Thursday, December 20, 2007

Zora Says: Ain't I a Woman?

That man over there says that women need to be helped into carriages, and lifted over ditches, and to have the best place everywhere. Nobody ever helps me into carriages, or over mud-puddles, or gives me any best place! And ain't I a woman? Look at me! Look at my arm! I have ploughed and planted, and gathered into barns, and no man could head me! And ain't I a woman? I could work as much and eat as much as a man - when I could get it - and bear the lash as well! And ain't I a woman? I have borne thirteen children, and seen most all sold off to slavery, and when I cried out with my mother's grief, none but Jesus heard me! And ain't I a woman?
-- Sojourner Truth at the Women’s Convention in Akron, Ohio 1851

Ain’t I a Woman? When Sojourner Truth asked this question in 1851, I doubt that she would have expected it to still be relevant over a century and a half later. Within the African-American community, it is easy for us to identify white privilege. We all know that white people will never understand the sense of powerlessness that comes with “driving while black;” that they will never understand that no matter how hard we work and how many degrees we earn, African-Americans are still measured against the lowest element in our community; that they will never acknowledge that they can be mediocre at best and still find success, but that African-Americans have to be the best in order to be acknowledge as simply adequate. The privileges of whiteness are real and indisputable.

What is more difficult for us to identify as a community are the privileges of masculinity. For decades and decades, African-American women have been asked to set aside gender issues in order not to detract from the “larger” struggles of race. Those who have not have been labeled as self-centered, as race traitors, as pawns of white women … From our earliest history in this country, our bodies and our sexuality have never been broadly accepted as our own. As a result, not only are African-American women not respected by mainstream society, we are also not fully respected within our own communities.

Over our history, African-American women have been molested, raped, beaten and kidnapped without so much as a whisper in the mainstream newspapers. There have been several recent cases where accomplished young, African-American women have disappeared with no public alerts. Only God knows if, given adequate news coverage and police man power, they could have been returned home to their families. Even mainstream journalists acknowledge this problem. One of the reasons why we fail to receive the coverage that white women receive is that we don’t have the privilege of being victims. Whatever happens to us as African-American women is our own damn fault: If one of our little sisters is molested, how often is she accused of being “fast?” If one of us is date-raped and reports the crime, how likely will we be charged with being “stupid in the first place” or, if the man is rich and famous, a “gold-digging whore?” If someone raises a hand to us, how often do others wonder what we did to deserve it? No, in America, only white, virtuous maidens have the privilege of being victims. For African-American women, we simply need to “get over it;” for we are not worthy of the same outrage and respect.

Brother Gordon argues that bringing attention to African-American female crime victims serves to further exploit them and undermine their worth. I am grateful that Ida B. Wells-Barnett did not share a similar sentiment. She knew that unless the entire world was confronted with the knowledge that African-Americans were being regularly victimized with lynchings, strange fruit would continue to swing from trees across America. Mamie Till, in all of her grief, would not allow herself to be silenced when her son was brutally murdered. She demonstrated courage and self-sacrifice in allowing her son’s battered body to serve as a testament to white brutality. Martin Luther King, Jr., too, understood the power of the media and the need to publicize injustice. (Let us not forget that many whites accused him of being self-serving, of playing the victim). I refer to these figures not to suggest that McCauley is in their league, but merely to suggest that sometimes a crime or injustice is a part of a phenomenon and is larger than one individual – that it can reflect, implicate and impact entire communities. When this is true, privacy and individualism only serve to hide and support the crime. Is Brother Gordon suggesting that civil rights injustices could have better been addressed with more positive images? Were Wells, Till and King "media circus-driven race crusaders?"

Sexual and physical abuse are real problems in the African-American community -- problems that a lot of folks prefer not to address for fear that we will look bad. What they fail to realize is that we look much worse by failing to be honest about the problem and not taking steps to address it. (Saudi Arabia is a good example of this: its not that it’s the only country where rapes occur, but it is one of the few countries that so steadfastly ignore it and choose to instead isolate and blame the victims). How can we address difficult problems if we do not look them squarely in the face? By putting forward only positive images, we create a false narrative that the problem doesn’t exist.

In discussing the problems of rape and physical abuse, we cannot diminish the role of popular culture and media imagery. African-American males, in both the professional and working class, know full well the impact of persistent stereotypes that affect their day-to-day experiences and larger life chances. African-American men are less likely to be selected as teaching and research assistants in graduate schools because of irrational fears stemming from media stereotypes. The growth in gangsta glorification in hip-hop, urban films, ghetto lit and reality shows is having an enormous impact not just on white perceptions of us, but unfortunately also on young, black men's own perception of themselves. Popular culture and the media have a huge impact on our lived experiences and on how we perceive the world … this is why the entertainment industry is one of the most lucrative areas of our economy … why politicians invest so much in campaign ads … why Rupert Murdock is one of the most powerful men in America.

I know that you know all of this Gordon, and that you have thought about it. For this reason, I cannot understand why you are so quick to dismiss how negative images can and do affect the lived experiences of African-American women – especially when there is very little positive balance. African-American women constantly have to battle the idea that they are whores and that their bodies are accessible to everyone (that is when they are not perceived as sexless maids). It is already terrible that whites often perceive us this way, but it is even more terrible that increasingly black men are seeing us this way.

As a community, we are increasingly internalizing the idea that African-American women are unworthy of respect. I remember hearing Louis Farrakhan give a speech at Columbia University in the 1990s. He lamented that black women used to be referred to as the Supremes, the Dolls and the Royalettes, but that now some of us ask to be called Bitches With Problems. I was surprised when I listened closely to Jay-Z's Girls, Girls, Girls. He praises women around the world for their attributes, but when he talks about black women he takes on a different tone:

I got this black chick, she don't know how to act

Always talkin out her neck, makin her fingers snap...

I got this African chick with Eddie Murphy on her skull

She like, "Jigga Man, why you treat me like animal?

"I'm like excuse me Ms. Fufu, but when I met your ass

you was dead broke and naked, and now you want half

I got this ho that after twelve million sold

Mami's a narcolyptic, always sleepin on Hov'

Gotta tie the back of her head like Deuce Bigalow...

What is going on in the head of Jay-Z and others like him? Isn't it a sign of sickness that he sees African-American women (his sisters, his mother, his aunts) so negatively? I don't argue that he doesn't have the right to say whatever he wants, but let's not pretend that what he says does not impact others.

Please know that this is not about the low self-esteem or hurt feelings of African-American women. Perceptions and treatment of African-American women are inseperable from the growth of the African-American community as a whole. The value of a segment impacts the value of the whole. Oh, if only the Black Panther leadership could have understood this. What is going on in our communities that we so freely disparaged and disrespect black women? Why are some African-American men so quick to defend the rights of their brothers to disrespect the sisters? Why are they not as quick to protect and defend the honor of African-American women?

Have we progressed so much that we no longer have to think about the community as a whole? As long as my children know better, as long as my wife is not gang-raped, as long as I am empowered enough to take advantage of opportunities, as long as I live in a community where positive African-American role models abound ... What happened to taking pride in ourselves as a community? What happened to our sense of linked fate?


Anonymous said...

I think our linked sense of fate began to fade when we started to see the fruits of integration. At that point, we'd won the right for an entire people to be judged based on who they are rather than what they looked like. So the onus fell to the individual to succeed or fail on his own merit. If the opportunities exist and are laid bare for all to pursue, my well-being is no longer tied to yours. We all have to choose our own path.

I don't know of many ways to stymie the pernicious breed of mysogynism black women face. The only thing I can think of is to vote with our dollars, to make conscious decisions not to financially enrich those enterprises and projects that hurt us as black people.

Anonymous said...

What happened to taking pride in ourselves as a community? What happened to our sense of linked fate?

You already answered your own question! :)

What is more difficult for us to identify as a community are the privileges of masculinity. For decades and decades, African-American women have been asked to set aside gender issues in order not to detract from the “larger” struggles of race. Those who have not have been labeled as self-centered, as race traitors, as pawns of white women … From our earliest history in this country, our bodies and our sexuality have never been broadly accepted as our own. As a result, not only are African-American women not respected by mainstream society, we are also not fully respected within our own communities.

It was never REALLY about US, Zora.

What nobody gets is that Black women are full beings...not women first, not black first.

I have read WAOD and its criticism.

The thing is, when Gina highlights circumstances in which black women are victimized she counters that STRONG, indomitable, black woman stereotype,the stalwart backbone of the Community, the mule (she ain't a human, let alone a woman) that stoicly yet defiantly bears all.

By recognizing victimhood and the concomitant apathy and hostility, Gina recognizes a sad aspect of the black female existence. She also admits and informs people that YES, we are humans. Yes, we can be hurt. Yes, we need protection (especially our kids). Yes, we need compassion.

As Gina recognizes that these needs - and as you noted our issues (and by extension ourselves) - are not recognized.

Gordon believes that we should counter negativity by highlighting the positive instead of focusing on instances of black female victimhood. I don't necessarily disagree. However, my point is that noting cruelty to black women that is too prevalent and far too often ignored recognizes that black women ARE women, not Madea, Big Mama, Sapphire or Mammy.

Finally, what really sticks in the craw of her detractors is who commits violence and cruelty that Gina highlights. She doesn't just focus on the issues that fit the traditional paradigm of Injustice to Black Folk. She expands that paradigm to include those who are loudest, most numerous detractors of black womanhood and those who commit the vast majority of violent acts towards black women.

The criticism isn't so much about Gina's tactics as it is about her pointing out that black men can indeed oppress, and how the Community (women included) facilitates that oppression by shifting the focus to white men oppressing (Duke, Imus, Lyor Cohen) or other things (positive black women).

It really is not about US. WE are not included. WE don't exist. It's really about how black men are portrayed.

gordon gartrelle said...

I'm loving this discussion.


You're actually making the same point that I do in my response post to Zora. I see black women as human beings, not as Madeas, mules, Jezebels, or punching bags (WAOD's preferred image).

I'm assuming that you're including me in the critics of WAOD camp, but my brief time on this blog should make it clear that I have absolutely no attachment to the obsolete tactics of the Civil Rights establishment (WAOD uses most of these same tactics, by the way). This includes the men in front, women in the back approach to public political activism.

Finally, I hope that you don't believe that I feel some kind of male solidarity with the degenerates who brutalize black women (or anyone else, for that matter). As I continue to work on this blog, it will become clear that I don't allow collective identity of any sort--national, racial, ideological, religious, gender, etc.--to keep me from calling out foolishness.

Anonymous said...

I appreciate your comments, but we have only just begun to see the fruits of integration -- we certainly have quite a ways to go. As a group, we are not yet at a point in our progress where we can begin to see and treat ourselves fully as individuals. As a black man, no matter how wonderful you may be, you still carry the burdens of OJ, of the corner thug, of Clarence Thomas and of Flavor Flav on your shoulders. Try as you might, you're not going to be able to shift that load anytime soon. That older white woman is still going to clutch her purse when she is faced with riding alone in an elevator with you. I'm not saying that this is right, but its a fact. Your fate is linked to OJ's and to mine whether we like it or not.