oedipus/electra, the eternal triangle,


Let us look at race relations in America,* a macrocosm of the hierarchical relations within the nuclear family: The white man is father, the white woman wife-and-moth – er, her status dependent on his; the blacks, like children, are his property, their physical differentiation branding them the subservient class, in the same way that children form so easily distinguishable a servile class vis-a-vis adults. This power hierarchy creates the psychology of racism, just as, in the nuclear family, it creates the psy­chology of sexism.

Previously we have described the Oedipus Complex in the male as that neurosis resulting from enforced sub­servience to the power of the father. Let us apply this interpretation to the psychology of the black male. The black male at first makes a sympathetic identification with the white female, who is also visibly oppressed by the, white man. Because both have been “castrated” (i. e., made

* I shall deal here only with the domestic race relations with which I am most familiar, though 1 have no doubt that the same meta­phor could be applied equally well to international and Third World politics.


impotent, powerless) in the same way by the Father, there is much similarity in the types of psychological oppres­sions they each must endure, in the sex-repressive nature of these oppressions—and thus in their resulting character formations. They have a special bond in oppression in the same way that the mother and child are united against the father.

This accounts for the white woman’s frequent identi­fication with the black man personally, and in a more political form, from the abolitionist movement (cf. Har­riet Beecher Stowe) to our present black movement. The vicarious nature of this struggle against the white man’s dominion is akin to the mother’s vicarious identifi­cation with the son against the father. The woman has no real hope of her own self-determined struggle, for her it’s all lost from the beginning: she is defined in toto as the appendage of the white man, she lives under his day-to – day surveillance isolated from her sisters; she has less aggressive strength. But the mother (white female) knows that if not herself, then at least her son (black male) is potentially “male,” that is, powerful.

But while some women may still attempt to achieve their freedom vicariously through the struggle of the black man or other racially oppressed (also biologically dis­tinct) groups, many other women have resigned from this struggle altogether. Instead they choose to embrace their oppression, identifying their own interests with those of their men in the vain hope that power may rub off; their solution has been to obliterate their own poor egos— often by love—in order to merge completely into the powerful egos of their men.

This hopeless identification is the racism of white wom – en^-which perhaps produces an even greater bitterness in black men than the more immediately understandable racism of these women’s husbands; for it betokens a be­trayal by the Mother. Yet it is an inauthentic form of racism, for it arises from a false class consciousness, from the threat to what is, after all, only an illusion of power. If and when it is as strong as or stronger than the

white man’s racism, it is still different in kind: It is char­acterized by a peculiar hysteria, which, like the conserva­tism of the black bourgeoisie—or like the wife screaming at her husband that he treats the children better than he treats her—is, in itself, directly the product of the precar­iousness of her own class (less) situation. Thus the black man may become a scapegoat for the venom the woman feels for her husband, but is incapable of admitting direct­ly.

So the white woman tends to oscillate between either a vicarious identification with the black man or a hysterical (but inauthentic) racism. Radical women, who, like most women, suffer from benefit-of-the-doubtism toward men in general, especially tend to trust and sympathize with black men—and then are often bitterly disillusioned when black men take personal advantage of them, or when the black movement does not move quickly enough to support the woman’s cause.

For it is seldom all love and sympathy on the part of the black male either. To return to our analogy: Just as the child begins with a bond of sympathy with the moth­er, and is soon required to transfer his identification from the mother to the father, thus to eradicate the female in himself, so too the black male, in order to “be a man,” must untie himself from his bond with the white female, relating to her if at all only in a degrading way. In addition, due to his virulent hatred and jealousy of her Possessor, the white man, he may lust after her as a thing to be conquered in order to revenge himself on white man. Thus, unlike the more clear-cut polarization of feel­ings in white women, the black man’s feelings about the white woman are characterized by their ambivalence— their intense mixture of love and hate; but however he may choose to express this ambivalence, he is unable to control its intensity.

LeRoi Jones’s early play Dutchman illustrates some of these psychological tensions and ambivalences in the rela­tionship of the black man to the white woman. In a sub­way encounter. Clay, a young bourgeois black, and Lula,

a blonde vampire, personify them: Clay’s contempt for Lula as the white man’s plaything mixed with a grudging erotic attraction, her deep and immediate understanding of him, and finally her betrayal, ending with a literal backstab (after which she cries “rape,” getting off scot free—one must presume to destroy more young black men who were only minding their own business). This is a black man’s inner view of the white woman. Lula never comes across as a real woman, so much is she a product of the racial Oedipus Complex I have described.

The relationship of the black man with the white man, similarly, duplicates the relationship of the male child to the father. We have seen how at a certain point, in order to assert his ego, the child must transfer his iden­tification from the female (powerless) to the male (power­ful). He hates the powerful father. But he is offered the alternative: If he does make that transition (on the father’s terms, of course), he is rewarded; if he denies it, his “manhood” (humanity) is called into question. A black man in America can do only one of the following:

1) He can give in to the white man on the white man’s terms, and be paid off by the white man (Uncle Tom – ism),

2) He can refuse such an identification altogether, at which he often surrenders to homosexuality. Or he may continue desperately to try to prove that if not a “man” in the eyes of white society, at least he is not a woman (the Pimp Complex): By treating “the bitches” with open contempt, he demonstrates to all the world that he is in the superior sex class.

3) He may attempt to overthrow the Father’s power. Such an attempt may, but will not necessarily, encompass a wish to become the Father, through subsuming his po­sition of power.

Unless the black man makes the first choice, identifica­tion with the Father on the Father’s own terms, he is subject to castration (destruction of his maleness, his illegitimate “male” power), particularly if he tampers with the Father’s treasure, the cushion for and embodiment of

the Father’s power—his woman. This racial castration oc­curs not only metaphorically, but literally, in the form of lynching.

Let us now apply our political interpretation of the Electra Complex to the psychology of the black woman. If the black man is Son to the American family, then the black woman is Daughter. Her initial sympathy with the white woman (mother), her bond of oppression with her (mother) against the white man (father) is com­plicated by her later relationship with the white male (fa­ther). When she discovers that the white male owns that “world of travel and adventure,” she, in the subservient position of child, attempts to identify with him, to reject the female in herself. (This may be the cause of the greater aggressiveness of the black woman compared with the docility of her white sisters.) In the effort to reject the womanly (powerless) element in herself, she develops contempt for the Mother (white woman). Like the young girl, she may react to her powerlessness in one of two ways: She may attempt to gain power directly by imitat­ing white men, thus becoming a “big achiever,” a woman of strong character who rises high (“especially for a black woman”), or she may attempt to gain power indirectly by seducing the Father (voila the blade sexpot), thus put­ting herself in sexual competition with the white woman for the Father’s favor—causing her to hate and be jealous of the white woman, whom she now must attempt to imitate.

Meanwhile the relationship of the Brother (black man) and Sister (black woman) is one of rivalry and mutual contempt Each sees the other as powerless, a lackey desperately trying to get in good with the Parents (white man and woman). Each is onto the other’s sexual games. It is difficult for them to direct their erotic energies to­ward each other: they see through each other too well.

We can use the family in another way to illuminate the psychology of racism. Let us look at racism as a form of the Eternal Triangle. In this situation the white man is Husband, the white woman is Wife, and the black woman

is the Other Woman. We have seen how this kind of dichotomy between the “good” and the “bad” woman is in itself a product of the Oedipus Complex. A man is unable to feel both sex and affection for the same object, so he must divide up his feelings: for his wife and mother of his children he feels respect and affection; for the “other” woman, his sexual receptacle, he feels passion. The further exaggeration of this division through biological differentiation, e. g., color,[11] or economic class distinctions, makes the acting out of the sexual schizophrenia itself very convenient: One does not have to bother actually degrading one’s sex object to avoid the guilt of breaking the incest taboo; her attributes, by social definition, al – ‘ready render her degraded. (Perhaps the measure of corruption of the individual male psyche can be judged by the degree to which it lusts after black flesh as something exotic, erotic, because forbidden.) The black woman, while made to pay the sexploitation price of this schism, is at least freed of the enslavement of the family struc­ture. The white woman, though revered in her role as Mother, is permanently chained to her own private ty­rant.

How do the women of this racial Triangle feel about each other? Divide and Conquer: Both women have grown hostile to each other, white women feeling con­tempt for the “sluts” with no morals, black women feeling envy for the pampered “powder puffs.” The black woman is jealous of the white woman’s legitimacy, privilege, and comfort, but she also feels deep contempt: white women are “frigid bitches” who have it too easy, leaving black women to do all their white woman’s work—from supply­ing their husbands’ sex/passion needs and taking care of their children to doing their literal dirty work (“help”). Similarly, the white woman’s contempt for the black wom-

an is mixed with envy: for the black woman’s greater sexual license, for her gutsiness, for her freedom from the marriage bind. For after all, the black woman is not under the thumb of a man, but is pretty much her own boss to come and go, to leave the house, to work (much as it is degrading work) or to be “shiftless.” What the white woman doesn’t know is that the black woman,, not under the thumb of one man, can now be squashed by all. There is no alternative for either of them than the choice between being public or private property, but be­cause each still believes that the other is getting away with something, both can be fooled into mischanneling their frustration onto each other, rather than onto the real enemy, “The Man,”

If, in the white man’s sex drama, the white woman plays Wife (his private property), and the black woman plays Whore (his public property), what role does the black man play? The black man plays Pimp. The black man is a pawn in the game of the white man’s sexuality. For as we have seen, the black man is not a complete man, nor yet a homosexual (who has given up the strug­gle for male identity altogether), but a degraded male. (That pimp signifies “degraded male” is borne out by the fact that in the male code to call someone a pimp is tantamount to setting up a duel. I have pointed out that degrading animal terms for the male as well as the female occur regularly only in ghetto slang—stud,, cat, dude, spade, jack, etc.) The black man’s malehood is so insecure in relation to The Man that it registers only in terms of his power and control over—i. e., ill-treatment of—wom­en, who are at least more powerless than himself. Because women are his major weapon in the war of masculinity with the white man, his relation to them becomes cor­rupted—not like that of man over woman, husband over wife, but like that of pimp over whore. His patronage of the black woman is a false one: though he may even, at times, protect her from the evils of the marketplace, he does so for his own interests. But even when the black man most appears to be her primary exploiter, he is in

reality only the indirect agent of her exploitation. For though he may play the mares of his “stable” against each other, drink and gamble away their money (the hard – won fruits of their direct exploitation by the white man), beat them and call them names, it will never qualify him as a real man. The real man, as they both know, is The Man. He alone can confer legitimacy on either the black male or the black female. And again, as in his Wife-Whore triangle, he keeps both the Pimp and the Whore dangling, fighting with him through each other. Most of the tensions of these overlapping triangles appear in the following short quote by a black woman addressed to her man:

. Of course you will say, “How can I love you and want to be with you when I come home and you’re looking like a slob? Why, white women never open the door for their husbands the way you black bitches do.”

I should guess not, you ignorant man. Why should they be in such a state when they’ve got maids like me to do every­thing for them? There is no screaming at the kids for her, no standing over the hot stove; everything is done for her and whether her man loves her or not, he provides. . . provides … do you hear that, nigger? PROVIDES 1

—Gail A. Stokes in “Black Woman to Black Man,” Liberator, December, 1968.

But it is not only the black man’s relation to black women that is corrupted by his preoccupation with the white man. For though the black woman may give her last dollar to buy the black man a drink, her real involve­ment, too, is with the white man. Here is The Infidel speaking, from Cleaver’s “Allegory of the Black Eu­nuchs”:

Ever since then I always believed that marrying a white man, to a black woman, is like adding the final, star to her crown. It’s the apex of achievement in her eyes and in the eyes of her sisters. Look at how many family black celebrities marry white men. All of the Negro women who are not celebrities wish they were so that they too, could marry white men. Whitey is their dream boy. When they kiss you, it ain’t really

you they*ie kissing. They close their eyes and picture their white dream boy. Listen to the grapevine. . . . Jesus Christ the pure is the black woman’s psychic bridegroom. You will leant before you die that during coition and at the moment of her orgasm, the black woman, in the first throes of her spasm, shouts out the name of Jesus. "Oh Jesus, I’m coming I” she shouts to him. And to you it will hurt. It will be like a knife in your heart It will be the same as if your woman, during orgasm, calls out the name of some sneaky cat who lives down the block.

Thus the black woman has as much contempt for the black man as he has for her—a real man could elevate her through marriage, by virtue of his superior class. She can’t respect the black man, because she knows he has no power. The white man at least “provides” for his women, and doesn’t beat them. The white man is civil, kind, and polite at all times. She doesn’t see that it is in his interests to be: that way neither the Pimp nor the Whore will suspect that their Polite White Customer is responsible for both their destructions.

Thus, the All-American Family is predicated on the ex­istence of the black ghetto Whorehouse. The rape of the black community in America makes possible the existence of the family structure of the larger white community, just as sexual prostitution in general maintains the re­spectable middle-class family. The black community is the outgroup that supplies the sexual needs of the white hu­man family, keeping it functioning. And that’s why there is no family solidity in the ghetto.

The way this sex/race system is so often recreated in miniature in private life reveals the depth of the problem. The individual white household is sustained by the life­long domestic, as well as sexual, exploitation of individual black women. Or, the average ghetto youth does some pimping or even whoring as a matter of course, his value as a “man” measured by the way he is able to command his bitches—and how many he can command at once. He becomes a master of the smooth line, of doubletalk. If he is able to string along a white “chick,” this is an

added notch on his belt—for it’s a direct blow to the white man (Father). This explains the frequent pairing of the white whore with the black pimp: the white’wom­an (Mother) is degraded to whore along with the black woman, a direct slap at the white man. She is the Father’s most precious property, now sold back to him as damaged merchandise. As for the white whore herself—in those few cases where it was a matter of choice—she has expressed the ultimate in masochism. She becomes totally the prey of the white man, rubbing his nose in her acquiescence to the extreme humiliation: A black pimp.