FARRAKHAN, SMITHERMAN, AND WEST: WHAT IS WRONG WITH THEIR SUPPORT OF THE MARCH?
Farrakhan’s conception of the call for the March is based on a patriarchal image of what the Black community needs.12 In the mission statement for the March, Farrakhan calls "on Black men to stand in unity to shoulder our responsibility as the heads of our families, and leaders in our community." He speaks of "our own desire to take up our responsibility as men." He says, "We should accept the responsibility that God himself has imposed on us as heads of families and heads of communities." Farrakhan’s rhetoric implies that many problems within the Black community are exacerbated by Black men’s abdication of their "patriarchal responsibilities" as "heads of households and leaders of the community" and that the solution is for Black men to live up to these God-given patriarchal roles. By implication, many of Black women’s problems are a result of the failure of Black patriarchy, rather than results of patriarchal structures within the Black community—which is to say that they are problems that could be eliminated if Black men would only take control of the situation. In this regard, although many of Farrakhan’s supporters view him as a militant and radical activist, the solutions that he offers bear a striking resemblance to those proposed by some mainstream white reformers and by some right-wing conservative Christian groups of the late 1990s, such as the Promise Keepers.13
There are even many startling resemblances between Farrakhan’s vision of what is best for Black America—stemming from his belief that Black men should assume their "patriarchal responsibilities"— and the views articulated in the infamous 1965 Moynihan Report, authored by Senator Patrick Moynihan. The Moynihan Report suggested that the problems of the Black community were the results of a "Black matriarchy" initially fostered by the institution of slavery. Moynihan argued that this matriarchy continued to persist in the guise of female-headed households within which the presence of Black matriarchs prevented Black men from "realizing their manhood." Given that Moynihan’s views were widely critiqued by Blacks for their racism, why were the similarities between his perspective and Farrakhan’s perspective invisible to many who supported the March?
These similarities were rendered invisible by a shift in emphasis that separates Farrakhan’s views from those embedded in the Moyni – han Report. The paradigm of the Moynihan report implied that Black women were to blame for the problems of Black men, suggesting that Black men were "castrated and emasculated by strong [B]lack females who prevented them from realizing [their] manhood."14 In Farrakhan’s framework, it appears instead that "white supremacy and white racism" are to blame for the problems of Black men and, therefore, the Black community. Given the ongoing realities of racism, Far – rakhan’s targeting of it renders his perspective more palatable and compelling than Moynihan’s. Farrakhan’s shift of emphasis in describing the source of the problem, however, helps obscure the fact that both he and Moynihan are deeply committed to the same solution. They both presume that the redemption of the Black community lies in Black men assuming their "patriarchal roles" with greater success; in this respect, their views have much in common with the conservative "family values" embedded in Newt Gingrich’s Contract with America.
Farrakhan’s and Moynihan’s perspectives are also linked in the ways in which they suggest that the primary problems faced by the Black community are the problems faced by Black men. Farrakhan depicts the central problems of the Black community as "race related" and casts Black men as the central victims of these problems in a manner that obfuscates the problems of Black women. Black women are then constructed as (1) figures who have suffered less than Black men, and (2) figures who ought to stand behind their men at a time when their men are politically challenging "more urgent" problems.
Geneva Smitherman’s position on the March is consistent with Farrakhan’s. In her essay "A Womanist Looks at the Million Man March,"15 Smitherman rightly focuses on a number of serious problems that urgently confront a great many men in the Black community, ranging from unemployment and wage inequities to their high rates of incarceration in the criminal justice system. Smitherman fails, however, to mention or depict as urgent any problems that particularly endanger Black women (problems such as AIDS, teenage pregnancy, domestic violence, and rape), and she fails to address how Black women are also "urgently" affected by problems such as unemployment, wage inequity, and skyrocketing incarceration rates.
According to Smitherman, with "so many Black men dead or injured from street violence, in jail, on drugs, or unemployed," Black women have been left to shoulder familial, institutional, and social responsibilities in the community disproportionately. This analysis suggests that Black women do not suffer problems in their own right and that their problems are a sort of by-product of the problems suffered by Black men. If one accepts the view that, to the extent that Black women face specific problems as Black women, these problems are simply "corollaries" or "consequences" of the problems suffered by Black men, it no doubt makes sense to argue that we should put the problems of Black men first, since solving those problems will simultaneously solve the problems of Black women.
Smitherman implies that Black women’s problems are ultimately all reducible to the consequences of problems suffered by Black men. From her perspective, the unemployment level and the low wages that Black women experience are mere epiphenomena of the relationship of Black men and women. Similarly, Smitherman’s male-centered approach obviates the need for an inquiry into the ways in which Black women’s problems affect Black men and the community as a whole. In reducing Black women’s problems to subsidiary consequences of Black men’s problems, Smitherman prepares the way for her insistence that patriarchal structures are not part of the difficulties faced by Black women or the Black community. While acknowledging that Black men might "display sexist attitudes," Smitherman goes on to insist that this is not the same thing as "the practice of patriarchy," since the latter "requires power on a grand scale and control of the nation’s institutions." In this way, her approach simultaneously condemns and trivializes Black feminist perspectives, dismissing them as a mere "seductive trap."
Smitherman simply overlooks the ways in which many groups of people may benefit from social structures that privilege their interests, even as they suffer as a result of other social structures that do not treat them fairly. She disregards the possibility that Black men might enjoy patriarchal privilege—men run, for example, most of the key institutions in the Black community—even as they suffer many serious consequences as a result of racism. Her claim that Black men are incapable of practicing patriarchy because they lack "power on a grand scale and control over the nation’s institutions" is no more plausible than the claim that white women are incapable of practicing racism because it is white men and not white women who "control the nation’s institutions," a claim that I suspect Smitherman would find unacceptable despite its similar logic.
Even more disturbing than the subtle ways in which Smitherman marginalizes Black women’s racial experiences, however, is the way in which the exclusion of Black women and a feminist agenda from the call for the March was left unaddressed by voices that are often some of the most progressive voices in the Black community. For example, in his article "Why I’m Marching in Washington,16 Cornel West’s discussion implies that the only problem confronting progressives in their decision to support the March is whether they should collaborate with Farrakhan. While insisting on his commitment to oppose patriarchy, West fails to pose explicit questions about the ways in which women and feminist issues were excluded from the agenda of the March. Thus he avoids having to address the question of how his opposition to patriarchy is compatible with his attendance at the March. These concerns completely disappear and are replaced by a series of reasons designed to justify political cooperation with Far- rakhan. West argues that "standing on the sidelines" would be to "yield the terrain to Minister Farrakhan," allowing him to go unchallenged in an important political setting. Moreover, he insists that both he and Farrakhan "agree on highlighting [B]lack suffering." Yet after allowing West to help promote the March, Farrakhan completely silenced him at the March by not providing him with an opportunity to speak to the assembled gathering, and the exclusion of the perspectives of a wide range of Black feminist men and women, as well as the marginalization of feminist issues at the March, painted a picture of suffering that omitted more than half the members of the Black community.
West’s insistence that "if white supremacy can be reduced to a minimum, then patriarchy, homophobia and anti-Semitism can be lessened in [B]lack America" comes dangerously close to the argument that patriarchy, homophobia, and anti-Semitism in Black communities are merely "symptoms," "effects," or, as Smitherman implies, "by-products" of white supremacy, phenomena that can be spontaneously undermined when white supremacy is challenged. Such an insistence disregards the fact that some challenges to white supremacy, such as Farrakhan’s, simultaneously defend and reinforce patriarchy, homophobia, and anti-Semitism rather than contribute to their demise.
Surely someone of West’s intellectual stature is familiar with similar arguments put forward by doctrinaire feminists who contend that patriarchy is the fundamental human problem.17 For such theorists, patriarchy is the paradigmatic form of oppression, out of which the problems of racism, class bigotry, homophobia, and so on emerge. West—the author of Race Matters—undoubtedly would not countenance the idea that racism is simply an outgrowth of patriarchy. It is, therefore, difficult to comprehend why he implies that, once white supremacy and its racist consequences have been reduced to a minimum, then issues of patriarchy, homophobia and anti-Semitism will necessarily be reduced within the Black community. Furthermore, one wonders why he would imply, for example, that Black women must await the diminution of white supremacy before they can hope to live lives free of problems such as domestic violence and rape.
Whether articulated by Farrakhan, Smitherman, or West, such visions suggest a need to prioritize the problems of men over those of women in a context where both men and women face a series of urgent problems. Moreover, not only are such rankings empirically unfounded; they set up a "contestation for racial space" that ejects Black women’s issues from the discursive space in which community problems are articulated, and they falsely suggest that there is not enough room for attention to the problems of both Black men and Black women.
As Black Americans, we must pursue a vision of politics that is as empathetic and attentive to the lives of my two mothers as it is to my own life. Yet the politics of the March treated women like my two mothers as social outcasts at best. In a sense, they were treated as causes of the "pathology of the Black family." In thinking about the paths my two mothers took, some might well stigmatize and blame Gertrude for her choices and see only virtue in Eva’s choices. But I reject such easy, simplistic, and false interpretations of their lives. Both women were faced with enormous obstacles and limited alternatives. And, despite all the rhetoric condemning them, women like my natural mother are not the source of the decay in the Black community, and my adoptive mother’s tremendous sacrifices are not the solution for it.
Louis Farrakhan’s rhetoric surrounding the March does not fully confront the realities of day-to-day life for women like Gertrude and Eva. But, then, neither does the rhetoric of Geneva Smitherman or Cornel West in the context of their defenses of the call for the March. They all offer patriarchal solutions for problems that often reflect the crippling underside of patriarchy. But patriarchy, even in its benevolent forms, was never the solution. The solution for both Black men and women lies elsewhere. It lies in the struggle for an inclusive politics and the emergence within the Black community of a social movement that focuses on the complex ways in which issues of race, class, gender, and sexual orientation work together to endanger the lives of both Black men and Black women.
In particular, I would like to thank Uma Narayan, Kimberle Williams Crenshaw, Jean Carey Bond, and Kathe Sandler for their encouragement and constructive criticism throughout the writing of this chapter and my chapter that appears in Part IV. I would also like to thank Beth Richie, Phyllis Echaus, Joan Bertin, Stephanie Camp, Eve Sandler, Mariane Lado-Engermann, Cathy Powell, Benjamin Todd Jealous, Molly Shanley, David Scott, Allison Gash, Mark Quarterman, Dienna La Margue, Earl Hadley, Robert Lessor, Chandra Bhat – nager, and Natalie Augustin for reading drafts of this chapter at various stages of its development.
1. Deborah K. King, "Multiple Jeopardy: The Context of a Black Feminist Ideology," Signs (August 1988).
2. See Kimberle Williams Crenshaw, "A Black Feminist Critique of Antidiscrimination Law and Politics," 1989 Chicago Legal Forum 139; Kimberle Williams Crenshaw, "Mapping the Margins: Intersectionality, Identity Politics and Violence Against Women of Color"; Angela P. Harris, "Race and Es – sentialism in Feminist Legal Theory," Stan. L. Rev. 42 (1990), 581; and Dorothy E. Roberts, "Punishing Drug Addicts Who Have Babies: Women of Color, Equality and the Right of Privacy," Harvard Law Review 104, no. 7 (May 1991).
3. See Devon W. Carbado, "The Construction of O. J. Simpson as a Racial Victim," Harvard Civil Rights-Civil Liberties Law Review 32 (1997), 49.
4. See, e. g., Crenshaw, supra note 2; bell hooks, Killing Rage: Ending Racism (New York: Holt, 1995); Angela Davis, Women, Race & Class (New York: Vintage Books, 1983); Beth Richie, Compelled to Crime (New York: Rout – ledge Press, 1995); and Audre Lorde, Sister Outsider: Essays and Speeches (New York: Crossing Press, 1984).
5. See Carbado, supra note 3.
6. Another recent example is the Senate confirmation hearings of Clarence Thomas, where, even before Anita Hill’s charges of sexual harassment arose, many Blacks, including those who did not share Thomas’s conservative political agenda, supported his nomination as a knee-jerk, pseudonationalistic response to the prospect of a Black man obtaining a position of power. Because of their uncritical, male-centered politics, these supporters also discounted the claims of Anita Hill, believing that, even if her claims were true, she should not have sought to "bring a brother down." The response of the Black community seemed to suggest that Black women should put "loyalty to their race" first and foremost, even in cases where they had been subject to unprofessional or predatory conduct by Black men.
7. Angela Davis is currently a professor of philosophy at the University of California at Santa Cruz.
8. Paula Giddings is the author of When and Where I Enter: The Impact of Black Women on Race and Sex (New York: William Morrow, 1984).
9. Byllye Avery is the founder of the Atlanta-based National Black Women’s Network.
10. Jewell Jackson McCabe is the chair and founder of the National Coalition of 100 Black Women.
11. Marcia Gillespie is the editor in chief of Ms. magazine.
12. See Dr. Maulana Karenga, "The Million Man March/Day of Absence Mission Statement," in Haki R. Madhubuti and Maulana Karenga, eds., Million Man March/Day of Absence, A Commemorative Anthology (Chicago: Third World Press, 1996), 140.
13. The Promise Keepers is a conservative Christian group that espouses a traditional vision of family life rooted in the idea that men should take on the responsibility of leadership in both the family and the general community.
14. See bell hooks, supra note 4, at 90.
15. See Geneva Smitherman, "A Womanist Looks at the Million Man March," Million Man March/Day of Absence, supra note 12, at 104.
16. See Cornel West, "Why I Am Marching in Washington," Million Man March/Day of Absence, supra note 12, at 37.
17. For an excellent critique of doctrinaire feminism of this sort, see Elizabeth V. Spelman, Inessential Woman (Boston: Beacon Press, 1988).