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Black Women Vs. ... Black Men
The following quote, taken from the book Shifting: The Double Lives of Black Women in America by Charisse Jones and Kumea Shorter-Gooden, Ph. D., is as painful as it is revealing:
"... the reality [is] that no matter how intelligent, competent, and dazzling she may be, a Black woman in our country today still cannot count on being understood and embraced by mainstream white America." (p. 2)
The quote is a revelation because, by all accounts, it appears that Black women are everywhere. One would assume that Black women are finally being extolled in numerous ways instead of always being demoralized and chided unfairly.
Michelle Obama, the First Lady of the United States, is cheered for her fashion and elegance, as well as her Let's Move campaign to combat childhood obesity. Oprah Winfrey has transformed from a talk show host to a billionaire mogul who runs a network. Tulane University professor Melissa Harris-Perry, Ph. D., hosts a self-titled weekend morning show on MSNBC. A majority of the degrees conferred to Black graduates from colleges and universities all over the country will go to Black women. These times would strike one as a renaissance for Black women. Years, even centuries, of hard work and sacrifice are finally paying off. Black women are at long last receiving praise and attention equal to that of their White counterparts.
Then I glance at the quote again. The pain of those words comes rushing back. I hear, mostly from right-wing talking heads, that Michelle Obama is nothing more than an uppity, elitist Black woman who doesn't know her place. Both Winfrey and Harris-Perry have been attacked for their positions on various topics. Black women with advanced degrees are warned and constantly reminded of their odds of their getting married are slim to none.
It never fails; as Black women power ahead, we are faced with an abundance of harsh and mean-spirited criticism. No matter what Black women accomplish, no matter how well Black women maneuver around the impediments placed before them, there is always the danger that we will be reduced to tasteless and inaccurate caricatures; treated as invisible; or determined to be inferior. Black men, who I thought would be most in the corner of Black women, have become the most vocal of those who attack Black women. The love, support, and advocacy that Black women have selflessly offered to Black men has never been returned. In other words, Black men have not returned all of the work and generosity that Black women have given them.
Politics and Relationships: Black Men's Attitudes toward Black Women in the Dating and Political Fields
In terms of dating and relationships, Black men are dreadfully harsh and stringent in their assessment of what Black women are doing wrong. In Sister Citizen: Shame, Stereotypes, and Black Women in America, author and professor Melissa Harris-Perry explains what the advice to Black women sounds like, then artfully manages to expose the faults inherent within such advice:
"It [A Nightline special titled, "Why Can't a Successful Black Woman Find a Man?", which aired 9 April 2010] began with the assumption that marriage is an appropriate and universal goal for women and that any failure to achieve it must therefore be pathological. Panelists were encouraged to offer solutions without needing to articulate exactly why low marriage rates are so troubling. Furthermore, given the distortions or absence of black women in most mainstream media outlets, I am skeptical that the Nightline special was motivated primarily by a desire to address the needs of African American. More likely, marriage is a trope for other anxieties about respectability, economic stability, and the maintenance of patriarchy. Which social issue appears on the agenda is never accidental. In this moment of economic crisis, social change, and racial transformation, black women are being encouraged to embrace traditional models of family and to view themselves as deficient if their lives do not fit neatly into these prescribed roles." (p. 291)
Not only has the mainstream labeled Black women as pathological, Black men have taken up the accusation. Rather than recognizing that not all women (or men, for that matter) wish to get married, the panelists involved with the show have categorized Black women as the problem. The Nightline special was but another example of how Black women are held responsible for the demise of the Black community.
No reason was given as to why marriage was so important, other than to blame Black women for such low marriage rates, or humiliate them for not adhering to the standards set before them. The dating and sexual habits of Black women are only considered and discussed whey they fail to reflect the desires of the outside society. The discussion on Nightline regarding marriage is more likely a way to encourage Black women to be more tolerant of patriarchy and more traditional in their behavior, instead of a platform to explore why marriage has fallen out of favor. Just like White feminists who, when faced with challenges to their race and class privilege return to white supremacy, Black men, when faced with threats to their male privilege, retreat into patriarchy.
Dating and relationships aren't the only areas where Black women are blasted and criticized. In political struggle, Black women are forced into the background, as Melissa Harris-Perry spells out in Sister Citizen:
"Wallace [Michelle Wallace in her book, Black Macho and the Myth of the Superwoman] argues that black male political leaders were also invested in framing black women as unnaturally aggressive and independent. Doing so allowed African American political organizations led by black men to ignore feminist challenges to their political agendas and to suppress black women's ambitions for political leadership. Black nationalist organizations nurtured oppositional racial politics while maintaining gendered inequality. Even as black men railed against the emasculated findings of the Moynihan report, they colluded with its assertion that black families and communities can be healthy and strong only when black women assume as subordinate role and allow black men to lead." (p. 94)
Though political leaders were invested in changing the circumstances of African Americans, the males leading the movement relied upon outdated stereotypes of Black women to keep them quiet and maintain their status as the only people competent enough to be leaders.
By silencing Black women, Black men managed to keep the spotlight on their plight and away from the gendered inequality they perpetuated within the Black community. Inequality was deemed unacceptable when they faced it as Black men; however, inequality faced by Black women was considered normal, even natural. Undergirding the belief that Black women should stay in the background is the idea that the way to heal and advance the community is to return to patriarchal ways of thinking and being. Any challenge to this belief had to be silenced, and if that meant using the Moynihan report, so be it.
The criticism aimed at Black women from Black men is really just a response to changes and transformation, or a way to maintain the attention or keep the attention on Black men. It doesn't make what is said less painful, but it reveals that Black men are invested in patriarchy and male privilege, even if it means denigrating the women who have advocated for them the most.
Patriarchy: A Resilient and Steadfast Opponent
Speaking of patriarchy, the disinclination of Black men to rid themselves of this way of thinking and behaving is detrimental to Black progress. When black women are shut out of the political process; are ignored when they question Black patriarchy on feminist grounds; or, are only allowed to participate as subordinates to men, no improvement can be made in the overall condition of Black folks. bell hooks, in her essay "Challenging Sexism in Black Life", from the book Killing Rage: Ending Racism, articulates how detrimental patriarchy is to Black progress:
"I find myself continually restating in essays about feminism and blackness that one of the major barriers impeding our capacity as black people to collectively challenge sexism and sexist oppression is the continued equation of black liberation with the development of black patriarchy. In this essay, I want to extend this critique to suggest that our efforts to create renewed black liberation struggle are seriously impeded by the fact that in diverse black settings the assumption prevails that we need only listen to patriarchy men, that our very capacity to move forward as a people depends on strong black male leadership. It not only leads to the complete dismissal of black female feminist voices which could offer necessary guidance and direction, it also promotes and encourages folks to uncritically accept that black males who act like "powerful patriarchs" are the only bringers of necessary knowledge." (p. 63-64)
Feminism is still very scary to a lot of Black people, who feel that only Black men should participate in politics and the fight for liberation.
Patriarchy is seen as the solution, not the problem. The very system that has deemed Black men as unworthy of manhood, that has used Black men's manhood (both literally and figuratively) for profit, has somehow become the only saving grace of a community under attack. How did this happen?! Patriarchy saves no one; it is a system that destroys all that it touches, men and women alike. Putting Black women in a subordinate position does more harm than good. Feminism is not the enemy, but an actual solution to what ails us.
If in patriarchy was seen as a solution in the planning stages of the black liberation struggle, then after civil rights were thought to have been won, Black men became even more hostile to Black women. In the same essay from which the previous quote was taken, "Challenging Sexism", hooks states:
"Once the struggle was perceived as won (i.e., that black people had gained equal rights) then one assertion of our new freedom was to make the mainstream socialization about gender roles the norm in black life. In the age of integration, black men asserted masculinist subjectivity not by vigilantly challenging white supremacy but by first insisting on the subordination of women, particularly black women. Suddenly, black men who would never have access to jobs within this capitalist framework that would allow them to provide for families could still feel themselves to me "men". Manhood had been redefined. Manhood was not providing and protecting; it was proved by one's capacity to coerce, control, dominate.
This contemporary shift, more than any other, created a crisis in black life that remains unresolved. Unprecedented tension and hostility surfaced between black women and men. Many black women believe that this crisis would be resolved if black males would assume the role of benevolent patriarch -- protectors and providers. Socialized by democratic fantasies that there is work for all, they do not see mass black male unemployment or underemployment as necessary for the maintenance of our current economic system, and do not see that there will never be a day when all black men who want to can work and provide families. Many black males and even some black females believe the crisis would be resolved if black women would simply assume a subordinate status irrespective of whether black males worked or not." (p.66)
As stated in the quote, in order to show that they were "free" and "equal" to White men, Black men began to trample on Black women. How free can one possibly be if they only imitate existing power structures? The answer: not very.
The opportunity to truly redefine manhood, to define it as unique to every individual man but also define it away from White concepts of manhood, was lost. Black men soon imitated the oppressors and acted out this oppression on Black women. Blinded by our devotion to Black men, some Black women have also bought into patriarchy and the belief that Black women need to step aside. These few women validate the domination and abuse of Black women by Black men. It is as if one person counted as the majority. It has only taken a few Black women to validate the feelings of patriarchal Black men to believe that it is okay to oppress, subordinate, coerce, and abuse Black women. This has dangerous consequences for Black women. [SEE: CDC link after this capsule.]
All that has been said leads to this final quote also taken from hooks' essay:
"The assumption that black patriarchy would redeem the race, solve all our problems, is pure fantasy." (p. 66-67)
I don't think there is much else for me to say. hooks captures and names the fundamental problem in a much more elegant and crisp way than I could ever dream.
What I can say is that I have always found fault with the assumption that Black men should be the only ones allowed to speak, lead, set the agenda, and act on behalf of the community. I grew up with strong women as leaders, protectors, providers, and mentors, and have seen for myself how powerful and persuasive Black women can be when they step into a leadership role. To allow only Black men -- many of whom could care less about women; are unemployed with no intention of working; or, are willfully ignorant -- is more than disrespectful to me. It is disrespectful to the Black women who raised me, the Black woman that I am, and the Black women who so selflessly advocated for Black men and spoke to their humanity when no one else would.
I didn't always have the words to express my discomfort with this sudden emphasis on patriarchy, or the push backward toward "tradition" and forced heteronormativity. Now that I am able to speak out against this unfortunate phenomenon, I don't plan to ever back down and play dependent to patriarchal Black men.
The desire to dominate within a liberation movement is more hypocritical than rallying against prostitution and then being caught in a brothel. If one needs to dominate a movement, the way Black men appear to need to dominate the Black liberation movement, they need to check themselves. If one desires to dominate a liberation movement and seeks to subordinate another person, in the same way that Black men need to subordinate and dismiss Black women, then they need to have several seats and check themselves as thoroughly as a doctor screens a person for insurance coverage. Black men need to really examine why they are in the liberation movement in the first place if the end result looks like Black patriarchy. In other words, are Black men trying to liberate all of the community, or is this just a power grab so that they may imitate the oppressors and maybe gain parity with White supremacy?
HIV among African Americans fact sheet.
Black men... I just don't know anymore.
I would never have thought that the one group of people who should have my back would be so critical, offering unwarranted criticism and mean-spirited advice to Black women. I never would have thought that Black men would be the ones to make me feel so ugly.
I believed that Black men and women were in the struggle for liberation together. However, now I can see that Black men only want to share power with White men and maintain patriarchy, even if that means stepping on the backs of Black women and demanding that we be quiet about it.
All that I know is that I can no longer keep offering support to Black men who want only to silence me and ignore my unique experiences. My days of being a Black man's footstool, punching bag, and welcome mat are done.
Harris-Perry, Melissa. Sister Citizen: Shame, Stereotypes and Black Women in America. New Haven: Yale, 2011. pp. 94, 291
hooks, bell. "Challenging Sexism in Black Life." Killing Rage: Ending Racism. New York: Holt, 1995. pp. 63-64, 66, 66-67.
Jones, Charisse and Kumea Shorter-Gooden, Ph.D. Shifting: The Double Lives of Black Women in America. New York: Perennial, 2003. p. 2.