Liberated Response to Patriarchy

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.

Teaching Black Women’s Rhetoric: (Re)Hearing Feminist Discourse

It only occurred to me late in the semester that I could make a youtube channel with my current course, African American women’s rhetoric (it is called BlackWomynRhetProjct Channel).  I have organized the class chronologically so in some ways, this new epiphany could only come now.  I guess that will be my excuse because, really, I should have been doing this all along.  The website is good to archive the daily reading and writing assignments, but the channel lets me create a much richer archive of materials for students to use as both reference and supplement.

As soon as we left the early Civil Rights Movement and entered the 1970s, the videos and documentaries of historical footage as well as current speeches and lectures given by black women increased 100-fold.

So my class now begins to draw more and more from multimedia sources rather than just print sources.  This is much bigger than whether or not we have students read digital texts or print texts in our classes, a simplistic conversation that many teachers seem to think is some kind of hallmark of new, critical-digital pedagogies.  My class is not about reading for reading’s sake, but about (re)hearing black women by examining their multiple rhetrics.  If the text is online, good; if it’s in print, that’ll work too.  Who cares?  My job is to make multiple texts accessible to my working class undergraduate students in financially accessible ways.  The fact remains that when you are dealing with historical black women, YOU READ WHATEVER YOU CAN FIND WHEREVER YOU CAN FIND IT!  Who publishes and who gets a voice is still controlled by a white dominant culture, whether that be digital or print, so you can still count on black women not being equally or respectfully represented in any space.

But that does bring me to youtube, where, arguably, I spend too much of my time.  Let’s face it: by 2010, the amount of videos being uploaded to youtube was the equivalent of 180,000 feature-length movies per week.  In less than a week, youtube generates more video content than Hollywood has done in its entire lifetime.  Now I won’t act like that is cause for celebration; it just means I have some greater odds to find some black women on youtube than in Hollywood (which won’t require an avalanche of material for that comparative statement to be true).  I have seen more than my fair share of videos on youtube of black men who pontificate that black women are just copying white women, that white feminism has corrupted black feminist souls and minds with arbitrary discussions of patriarchy, that black women are not as worthy of attention/love/partnership as other more domesticated women of color (who are, of course, lighter in hue), that black women emasculate black men in the ways they treat the fathers of their children, that black women are actually white men in disguise when they boss black men around too much, that black women can be casually/publicly named bitches and hoes (words used as regularly by online “talk show” hosts as rappers).  I could go on and on with these examples.  I stopped reading video comments a long time ago so that I wouldn’t be continually insulted by outright, deliberate misogynistic slurs (i.e., which songs compliment “bedroom mixes” and other sexual encounters). Needless to say, if I just watched youtube, I would think that most black men who talk about black women sound ABSOLUTELY NO different than white-racist Daniel Moynhan who, in his 1965 Moynihan Report, blamed all economic “failures” of black communities on the nature of overly-aggressive black women.  I place these kinda folk in a special youtube category: DAMN FOOLS WITH A VIDEO CAMERA…UPLOADED.  I mean, really, the kind of stuff these folk say makes me wonder if they really get that people can hear them?

So yeah you hafta wade though some realllll dumb bullshit on youtube (I just don’t have a more polite way to say that, sorry). But then… yes, but then…. you can find the footage from the documentary on Shirley Chisholm that got lost on the chopping block, that one sentence that means the world, like this jewel:

“I want history to remember me… as a black woman who lived in the 20th century and who dared to be herself!”

There is the ability to watch Barbara Jordan’s speech on Nixon’s impeachment, play it back over and over and over, for free, so you and your students can hear those pauses and annunciations that she makes, see the photo where Jordan is sitting right next to Shirley Chisholm, and marvel at how, at 2 o’clock in the morning, Jordan opens her statement to Congress by letting them know she has an unwavering commitment to the U.S. Constitution (and seems to know it better than anyone else in the room) even though she was never included in its original framing!!  Yesterday, in class, I could hear my students take on the rhythmic pronunciation patterns, pauses, and accents on words like SUS-PEC-TED in their own language to talk about Jordan’s language.  And as a class, we could all hear how Jordan takes the words of the Constitution and almost takes you to church (her father is a minister so this is not simply a misapplied, figurative expression here but a description of the format in which Jordan recites text to an audience) while, at the same time, offers a closing statement in what feels like the kind of trial where you’d hope Jordan was the  lawyer on YOUR side (Jordan is a lawyer so this is not an accident either though these hearings are not a trial.)

Today, I am watching and selecting lectures by and documentaries about  Angela Davis (there isn’t much available on youtube spanning her 1990s lectures but I suspect that will change soon enough.)  This gives me the chance to move students’ images of Davis past her iconic figure in the 70s with an Afro, mouth always wide open, on the FBI’s Most Wanted List and show her as a full intellectual-activist, now and back then.  I have just finished the second part of her lecture (click here for first part) at the Ebenezer Baptist Church in downtown Atlanta on March 24, 2009 for the keynote address of Emory University’s Women’s History Month.

What I am struck by at this moment is the importance of (re)hearing feminist discourse because, in this second part of the video, Davis talks about the ways in which we must challenge many of Obama’s policies.  What strikes me  here is how differently she does this, while still maintaining a kind of class/imperialism analysis.   Davis mobilizes her critiques without the stain of the anti-black subtext that I feel and hear from the White Left/non-Black Left, folk who I have never seen or heard think deeply about the racial apartheid in which we live and that they benefit from.  I just don’t trust them when they launch their mouth-grenades on black folk and neither should anyone else.   Davis also mobilizes her critiques without the kind of ego-driven, look-at-me-look-at-me, spotlight-mongering tendencies of people like Cornel West and Tavis Smiley, though she is clearly as iconic and famous as they are.  While I have agreed with many of these critiques from these camps, there has always been something amiss for me, a real kind of disrespect that cannot be removed from the fact that Obama is a black man, just in the way that these activists frame their rhetoric.  Davis reminds just how differently Black Feminist Rhetoric operates and why her critique is one that I can hear and see as transformative. I need to make sure that I hear this kind of Black Feminist Rhetoric more— I especially now see the ways youtube can drown out the other voices once I find the right spaces where black women are being heard.

Love, Patriarchy & Capitalism: Prototypical

heart-of-moneyThough I don’t talk much about relationships on this site, intimacy is as political as anything else.  Relationships, families, and  co-habitation are mediated by a stunning marriage of patriarchy and consumerism.  So much of the partnering that I see seems to work like business ventures: dating is like making an investment and getting the right woman/man is like selecting a good stock option. Heterosexual women are considered accomplished when they find a benevolent patriarch (i.e., Steve Harvey) who will protect and provide for them even if the women are as dumb as hell (which, for patriarchy to work, is usually most desired).

Our language often reveals just how difficult it is for us to re-script these kinds of relationships. Here’s an example. An acquaintance (we never spent any time together so I can’t call him much else) once called me, in a very round-about way, his “prototype”, emboldened by Raheem DeVaughn’s cover of Outkast’s problematic song (a man celebrates that he has fallen in love AGAIN and is grateful that he has now found his “prototype” because if things end, he can presumedly be better at falling in love… AGAIN.)  I’ve never been impressed by this masculinist discourse. I’d be silly to think a man has called me, and only me, his “prototype”— that’s a line, not a life choice. Unfortunately, too many women might see a compliment in this foolishness. In a patriarchal system, men’s definition of and giving of “love” holds the most value, even if that really only means consumption, power, and objectification. Many might be confused by my offense here, so let me cut straight to the point: a WOMAN is not a prototype so, when in doubt, avoid any discourse that calls her a thing on-the-way-to-the-next thing.

I did tread lightly here: I didn’t even respond to this “compliment” at first, I then stated on the next day that I didn’t get the intention of these words, and then, finally, I asked, casually so, for the brotha’s intention.  No in-depth answer was forthcoming.  When I then later pressed for a real explanation while indicating that I was offended, the brotha still wouldn’t budge, talked about guitar solos instead, insisted that he meant something else without any discussion of that something else, and just got rude and accused me of not listening (and, yes, I responded back to that).  There was no apology and no reclamation of a sexist offense.  While it might seem like I am focusing on a rather trivial conversation, the larger issues of patriarchy and consumption are all tied into this seemingly small interaction.  This exchange is exactly what bell hooks talks about in The Will To Change: Men, Masculinity, and Love (there are many interesting discussions about this book amongst men; I like the way the blogger and activist, Alex Knight, describes patriarchy as terrorizing his life and emotional maturity).  When men choose patriarchal power this way (and hooks calls emotional withdrawal/withholding, etc all forms of patriarchal power/male control), there is a real danger for both men and women: men give up the ability to really love, feel, or communicate when they only take their place as patriarchs; women embrace violence by allowing male domination and power to script their daily lives.

Because the song does not re-invent the definition of prototype, it’s a problem to use this language in reference to women.  Let’s look:

Definition of Prototype
From the OED: c.1600, from Fr. prototype, from M.L. prototypon, from Gk. prototypon “a first or primitive form,” properly neut. sing. of prototypos “original, primitive,” from protos “first” (see proto-) + typos “impression” (see type).
popular definition: an original type, form, or instance serving as a basis or standard for later stages.

With this “prototype” labeling, a lot is revealed: women are types and there is one model to be molded, not that much different from people I know who have one specific kind of car that they like. The very definition assumes a manufactured object where new replicas/women will be created, distributed, sold.  It’s almost like watching the next women come down a factory assembly line and checking their parts to see which ones came out right.  480barbiesIf this all seems like a harsh indictment, I should add that this same man would do things like run down the list of: 1) birthdays or birthmonths for his ex-girlfriends, including his “baby momma” who bears the same sign as him, with almost identical birthdate (thus making them, fairly recently, the perfect match); 2) the various attributes of these women’s personalities as well as their other, um, attributes, and; 3) the various gifts he gave these women (with lists of what they liked to eat).  When MY BIRTHDAY came around, this man didn’t even remember and accused me of not telling him the date. I didn’t care so much about the missed birthday, except for the fact that I had actually told him the date— it was the precursor to his aforementioned 3-point discussion.  As you can see, he was more interested in the memories of his pre-“prototypes” and zodiac matches. When women are mere prototypes, as this case shows, they are things and so, as objects only, they are not worthy of real care, remembering, priority, or value.  I could tell more stories like this but, more importantly, this brotha would insist that he does not run game as a playa-playin’-on and that he works wholeheartedly at anti-patriarchy.  Choosing to name and relate to women as “prototypes” after previous conquests (and thinking single women just want your “seed”) is a virtual blueprint for misogyny, not a meaningful way to live, love, and raise a family.  I don’t want to suggest that heterosexual men are the only ones who treat women like commodities because heterosexual women try to manufacture men too (loving a man based solely on what he can do/perform vs. allowing him to be fully human); men just have patriarchy on their sides and, therefore, are encouraged and seemingly rewarded when they promote this system.  My point is that framing relationships outside of and beyond the patriarchy and hyper-consumption in which we live is a feat most of us are not achieving, with the various men making covers of this song a striking example.  There is a tragedy here, one that hooks continually warns us of: without the relinquish of patriarchy, even when men are tryna do right for they women, like these musicians perhaps, they still only turn women into things/objects/prototypes.

Now some people tend to think that I go off the deep end with my politics and, well, I don’t care. The fact of the matter is that we are in a system and no one’s language and actions are innocent.  I am not suggesting that all is lost, only that there is real talk AND work to do. At the end of the day, loving/being with someone beyond patriarchal violence and consumerist logic is amongst the most revolutionary and human things we can do. Of all things, love—black love— needs to be radical.