“The Negro man was at the center of the culture’s race obsessions. The Negro woman was on the shabby fringes.” – Margo Jefferson, Negroland
I once worked with a group of people with a mission to uplift Black men. They desired to construct a counter-narrative where Black men are valuable to the community, essential players crucial to American progress. On the backs of national initiatives such as My Brothers Keeper, they rode the wave of exposed police brutality, positioning themselves to challenge media propaganda of Black male criminality, violence, and worthlessness. They weaved narratives of Black men working tirelessly to transform their ghettos, schools, and boardrooms. Their primary goal was a creation of a national network of activists, thought leaders, educators, business owners, and youth developers who formed partnerships and collaborations, demonstrating that Black men were active and powerful participants aiming to advance the race.
As a womanist, feminist, and newly single mother, I constantly found my-self struggling with the mission; it seemed antiquated. I found myself in the most dreaded of places, a boys club, my own personal hell. I was of-ten labeled “The Feminist” and asked why I always “brought up women’s is-sues.” Understandably, I was employed at an organization devoted to Black men, but I felt the devotion futile. 70% of Black households are run, managed, and led by Black women. Why are we not dedicating our talents and resources to building the leadership, financial, and collaborative skills of Black women, but obsessed with reassuring the Black man that he is still in control? The mission simply reinforced a philosophy of the singular importance of men that have plagued Black social movements and relegated Black women to supportive positions instead of leadership positions, to the shabby fringes of the cloth of the Black community.
Of course, I was the “Great Divider” because any imposition of Black women’s issues into any conversation is “divisive.” Black women are expected to be Black first and Woman second. It is an unfair mandate to make, but it is imposed by those privileged to not have to consider the implications of their race AND their sex. It is similar to the poignant insight that “Whites do not have race”. Men do not have to consider the play of gender in their daily lives because maleness sets the standard (like whiteness) while anything else (in this case, woman) is considered the other. Race dominates Black male issues (unless he is poor) whereas as a Black woman race AND gender are obstacles (and class, if she is poor).
As individuals we are typically more focused on those structures that oppress us, forgetting there are MANY oppressive structures in constant, fluid, and cooperative operation with the in-tent to preserve power for those addicted to it. Black and Brown people are very aware of these power structures and are forced to either challenge them or survive within them. Understandably, the heaviness of racism, sexism, and classism can be debilitating and cause victims to project a narrow focus on that which has prevented them from full self-actualization, overwhelmed with their own barriers, their own problems, their own survival. This is exemplified in the Black community, where Black men, justifiably vexed by the weight of racism, place race as the central issue facing all Black people. It is not. The division of the sexes infects the Black community, often times as a response to racism. We see this in countless examples from Black history: The Civil Rights Movement, the Black Power Movement, Clarence Thomas vs. Anita Hill, where Black women voices are silenced and ignored. Black women then become confined by the expectations of gender in an effort to support the community in its many at-tempts to restore Black men. And that is what Margo Jefferson argues: our community obsesses about the status of Black man with the assumption that the community will rise with his elevation. It is an argument currently being circulated regarding the Black Lives Matter Movement that is, some argue, another Black movement focused on protecting Black men.
I am in no way negating the importance of Black male issues. However, if the Black community is to advance, fully and completely, we must be able to address those uncomfortable realities, those painful experiences that keep bitterness and division rife within the race. We must have an honest dialogue on male privilege that keeps Black women regulated to supportive roles at the shabby fringes, instead of boldly standing in our power in roles of leadership.