Where and When Black Men Enter
Where and When Black Men Enter
We are a collective of Black feminists who have been meeting together since 1974. . . . The most general statement of our politics at the present time would be that we are actively committed to struggling against racial, sexual, heterosexual, and class oppression, and see as our particular task the development of integrated analysis and practice based upon the fact that the major systems of oppression are interlocking.
—The Combahee River Collective Statement,
WHAT DOES IT mean to be Black? What is the nature of "the Black experience"? What political ideology holds the greatest emancipatory possibility for Blacks in America? These questions have long been debated in Black political discourse. But, in the 1960s, they began to take an explicitly en-gendered form; more and more Black women began to ask gender-specific questions about race—how does gender shape Black women’s racial experiences?—and gender-specific questions about Black racial politics—why do certain Black political engagements reflect and reproduce gender hierarchy within the Black community?
By the 1970s, these inquiries had produced a sustained Black feminist critique of antiracist discourse.3 During this period, Black feminist scholars began identifying and problematizing several persistent and pervasive antiracist myths, the following among them:
have to confront. (Once we get that taken care of, then Black women, men, and children will all flourish.)"
3. "Feminism is nothing but man-hating. (And men have never done anything that would legitimately inspire hatred.)"
4. "Women’s issues are narrrow, apolitical concerns. People of color need to deal with the ‘larger struggle.’"
5. "Feminists are nothing but lesbians. . . , [the] ‘[njothing but’ reduc[ing] lesbians to a category of beings deserving of only the most violent attack."4
Notwithstanding the proliferation of Black feminist literature since the 1970s, the foregoing myths—especially Myth No. 2—continue to inform antiracist practice and theorizing. Contemporary Black feminists argue that the political currency of these myths reflects an unwillingness on the part of antiracist proponents to investigate and take seriously the gender-specific ways in which "racial pa – triarchy"5 subordinates Black women.
The gender critique of antiracist discourse opened the door for the sexuality critique. And here, too, Black feminists—heterosexuals and lesbians—have led the charge. The argument they advance is that antiracist proponents often ignore or deny the relationship between racism and homophobia. This, they maintain, entrenches the notion that racism and homophobia are separate, distinct, and oppositional social phenomena. The ideological entrenchment of this idea facilitates the antiracist marginalization of Black gay and lesbian experiences. For, if racism and homophobia are understood to be unrelated, Black gay and lesbian discriminatory experiences that are not overtly or obviously race based can be attributed solely to their sexual orientation.
As the preceding discussion indicates, most of the gender and sexuality critiques of antiracist discourse are advanced by Black women. And these critiques have, for the better, changed the terms of the debate. In all of this discussion and controversy, however, Black men, especially heterosexual Black men, have, for the most part, been conspicuously silent. Thus, this book.
Stated simply, the purpose of this collection is to situate Black men squarely within the context of the debate about gender and sexuality in antiracist discourse. The essays reveal how Black men negotiate and prioritize concerns about gender and sexuality in their discourse on race. The essays are interdisciplinary, addressing questions of law, politics, aesthetics, and culture, and cover a wide range of topics, including the legal construction of Black male identity, domestic abuse in the Black community, the enduring power of Black machismo, the politics of Black male/white female relationships, racial es – sentialism, the role of Black men in Black women’s quest for equality, and the heterosexist nature of Black political engagements.
Exploring the foregoing topics can fundamentally change the way we think not only about Black political engagements but about civil rights engagements more broadly. For part of what renders current civil rights activism ineffective is its compartmentalization: Black civil rights efforts often are not connected to women’s civil rights efforts, which often are not connected to gay and lesbian civil rights efforts. Such fractured and disconnected political activism reifies the idea that we experience our identities in fractured and disconnected ways. In fact, we do not; Black lesbians experience the world as Black – lesbians. Yet Black lesbian experiences as Blacklesbians are not featured prominently in Black antiracist discourse (because it is heteromale normative), in gay and lesbian rights discourse (because it is normatively white), or in women’s rights discourse (because it is hetero-white normative). By examining how Black antiracist discourse has and has not dealt with Black identity multiplicity, or intraracial Black difference, we can begin to think about how other civil rights activism, such as gay rights activism or feminist activism, might be informed by in-group differences.
The reasons that concerns about gender and sexuality are marginalized in antiracist discourse are complicated. At the very least, though, the following factors are at work: (1) the gendered construction of Black racial victimhood, which I argue reflects intentional and functional sexism; (2) the heterosexist construction of Black racial victimhood; (3) the antiracist normalization of hetero-male identity; and (4) the linguistic limitations of identity terminology—that is, the extent to which race, gender, and sexuality operate as distinct identity signifiers; each linguistically submerges the others.