Imagine that you are a black woman who had a full-day, grueling job interview and then returned to your hotel room to speak to your partner until 1am in the morning, though you needed to return to the interview at 8am the next morning. In the course of the day, you did not encounter any other black person so you know that taking this job will be more than a notion. Your partner, a black man, is in distress via work-related issues (since his job looks similar) and so that is all that you talk about because, after all, this is what it means to truly support someone. However, never once, not even in the weeks and months later, did he ask you what happened at that interview (and clearly a lot happened since the interview lasted for more than 15 hours). As a black female professional/academic, this scenario is more common than not and approximates the kinds of conversations I routinely have with many girlfriends— married, dating, looking, AND single-by-design. And while this example is certainly from a now bygone and regrettable past, it ain’t that past as to represent some kind of different century when women were supposed to just be barefoot and pregnant… and yet, you would think so.
After Tyler Perry dropped yet another movie about purposeless/pathetic/pathologized black women, I spent my last week talking to many black female students about their anxiety that their professional success will make them undesirable to black men, the message they receive everywhere around them (the weeks after a Tyler Perry movie are always a rollercoaster ride in my office with young black women who want to talk about relationships). Even Tyrese, RayJay, and Keith Sweat give dumb, misogynistic advice in new relationship books targeting black women now. To quote Keith Sweat himself: sumthin sumthin just ain’t right. With Steve Harvey’s banal relationship books topping numerous bestseller lists (and considered one of the top 10 bestselling relationship books of all times) followed by his movie that grossed 28 million dollars in its first week, there is obviously some real big money in black men telling black women what to do. I usually ignore this stuff because it is just so simple and played-out but I end up chiming in, if only to shift the direction of the conversation when I am talking to young black women.
Now let’s imagine another scenario. A black woman’s partner disappears for 6-8 weeks to focus on his own project but expects that she’ll be there waiting when he returns. The culture of patriarchy nurtures men to live this way as stoic, individual prototypical Lone Rangers who keep to themselves, presumably able to move through the world all alone and on their own, so this scenario should not seem so strange. On the rare occasion when the partner checks in (maybe between coffee stops and drinks at the bar), she is expected to listen and give support. Nevertheless, he never once gives any such support to her though her own project is just as critical during this 6-8 week period. Though there were some occasions when she was supported (like, maybe, in the very beginning), those occasions are not in the majority because, after all, as a black woman, she is regarded as someone made of Teflon. As such, her person isn’t seen as needing the same kind of care, attention, or defense as a non-black woman (or in more pessimistic terms, black women are simply not as valued as white women or other non-black/women of color so are not seen as deserving of care). It’s not an understatement to say that many of us feel like we are supporting and holding up the world and never getting that back in return from anyone anywhere. Self-help books do get some of it right though: folk (family, friends, partners) will take and take and take and give almost nothing, but ONLY if you let them. These texts, however, offer no critical social-help. The kind of support that women need in these new work-worlds that look unlike what women have ever entered in such large numbers is simply not forthcoming from many male partners at home. Unlike what you get in mainstream discourse, black women are not trippin’ because we make more money than black men, because there is no one to date, or because we have terminal degrees with extra letters behind our names now (see what I have to say about what it is like to be a black woman in graduate school and you will really understand that we do NOT experience ourselves as being on top of the world). You have to wonder how and why white mainstream pundits and black male public figures so frequently talk this way about black women. We can STOP talking now about how to “find a good man,” the mantra you hear ad nauseum. This notion of “finding a good black man” sticks too closely to the good man/bad man binary under patriarchy (a good man is, after all, just a benevolent patriarch). We need to instead START talking about building a partnership with a LIBERATED MAN (yes, they exist), which is what I think Jill Scott has in mind here:
These very public (and lucrative) discussions about cultivating black professional women to find black male partners is just a cover-up for the real issues: what will happen to partnering in a patriarchal system when the economic world no longer gives ANY man the sole capacity to be bread-winners (poor black men have always faced this)? Will we re-script maleness or just blame this newest lack of breadwinning on women/feminism rather than on new modes of capitalism? Will femaleness get re-scripted or will we go to work, come home, and then act as if we are still stay-at-home moms so that patriarchy can look in tact?
Old, patriarchal models won’t serve working women well who need the same emotional support that men have always been able to count on from women (see the above examples). The crisis of patriarchy under new capitalism means white supremacy punishes black women the most by labeling us as most undesirable or irrational (or just such robust workers/cotton-pickers that we won’t need anyone or anything). These exaggerated levels of attention that get paid to professional black women who are “unable” to “find” “good, black men” COULD actually point us in the direction of a new rupture of patriarchy if we see that, at root, that is really what we are talking about. Black women’s discourses can lead the way here just as much as when black women became the first and only women to openly and publicly critique male physical and sexual abuse via the Blues— a historical fact that I see as the single-most important contribution of Angela Davis’s book, Blues Legacies and Black Feminism. The fact of the matter is that the model of male breadwinner/patriarch and stay-at-home wife (or the almost stay-at-home wife with a man who earns twice as much and who, therefore, has the career/needs that take precedence) is no longer viable for anyone except a very small 5% of the wealthy, elite. That was never viable for working-class black people anyway but now a more multi-hued middle class is getting to experience what po’ black folk have always faced, hence, all this attention. And in true American fashion, the nation will work out its psychoses on black bodies. Unless you are with a trust-fund baby or a Wall Street crook, you gon be workin in the 21st century. Old notions of domesticity just won’t cut it, not even for white male patriarchs. I suspect black women will be the ones to take on this charge of re-framing how we understand these old notions though we won’t be acknowledged as such… right now, that is certainly what my office hours are looking and sounding like.