The Challenge and Possibility for Black Males to Embrace Feminism
Luke Charles Harris
MUCH OF THE idea that Black politics should center on men seems driven by the notion that a Black male-centered political agenda best promotes Black unity and empowerment. The costs of this misguided logic are enormous. For pseudo-nationalistic male-centered visions of politics lead us to support figures, like Justice Clarence Thomas, whose political agendas we would otherwise condemn. Moreover, they teach our young at least the following two powerful and disturbing lessons: (1) to support undeserving Black men for the sake of the "race" and (2) to trivialize the concerns of Black women, and the Black feminist movement writ large.
Realizing that the full potential and empowerment of the Black community depends instead on integrating feminism into our politics, I believe we must come to terms with feminism and learn to see it as a fundamental aspect of our politics. We must confront the reality that patriarchal political visions are dangerous; among other things, they obscure concerns that should be at the heart of our political agenda. A feminist perspective affords us the opportunity to identify and take account of the ways in which race, class, gender, and sexual orientation intersect to shape the problems and interests of our entire community. Embracing feminism would require us to acknowledge that the racist stereotypes on which criminal justice policies are founded result from white supremacist views about Black men’s maleness, as well as their Blackness. Embracing feminism would require us to take account of the specific ways in which Black women are discriminated against as Blacks and women. Embracing feminism would require us to address problems stemming from patriarchal relationships between Black men and women—problems such as violence in the home, sexual harassment in the workplace, and unwarranted demands to express racial loyalty by passively accepting sexist attitudes and behavior. The failure to address these issues reinforces the notion that rape, domestic violence, and sexual harassment are "white women’s issues," silences and disempowers Black women who suffer such abuses intraracially, interracially, and in same-sex relationships, and reproduces and ligitimizes a patriarchal political agenda for the Black community.
Progressive Black men especially need to cultivate the habit of consistently working together with the many Black women who have helped to construct vibrant and powerful perspectives that illuminate the various problems facing our community. I was struck, for instance, by the paucity of Black men when I worked on the Anita Hill support team. In that case, I went to Washington, D. C., along with Carlton Long, then an assistant professor at Columbia University, and Victor Caldwell, an undergraduate student assistant. We were well aware that Charles Ogletree was representing Anita Hill brilliantly, and we had thought that we would be on the sidelines helping not only our sisters but also Black men to take her case to the general public. We were wrong. We found ourselves at the center of the action—participating in important press conferences, addressing major political rallies, and appearing on national news programs because few other progressive Black men volunteered their services.
When the Million Man March came along in 1995, the situation was repeated. Only a few Black men, such as Kendall Thomas at the Columbia Law School, worked with Black feminists to publicize their objections to and concerns about the March and to articulate another vision of what the March could have represented. While I was happy to work alongside such an extraordinary group of women, I was also embarrassed by the dearth of Black men willing to work with us. And, the absence of significant numbers of progressive Black men working with Black feminists promoted the perception in many segments of the Black community that the feminist critique of the March was being advanced by a small, disgruntled, and misguided group of Black women. The idea of Black men endorsing a feminist perspective was made to seem oxymoronic to the Black community, and to much of the press that covered the March. Yet had Cornel West, Maya Angelo, Jesse Jackson, Michael Dyson, and other prominent Black public intellectuals and social activists stood with Angela Davis, Marcia Gillespie, and other well-known feminists, rather than on the podium with Louis Farrakhan at the March, it would have been impossible to marginalize, trivialize, and vilify feminist concerns in the same way.
Together we could have championed an inclusive politics. In this sense, the March represents a lost opportunity (1) for progressive Black men and women to critique the privileging of male authority and power in both public and private life within the Black community, and (2) for progressive Black men to articulate a feminist perspective while working alongside and benefiting from the leadership of the visionary African American women who opposed the call for the March. But we can learn from our mistakes.
What are the lessons we must learn? Henceforth, we must challenge the idea that Black women have suffered less than Black men and that, therefore, the problems of Black men are more urgent than those of Black women; we must reject the perception that the problems of Black women are the mere "by-products" of the concerns confronted by Black men; we must repudiate the notion that Black women must put loyalty to their "race" first, even in cases where they have been victimized and / or marginalized by Black men because of their gender; we must refute the perspective that patriarchy does not exist in the Black community because Black men lack power and control over most of the nation’s key institutions; we must address a broader range of issues at the center of our politics, including all forms of Black male violence against Black women; we must reenvision the existing patriarchal conceptions of masculinity within our community with a view toward reciprocal respect and the mutual sharing of authority and power between Black men and women; we must disclaim homophobia, expanding our vision of leadership so as to embrace women, gay, lesbian, and bisexual Black Americans; we must encourage both young girls and boys to assume primary leadership roles in our community when they reach adulthood, and we must urge them to disavow the idea that to critique patriarchy and male privilege is somehow antithetical to the interests of Black America.
Most important, Black men must learn to repudiate the notions that they are entitled to walk through the door of liberation first and that they can be liberated without fully confronting the destructive characteristics of patriarchy within the Black community. We—Black men—must acknowledge male privilege, interrogate it, critique it, and ultimately relinquish it. Just as white Americans must reject racism if they are to transcend their own racial bigotry, Black men must reject patriarchal privilege if we are to overcome mundane forms of male-centered nationalism that undermine the well-being of our community. This, of course, will be no easy task, for we have grown all too accustomed to male privilege within the Black commu – nity—so accustomed in fact that, for the most part, we fail to see it as privilege at all.