow immigrants, some of whom are unable to fight for themselves, on her back.

In the drive for more intersectionality in feminist movements, there is a need to show up and show our faces for the causes we hold dear. As a woman of color, I acknowledge that facing poorer health and economic outcomes cause my sisters  and me to make hard choices with limited resources. The leaders of the Black Lives Matter or #MeToo movements shouldn’t surprise us; Black women can make decisions and have agency. In larger society, we are practically invisible outside of being the help, so we have to learn to see ourselves.

Recent events have convinced me that our relative invisibility in the eyes of society is in fact a superpower that women of color can either choose to use or not. And those who have the volition to act on the behalf of themselves as well as others — like Okoumou, Auntie Maxine, or Bree Newsome — are superheroes.

We women of color are uniquely placed to see the world in a harsher way than most others. Those who want to speak out on it have found the extraordinary strength to do so in effective, significant ways. While out of sight, we are granted the space to bring our ideas for freedom and justice out in the open, right when it’s far too late to stop us. Invisible while serving the rich, poorer women of color tend to see all of the dirty laundry, weak spots, and disadvantages, simply because no one really feels that we are important enough to notice. We’re the help. The security guard by the door. The descendants of slaves, or share ancestry with those who are. The one who cleans up afterwards, fired first, hired last.

Okoumou is, by profession, a freelance physical therapist, a job that pays well, but it is a job that makes her and those in similar support positions more likely to be harassed by her clients, where a sense of compassion can be used against her. No one really talks about the labor violations that freelance workers face in the workplace, especially those who are female, foreign, and of color. They are, once again, invisible to the wider lenses of society and pop culture. During her time here in the United States, Okoumou has had mixed results with fighting for her own rights — filing three lawsuits against employers for racial discrimination. I believe these events have given her the experience and the courage to speak truth to power, and to stand strong despite the results.

In one Instagram post by @dopeblackness, some Black women have said things such as “Black Women, stop being martyrs, unless it’s for other Black women. It will never be returned.” Unfortunately, that point of view has been proven true time and again, most recently with the slow support that BLM has gotten in the higher branches of government. However, I cannot imagine how any Black woman — who carries the generational trauma of having children forcibly taken away and sold far away — could truly stay indifferent. I can’t understand the people who don’t realize that there are those of African descent, from Latin America and the continent, facing this horror, too. And it’s only fitting that it was a Black Woman from Africa, whose migrants drown in the Mediterranean half the world away on a regular basis, who decided to stand up. Maybe she advocated for the rights of these children because indifference is simply unthinkable.

Okoumou has received widespread support for her brave actions, notably by other Black women. BadNewsWomen, a social media blog run by artist Elizabeth Axman, posted a screenshot of a tweet by @TheNYCFilmChick, saying, “My Girl is perched on the STATUE. OF. LIBERTY. Pink sneakers, legs crossed, giving the side eye…Black women are amazing.” Another artist, Sienna Shields, has offered to send art to those who donate to her legal fund in her private Instagram feed, reposted on my timeline. Besides being a performance of protest, her presence there, alongside the Statue of Liberty, was a rallying cry, feeding our spirits. And she didn’t just do it for the children — she was also representing herself and her right to self-expression.

Okoumou, who is the kind of woman our society refuses to give a voice, revealed herself and her power to stand up to the Statue of Liberty. She is my hero.

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Lyric Prince

Lyric Prince is an artist and writer by way of lapsed academic. Her interests include researching the complex relationship of modern social justice movements to social media, as well as art and culture...

11 replies on “Watching Okoumou’s Heroic Climb Up the Statue of Liberty”

    1. At first, I thought the caption at the bottom was spoofed, just like the logo. Reality really is getting stranger than fiction!

      1. I created the two lines of captioned text at the bottom. It is true that the GOP Senators were in Moscow at that time, and it is likely they dined on caviar and vodka. So perhaps it is true.

        1. I stand corrected. I searched the words on google and they showed up together, so I presumed that it was a true part of the image.

          And maybe something doesn’t have to be real in order for it to tell the truth.

          1. The screen capture is real, and perhaps it is not my place to piggyback my text message on Therese Patricia Okoumou’s direct action.

          2. I understand. Also, I appreciate the fact that you showed your ideas in a relevant way. The contents of the sentence, for me, was in this uncanny valley, and combined with the look and feel of an actual CNN screen, it shook up what I thought and what I felt. Stuff like this happens, on a more subtle level, with propaganda packaged as news every day.

            Also, when I think of the great lengths that people like Okoumou are willing to go to keep attention on these kids, I feel grateful. I wonder what soothing tales we will tell the children of these children when they grow up. Will teachers try to alter the captions then, too?

          3. I never thought of the “uncanny valley” in this sort of context, but it works well. That’s the problem. Troll and bots are pushing fake news that is also within that uncanny valley, nobody knows if it is really true, but it seems as true as anything else. I don’t know if it’s really a good idea to mimic the tools of disinformation and bring the dialog down to their level.

          4. I agree with your last sentence. For example, we would talk about the Declaration of Independence in grade school history class along with the high ideals of freedom and the Enlightenment that inspired it. I didn’t, nor did most other people, find out about its author’s predilection for slave concubines until much later- and I didn’t know until last week that it contained the word “savages” as a description of Natives. That’s the kind of “soothing” I meant.

            Questions: what kind of lessons can we learn from history, if they are based on lies or half truths? Why should we do to keep false lessons from kids in the future? How can we protect our kids, immigrant or not, from lies right now?

  1. While the issues are righteous, this article is nothing but a stew of overstated nonsense, badly written (thought out) and without a point.

    1. So, the confusion you feel may be because I didn’t really write this with you (stated demographic of white, male, and 75) in mind. This was written for Black women, younger, who may be wondering about the reasons why Okoumou did what she did for children seemingly unrelated to her. I mean no disrespect, but maybe you weren’t meant to see the point, because you may not have the perspective to see it.

      And it’s a shame that you are unwilling to elaborate your point in making this comment- I would welcome the chance to hear what your thoughts are on how these issues (that of child welfare, immigration, women and minority rights) converge or diverge. Is it too ambitious to talk about how intersectional this protest performance was? What do you suggest as a more meaningful way of dissecting the meaning of what she did?

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