Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Black Feminist

Many moons ago, I knew this beautiful and intelligent black sister, Isis. In the midst of our political conversation, I remember telling her that I was a feminist. We were dating. No game, I was attempting to be honest, but I felt I was surely on the verge of that good end of a peck. Isis was no average woman. Before she turned 21, she was living on her own, already a leader, an entrepreneur, a real vegetarian --not that bullsh*t diet I was calling vegetarian, and was known for taking bold and mature stances in social and political circles. Even if she was sometimes flagrantly direct at times with brothers and sisters and almost two years younger than me, she was a vast oasis of political, scientific, and edible knowledge. It was an androgynous awakening, to see her slowly peel away at me, taking what I knew and throwing it to waste like a sculptor that transforms clay.

Discussions with her made listening very easy and palatable. Gazing upon her six-foot curvaceous body became more and more difficult during our summer conversations at her house. At times, discussions were so mentally nourishing, I often forgot what she looked like in deep conversations. I reminisce, she had brown eyes, voluptuous lips, long sweet-smelling locks, and an enveloping voice that had the softest whisper to one’s ear, except when that tongue would change tones in debates. She didn’t exude the characteristics of a stereotypically loud opinionated black sister, but was just as direct and bold when she wanted. She invited many interested brothers to organize in the community and challenged them just as she encouraged them. I never heard her utter a dirty word to a brother, but then she never received a bad word either.

Unimpressed by my declaration for women, she gave me the spare me look and said, “You’re a feminist?” I thought she was Venus Williams with a returning volley as she shattered my understanding of feminism. I thought to myself, isn’t that a good thing for women? Ain’t I futuristic? Ain’t I a noble man? I’m in touch with all things feminine?

But, what did I know about the history or truth about feminism? Well, from the college courses I took, feminism seemed to be about how women operated inside of a man’s world, recognizing how society and patriarchy made women the second sex and also the weaker sex. If I took it a step closer and examined what I pictured as feminist, I would say my historical heroine, Harriet Tubman, and my mother. Both women bore children and managed to work jobs that were traditionally only for men. Both were also members of organizations that were empowering for humanity, but especially, Black America. I guess this was why I considered myself a feminist. I recognized the contradictions within myself and throughout male society, but I respected the fact that women were not only leading to change their own conditions but the conditions for all humanity. Basically, I supported women.

As a strong admirer of Harriet Tubman, I truly don’t think another male could have done what Tubman did –let alone be willing to. With no payment and while being hunted down, she traveled two thousand miles for years to save people. Also, what shaped me were those public school films about Rosie the Riveter, the 1940’s, WWII’s symbolic heroine who transformed how women were viewed by government and industrialists in the workplace. I saw several old, black and white clips about many former housewives, happily entering the workforce for the military. That and a long history of violent confrontations with male peers and male authority would lead me to my feminist declaration. In my mind, I thought, what was I doing identifying with males? It all made sense to me; I’m a Black Male Feminist.

After an endearing smile, Isis snickered. She gently patronized my camaraderie and laid on me that she was not a feminist and neither was I. Ironically that sounded like a feminist posture at the time. With care, she stood across from me in her warm living-room hallway as if she was about to break into a monologue. Though interested, I had my coat nearby just in case this was her cold attempt at breaking ties with me. I couldn’t remember her exact speech word for word, but I’d never forget the context.

In short notice, she began: Feminism is historically white and was only engineered to help white women win economic equity in the U.S., which was dominated and ruled by white men at the time. White women wanted equality with white men and also wanted their power.

During the 17th and 18th centuries in America, patriarchy wasn’t merely a bad word among leftists, it was law. This patriarchy was a legal system which combined several laws in favor of men. Anything worth owning belonged to the white man and to a large extent, the wife as well. This of course, included land, chattel, and well, black slaves. This law can be easily defined as White Patriarchy, as patriarchy is not only in regards to lineage, but mainly defined by ownership, power and particularly, property. During this time, only white men were allowed to own any property. White men not only owned the black slaves, but he owned the house, the land the house was on and the people inside the house, namely, the children.


From the beginning of the U.S., white women endured years of second-class citizenship. In most cases, marrying a white man was the only way to protect the rights that a woman had under the Articles of Confederation. Women either stayed close by her father, married off quickly, or chose to become whores. The three options were thought to provide more security than going out in public alone and not being “spoken for”. Whores represented money to white pimps so they were protected in saloons and whorehouses -if even possible.

Married men were head of household and by American law, they was the law. White women were subject to a feudal-type of relationship. She was responsible for bearing and rearing children, managing the household, and doing all the duties necessary to maintain the land while under this union. In cases of divorce, at the very least, a wife was barred from her children and left without any sustainable resources, having been dependent upon her husband for years. This made divorces extremely rare and caused white women to put up with physical, sexual, and emotional abuse. The job market and society itself generally prevented most white women from working a range of positions. White men despised anyone who was in competition with their employment options. Besides, there was considerable work to be done at home.

Many white women began to see work as the quintessential ingredient for escaping their relationship at home. Work signaled some sought of refuge and independence.

The main strategy of white women obtaining their equality would become the campaign for women’s suffrage. Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton were two of the major pioneers in the struggle for women’s suffrage. These were true feminists. Feminism was going to bargain with the American patriarchal structure.
Elizabeth Cady Stanton & Susan B. Anthony

As white women saw it, this was the primary problem in society. If only women could be free to vote, then they would share some power and they could get better jobs and better wages after they left their husbands. It wasn’t until another woman came along by the name of Sojourner Truth, who reminded white women that their enslaved step-stools of the American population were also women. These women were actual property of their white husbands. They too were abused, emotionally, sexually, and physically but not so much by black men, instead, almost exclusively by white men. Enslaved black women would have given up their early hot cotton-picking mornings and afternoon floggings in return for a tight corset and some midday runs to the market. In the worst conditions suffered by white women, black women were made to be their buffer in society. Under slavery, feminism for black women was a non-issue. Harriet Tubman, a woman once abandoned by a philandering and thieving free black husband, suffered under white males as she toiled as a slave. She was constantly challenged and undermined during her rescue missions by the insecure black males she had risked her life to save and never did she consider herself a feminist. Even if Tubman was merely against using terms to identify her life’s struggles, she bravely sacrificed her life to lead women as well as men out of slavery and through the end of the Civil War. Although, Sojourner Truth is historically remembered for working with feminists, she never considered herself one either. The major contradictions of second class citizenship for blacks in society, even for a free black person were far too great to allow them to compare to any white person, even for a homeless white woman with a bad leg. Truth recognized that every white woman could get away with anything they wanted to against her and whomever she lived with, be it a woman or man.

Sojourner Truth
Feminism, like the segregation struggle of the 60’s is one of those words that have managed to travel into the lives of other cultures and races even when there are more blatant problems for the adopting group. As the word feminism reinvents itself, the history and purpose behind it dissolves into nothingness.

Prior to Europe’s gift of revelation that women were not equal partners to men, in precolonial African society as explained by Cheihk Anta Diop in his book Precolonial Black Africa, men inherited from women, the total opposite of patriarchy. The truth is that, the patriarchal system in America was and continues to operate entirely white. This is still the reality 500 years later. Patriarchy is not an idea prevalent in all societies. When patriarchy left Europe and traveled America and parts of Africa it was a white idea. The very same idea has been institutionalized in thousands of learning centers for hundreds of years. Tubman and Truth understood this.
an African (Yoruba) Matriarch
One could argue that black women are able to become feminists now since black women and black men are free from chattel slavery and they are afforded the same rights as whites under the constitution. The conditions that black women face everyday, every hour, even with their own counterparts, may now call for identifying as feminist.

Harriet Tubman
However, this is after we recognize that now we are changing feminism’s historical definition based more on black women’s partake in freedom. Because, black women are no longer chattel slaves or property to anyone they can now aspire to become feminists. There is an upgrade with this way of thinking. Even Sojourner Truth would reject the stamp of feminism to this day. Harriet Tubman would reject this form of thinking as well. Not only did Truth declare she was not on equal footing with white women at the time, but that she recognized her present contradictions. Tubman worked until she died, about 50 years before the Civil Rights Act was passed in 1964. While both women asserted themselves and checked men as they saw fit to, they saw contradictions far greater than feminism. It is operating in reality. Thus, in order to change the historical definition, and for clarity, all definitions derive from history, even their name--society would have to eliminate what we know as patriarchy. Interestingly, patriarchy that gives rise to feminism has not changed at all. 

A major element of patriarchy is physical strength. This is the foundation from which men rule. However, men were bigger and stronger in most cases in pre-colonial Africa, just as they were during American slavery and in today’s society. Nonetheless, stronger black men accepted that, most of the African societies were matriarchal. Physical strength did not create patriarchy in Africa.

Patriarchy is not only a system that aggressively places its hands on you, sexually mistreats you, and demeans you. It withholds resources from you, it obscures and defiles the accurate image of yourself and it institutionally steals your children. It limits your job options, and it attacks the less powerful males in your family.

The elements that makes patriarchy a powerful and manipulating structure becomes irrelevant when waving feminism at a black male, mostly because, black men do not own much of anything in American society. The black male trails economically to both black and white women, he is less educated and more unemployed than black or white women. The institutions that control all the resources place him at the mercy far more often than any other group in American society, including all women. Essentially, black males function under the system of patriarchy much like white women did and still do to a large extent.
The black male utilizes his physical brute strength to overpower women in society much like many of the examples in patriarchy. Yet, strength comes in other forms such as money, political power, military, and religious power of which he has none of.

White men don’t oppress and in micro-environments repress black women simply because they are females. They don’t create stereotypical images under white corporations of black women because they are female like that of “Aunt Jemima”. The images of loud, obnoxious, aggressive and overweight black women finger-waving in flicks are no more aimed at their sex than a stereotype filmed out of the same studio of black men acting like pimps on the corner selling dope pretending to be “Superfly”. This system of white patriarchy that allows white men to rule over all else is also capitalist and racist and these vile images of black women conjure up maids and women too exaggerated to be deemed as feminine.
Aunt Jemima advertisement
This is today’s contradiction and it is bigger than stealing feminism from white women or being forced to see Sojourner Truth as one, and then subsequently following this planted idea. Because, if a strong proud black woman is a feminist, then Truth should be branded one too.

A feminist or rather a white feminist wants to identify and be on equal footing with those in power and privilege. There was nothing in the vernacular of Elizabeth Cady Stanton that said she identified with those oppressed. To the contrary, feminism's heroine demanded that white men denounce and place to the wayside the black man’s calls for civil rights and recognize her sisters' rights. The feminist movement wanted a seat at the American table --the racist, capitalist, colonialist, and imperialist table. The term feminism is merely a brand of old-fashion American reformism, and therefore, the stance is politically liberal at best. 

So much has changed for white women in America that the cries of women empowerment are coming from women of color all over around the world. White feminists who haven't a cause of their own are occasionally assisting African and Arab women in countries of women oppression --an indicator that feminism doesn't make sense if one is not white. Quantum leap wage earnings and political clout for white women has helped pacify the real feminists. Although, still far behind white male wealth and power in America, white women have become content just being at the boardroom and able to capitalize off of capitalism. Liberation and the total dismantling of the white patriarchal power system was never on the feminist agenda. If it were, high incarceration rates among black women, centuries of negative black women images, and police killings of young girls and old women would be on the feminist agenda here in America.
Unfortunately, it is not so simple to conclude, but I can say with complete certainty, that I am not a feminist. 
Maybe, I’m simply a man who wishes to ally, defend and empower women or hoping that women would empower and utilize me as Isis did. If a woman feels compelled to call herself something other than feminism, let it be because of Isis, not this guy. 

Even if not part of this white patriarchal system, I like all men, exhibit a sexist and repressive nature as a man, maybe even within this article. I, in a small way, even if I declare I am not hetero-cisgender reinforce patriarchy in some way shape or form, simply because the patriarchal system exists at this moment. 

What I internalized from my time with Isis was that she was truly a gifted sister and my first mentor, feminist or not. If you ask me what she’s doing today, I’d say whatever women do when men aren’t around. I don’t pretend to know.

Omowale Adewale is the author of "An Introduction to Veganism & Agricultural Globalism" and executive director of Grassroots Artists MovEment (G.A.ME) and fighter.


Kim G said...

Eloquently put. It's always good to see the process of transforming one's point of view. Excellent research. Next topic, if I may request, expounding on the origin and examples of historical matriarchal societies. Continual Blessings Omowale!!!!!

momowilly said...

Peace! Well said!

When we recognize the context of these movements we see how they do not relate to us and we must construct our own movements that are inline with our specific needs and goals. Salute!