Divided Loyalties: Feminism in the Black Community

On October 16, 1995, as the Million Man March in Washington, D.C., concluded, I participated in a panel discussion featuring, among others, feminist theorist bell hooks. Hooks had taken a sharply critical view of the march in a number of public appearances and writings in the weeks leading up to the event, but I was unprepared for the virulent hostility she expressed that day. The march, she declared, was a "celebration of fascist patriarchy," and that was that.In retrospect, I think hooks' combativeness was provoked by the intense criticism she had already endured from black activists for opposing the march. African-Americans across the political spectrum had embraced the event, and the few that dared to dissent publicly--including other prominent black feminists such as Angela Davis, Michele Wallace, Pearle Cleage, Kimberl Crenshaw, Barbara Ransby and Julianne Malveaux -- were bitterly ostracized for undermining black unity. Malveaux, an economist, columnist and radio commentator, wasn't just subject to verbal attacks. "My car was vandalized several times after I made some negative remarks about the Nation of Islam and [Minister Louis] Farrakhan," she recalls. "And for a while my phone calls were dominated by black men shouting personal insults."While feminism has never been very popular in the African-American community, its stock sank even lower in the wake of the march. "Ideological principle obliged us to oppose what was the largest demonstration by African-Americans ever in this country," Malveaux notes wryly. "It's one of those ironies of history."Black feminists have long been considered aliens in the black community. In addition to the challenge they pose to patriarchal religious traditions and institutions, they are seen by many blacks as more attuned to the interests of white women than to the struggle for black empowerment. As far as many political activists are concerned, feminism is an impediment to the more important struggle against racism; the role of black women is to aid and comfort black men as they fight white oppression.In her 1980 book, Black Macho and the Myth of the Superwoman, Michele Wallace aired some of the black liberation movement's dirty laundry, frankly detailing the sexism she encountered within the ranks of activists. She wrote of sexual coercion, flagrant exploitation of labor and physical brutality, all committed "in the name of the black revolution."Wallace's caustic expose, one of the seminal texts of modern black feminism, inspired a number of black feminists to deal more forthrightly with issues of gender discrimination within the black community. Academics Patricia Hill Collins, Paula Giddings, Hazel Carby and hooks, and popular writers Alice Walker, Ntozake Shange and Audre Lorde forcefully defended feminism as a liberating force in the black community, unleashing the potential of black women long imprisoned within the double walls of racism and sexism. They argued it would help counter the corroding excesses of what was a brutal patriarchy for far too many African-American women. Although black men share few of the fruits of society, they do benefit from some perquisites of patriarchal culture; thus, black feminists contend, those privileges have assumed an exaggerated significance at the expense of black women.At the same time, however, black feminists have felt some pressure to differentiate themselves from mainstream white feminism and even to soften their tone. Feminist arguments often sound shrill and coldly intellectual when compared to the warm religious undertones and communitarian imagery of black nationalism. It is just this contrast that led Alice Walker to coin the word "womanism." In contrast to the decadent connotations many blacks associate with the word feminism, Walker and other writers, such as Gayle Jones and Gloria Naylor, present womanism as more holistic, nurturing and concerned about the entire community. Womanists differentiate themselves from feminists by stressing organic connections to a related freedom struggle in the black community and by moderating the feminist critique of the nuclear family.One of the most sensitive issues facing black feminists is how to engage issues of sexual abuse and discrimination without merely adding to the demonization of black men in American society. For example, many blacks condemned Walker's Pulitzer Prize-winning epistolary novel, The Color Purple, for portraying black men so negatively."Feminist strategists seem to be especially enamored of African-American women writers who present Africana life though the favored feminist black-male-as-brute, black-woman-as-lesbian characterization," wrote Brenda Verner, the leader of a movement called Africana Womanism, in a 1995 critique of black feminism syndicated to black newspapers across the country. Verner is particularly contemptuous of black women who head feminist organizations. "These groups use the technique of choosing a black woman as leader to convince the public that their organization is nonracist," she said in a later interview. "And then they get black leaders to advise Africana women to support and promote do-it-yourself genocide through the mass abortion of black babies or join them in their fight for the latest issue on the feminist political or social agenda."Although most blacks who oppose feminist ideas do so less for ideological than for cultural reasons, Verner's views resonate among many nationalists and other activists. And she's far from alone in arguing that denunciations of patriarchal values are out of place in communities where unwed mothers and their children make up the bulk of the population. "These black feminists are criticizing exactly what most black women in many of our communities want: strong men," says Robert Starks, a professor of political science at Northeastern Illinois University's Center for Inner City Studies and a longtime advocate in Chicago's black community. "In the Robert Taylor Homes, for example, nearly 90 percent of the apartments are occupied by poor single women and their children. They desperately want patriarchy."Black feminist theorists counter that public policy designed to punish single mothers for their poverty, rather than help them escape it, is the primary reason for the wretched conditions of many low-income communities. Many feminist theorists lean to the political left and generally urge more government intervention in the areas of employment and vocational training. If more black men and women had jobs, they argue, there would be far fewer single-parent families.As vital as these issues are, the negative perception of black feminists has hampered their efforts to bring their message to the larger black community. In a large-scale study of black political attitudes completed in 1994, Michael Dawson, director of the University of Chicago Center for the Study of Race, Politics and Culture, found that nearly one-third of the African-Americans surveyed thought black feminism was dangerous to the black community.Dawson bemoans the black community's reluctance to come to grips with gender issues. "Black unity is not possible without the black community squarely addressing these issues and listening to voices that have too often been silenced," Dawson says. He is pessimistic, however, about the possibility of much change in that direction. As white Americans withdraw their support for programs and policies designed to redress the legacy of slavery and racism, blacks will likely continue to circle the wagons. "In such an embattled atmosphere, racial solidarity--not gender equality--is considered the primary value," he says.Black feminists identify black nationalism as the major source of opposition to their ideas. While they understand the acute identity crisis afflicting the descendants of enslaved Africans, they reject the answers that black nationalism offers. "Rather than seeing the development of multiple black subjectivity as a positive intervention within white supremacist capitalist patriarchy," hooks writes in Killing Rage, Ending Racism, many black folks attempt to establish "identity politics ... rooted in a vision of separatism."Hooks criticizes nationalism as an appeal for a "unitary representation of blackness," emphasizing "notions of authenticity that uphold a vision of patriarchal family life and nationhood as the only possible structure wherein the crisis in black identity can be resolved." By excluding women, the Million Man March reflected this view of nationalism.Barbara Ransby, too, assails the march and its underlying nationalist message, calling it a "romanticization of black patriarchy." "Simply reasserting the black male as the natural 'head' of the family will do little to better conditions for all black people," she says. Calls for African-Americans to scrutinize themselves as the cause of their problems, rather than examine government and corporate policy, is "family-values conservatism in blackface" and a step away from the needed progressive analysis.Although the Million Man March exacerbated the isolation of feminists within the African-American community, it also inspired some black feminists to intensify their struggle. Malveaux sees parallels between her opposition to the march and the stand that black feminists took during the 1991 confirmation hearings for Supreme Court nominee Clarence Thomas. Thomas was widely supported in the black community, and many African-Americans denounced Anita Hill, who accused Thomas of sexual harassment, for reviving old stereotypes of black men as sexually aggressive. But instead of being intimidated, black feminists entered the fray on Hill's side. More than 1,500 black women signed on as "African-American Women in Defense of Ourselves" in an ad that ran in the New York Times and elsewhere. In the wake of the Million Man March, black feminists are fearlessly steering their own course. "We are pretty much out of style in these post-march days," Ransby says. "But we'll be back, once the bankruptcy of this new black activism is revealed as the conservatism it really is."Ransby is part of a larger group of black intellectuals and organizers now mobilizing around progressive issues, including feminism. Her Chicago-based group, the Ida B. Wells Forum (named for the prominent 19th-century black anti-lynching advocate), is attempting to provide an alternative to the black nationalist ideas currently dominating the racial discourse. Manning Marable, prolific author and director of Columbia University's Institute for Research in African-American Studies, is gathering like minds in a New York-based group, coincidentally named the Ida B. Wells-Barnett/W.E.B. DuBois Network. Smaller, less celebrated collectives are sprouting up elsewhere to challenge nationalist hegemony.Black feminists are not simply marking time waiting for the political pendulum to swing back toward a progressive agenda. "The patriarchal fantasies of resurgent black nationalism are a good target," Malveaux says, "and I'm going to spend more time trying to hit it."

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