Throughout our history in this nation African-Americans have had to search for images of our ancestors. When Ivan Van Sertima published his awesome work They Came before Columbus telling the world about the Africans who journeyed to this land before the colonizing Spaniards, it should have created an academic revolution, changing the nature of how American history is taught, particularly African-American history. Decolonized black folks realize that masses of African-American people once believed that ignorance was at the core of white anti-black racism. After a militant civil rights struggle led to new ways of knowing and those ways of knowing were systematically ignored by elites within the power structure, it became evident that the root of white supremacy was not ignorance but the desire on the part of unenlightened white people to maintain their dominance over black people in this nation and around the word. Even when liberal white individuals make popular movies, like Amistad, which offer radically dif ferent understanding of the role played by Africans in the so-called new world, most citizens continue to believe that African-American history begins with slavery.
African explorers coming to the “new world” before Columbus were men. The fact that they did not seek to dominate and/or destroy the indigenous native people who were living on these shores reveals that their sense of masculinity was not defined by the will to dominate and colonize folks who were not like them. The fictive Africans in the film Amistad are sensitive spiritual learned men of feeling who struggle to cope with the alien ways of colonizing white settlers. Compare and contrast this fictive image (a representation based on true accounts) with the image of Africa, Africans, and African-Americans interested in recognizing African roots in films like Made in America and the more recent Undercover Brother. In these films the black male who is interested in Africa is portrayed as a lying clownish buffoon, easily duped by faulty Afro-centric ideas. These negative images are created by white and black males; they help maintain white-supremacist thinking.
Most black folks, particularly the black males who have power within the mainstream film industry, focused their attention on the flaws in the film Amistad basing their dislike on the fact that it was created by whites. Very few viewers were willing to champion this film for the radical representation of black maleness and Africa that was depicted. Yet this is the type of representation that should be seen by American moviegoers because it challenges stereotypes. Audience responses to this film expose a great deal about the struggle for patriarchal power influential black males engage in with white males, the unidentified gender war that has been taking place since slavery ended.
When we read annals of history, the autobiographical writings of free and enslaved black men, it is revealed that initially black males did not see themselves as sharing the same stand-point as white men about the nature of masculinity. Transplanted African men, even those coming from communi ties where sex roles shaped the division of labor, where the status of men was different and most times higher than that of women, had to be taught to equate their higher status as men with the right to dominate women, they had to be taught patriarchal masculinity. They had to be taught that it was acceptable to use violence to establish patriarchal power. The gender politics of slavery and white-supremacist domination of free black men was the school where black men from different African tribes, with different languages and value systems, learned in the “new world,” patriarchal masculinity.
Writing about the evolution of black male involvement in patriarchal masculinity in the essay “Reconstructing Black Masculinity” I write:
Although the gendered politics of slavery denied black men the freedom to act as “men” within the definition set by white norms, this notion of manhood did become a standard used to measure black male progress. The narratives of Henry “Box” Brown, Josiah Henson, Frederick Douglass, and a host of other black men reveal that they saw “freedom” as that change in status that would enable them to fulfill the role of chivalric benevolent patriarch. Free, they would be men able to provide for and take care of their families. Describing how he wept as watched a white slave overseer beat his mother, William Wells Brown lamented, “Experience has taught me that nothing can be more heart-rending than for one to see a dear and beloved mother or sister tortured, and to hear their cries and not be able to render them assistance. But such is the position which an American slave occupies.” Frederick Douglass did not feel his manhood affirmed by intellectual progress. It was affirmed when he fought man to man with the slave overseer. This struggle was a “turning point” in Douglass’s life: “It rekindled in my breast the smoldering embers of liberty. It brought up my Baltimore dreams and revived a sense of my own manhood. I was a changed being after that fight. I was nothing before—I was a man now.” The image of black masculinity that emerges from slave narratives is one of hardworking men who longed to assume full patriarchal responsibility for families and kin.
This testimony shows that enslaved black males were socialized by white folks to believe that they should endeavor to become patriarchs by seeking to attain the freedom to provide and protect for black women, to be benevolent patriarchs. Benevolent patriarchs exercise their power without using force. And it was this notion of patriarchy that educated black men coming from slavery into freedom sought to mimic. However, a large majority of black men took as their standard the dominator model set by white masters. When slavery ended these black men often used violence to dominate black women, which was a repetition of the strategies of control white slavemasters used. Some newly freed black men would take their wives to the barn to beat them as the white owner had done. Clearly, by the time slavery ended patriarchal masculinity had become an accepted ideal for most black men, an ideal that would be reinforced by twentieth-century norms.
Despite the overwhelming support of patriarchal masculinity by black men, there was even in slavery those rare black males who repudiated the norms set by white oppressors. Individual black male renegades who either escaped from slavery or chose to change their circumstance once they were freed, often found refuge among Native Americans, thus moving into tribal cultures where patriarchal masculinity with its insistence on violence and subjugation of women and children was not the norm. Marriages between Native women and African-American men during reconstruction also created a context for different ways of being and living that were counter to the example of white Christian family life. In southern states enclaves of African folk who had escaped slavery or joined with renegade maroons once slavery ended kept alive African cultural retentions that also offered a subculture distinct from the culture imposed by whiteness.
With keen critical insight Rudolph Byrd, co-editor of the anthology Traps: African American Men on Gender and Sexuality, offers in his groundbreaking essay “The Tradition of John” the mythopoetic folk hero John as a figure of alternative masculinity. Byrd explains:
Committed to the overthrow of slavery and the ideology of white supremacy, John is the supreme antagonist of “Old Massa” and the various hegemonic structures he and his descendants have created and, most disheartening, many of them predictably still cherish. In John’s various acts of resistance are reflected his most exemplary values and attributes: motherwit, the power of laughter and song, self-assertion, self-examination, selfknowledge, a belief that life is process grounded in the fertile field of improvisation, hope, and most importantly love. And his aspirations? Nothing less than the full and complete emancipation of Black people from every species of slavery. These are the constitutive elements and aspiration that together comprise the tradition of John. In these days of so many hours, it is a mode of Black masculinity grounded in enduring principles that possesses…a broad and vital instrumentality.
Clearly, the individual black males who strategized resistance to slavery, plotted paths to freedom, and who invented new lives for themselves and their people were working against the white-supremacist patriarchal norm. They were the men who set the stage for the black male abolitionists who supported more freedom for women. Alexander Crummell in his address before the Freedman’s Aid Society in 1883 spoke directly to a program for racial uplift that would focus on black women, particularly on education. He announced in his address that: “The lot of the black man on the plantation has been sad and desolate enough; but the fate of the black woman has been awful! Her entire existence from the day she first landed, a naked victim of the slave-trade, has been degradation in its extremest forms.”
Frederick Douglass spoke regularly on behalf of gender equality. In his 1888 talk “I Am a Radical Woman Suffrage Man” he made his position clear:
The fundamental proposition of the woman suffrage movement is scarcely less simple than that of the antislavery movement. It assumes that woman is herself. That she belongs to herself, just as fully as man belongs to himself—that she is a person and has all the attributes of personality that can be claimed by man, and that her rights of person are equal in all respects to those of man. She has the same number of senses that distinguish man, and is like man a subject of human government, capable of understanding, obeying and being affected by law. That she is capable of forming an intelligent judgment as to the character of public men and public measures, and she may exercise her right of choice in respect both to the law and the lawmakers…nothing could be more simple or more reasonable.
Nineteenth-century black leaders were concerned about gender roles and exceptional black men supported gender equality. Martin Delaney stressed that both genders needed to work equally for racial uplift.
Like Frederick Douglass, Delaney felt that gender equality would strengthen the race, not that it would make black females independent and autonomous. As co-editors of the North Star, Douglass and Delaney had a masthead in 1847 which read “right is of no sex—truth is of no color.” At the 1848 meeting of the National Negro Convention Delaney presented a proposal that began: “Whereas we fully believe in the equality of the sexes, therefore….” Without a doubt black males have a historical legacy of pro-women’s liberation to draw upon. Even so there were black male leaders who opposed Douglass’s support of rights for women. In the essay “Reconstructing Black Masculinity” I state that most black men recognized the powerful and necessary role black women had played as freedom fight ers in the effort to abolish slavery, yet they still wanted black women to be subordinated. Explaining further:
They wanted black women to conform to the gender norms set by white society. They wanted to be recognized as “men,” as patriarchs, by other men, including white men. Yet they could not assume this position if black women were not willing to conform to prevailing sexist gender norms. Many black women who had endured white-supremacist patriarchal domination during slavery did not want to be dominated by black men after manumission. Like black men, they had contradictory positions on gender. On one hand they did not want to be “dominated,” but on the other hand they wanted black men to be protectors and providers. After slavery ended, enormous tension and conflict emerged between black women and men as folks struggled to be self-determining. As they Worked to create standards for community and family life, gender roles continued to be problematic.
These contradictions became the norm in black life.
In the early part of the twentieth century black male thinkers and leaders were, like their white male counterparts, debating the question of gender equality. Intellectual and activist W.E.B. DuBois writing on behalf of black women’s rights in 1920 declared: “We cannot abolish the new economic freedom of women. We cannot imprison women again in a home or require them all on pain of death to be nurses and housekeepers…. The uplift of women is, next to the problem of the color and the peace movement, our greatest modern cause.” Influenced by the work of black woman anti-sexist activist Anna Julia Cooper, DuBois never wavered in this belief that black women should be seen as co-equal with black men. Despite the stellar example of W.E.B. DuBois, who continually supported the rights of women overall, black males seemed to see the necessity of black females participating as co-equals in the struggle for racial uplift with the implicit understanding that once freedom was achieved black females would take their rightful place subordinate to the superior will of men. In keeping with sexist norms, sexist black folks believed that “slavery and racism sought the emasculation of Afro-American men” and that the responsibility of black folks to counter this, that black women were to “encourage and support the manhood of our men.”
As editor of the “Women’s Page” of the newspaper the Negro World, Amy Jacque Garvey, wife of the radical thinker Marcus Garvey, declared: “We are tired of hearing Negro men say, There is a better day coming’ while they do nothing to usher in that day. We are becoming so impatient that we are getting in the front ranks and serve notice that we brush aside the halting, cowardly Negro leaders…. Mr. Black Man watch your step!… Strengthen your shaking knees and move forward, or we will displace you and lead on to victory and glory.” This passage gives a good indication of the fact that educated black women struggled to repress their power to stand behind their men even as they were continually questioning this positionality. Outspoken women’s rights advocates in the latter part of the nineteenth century, like Anna Julia Cooper, were more militant about the need for black women to have equal access to education and forms of power, especially economic power.
Throughout the 1900s black men and women debated the issues of gender equality. White-supremacist capitalist patriarchy’s refusal to allow black males full access to employment while offering black females a place in the service economy created a context where black males and females could not conform to standard sexist roles in regard to work even if they wanted to. It was the participation of black women in the workforce that led to the notion that black women were “matriarchal leaders” in the home. In actuality, black female workers often handed their paychecks over to the males who occupied the patriarchal space of leadership in the home. Simply working did not mean black women were free. The gender roles that black folks formed in the twenties, thirties, and forties were complex. It was not a simple world of black women working and therefore exercising power in the home. Many contemporary black folks forget that in the world of the early twentieth century black people were far more likely to live with extended kin. A black woman who worked as a maid, a housekeeper, a laundress, etc., was far more likely to give her money toward the collective good and not for her own use or power.
While social critics looking at black life have continually emphasized the notion that black men were symbolically castrated because black women were often the primary breadwinners, they have called attention to the reality of the working black woman giving away her earnings. Not all black families cared about black women earning more as long as black males controlled their earnings. And now that a vast majority of white women in this nation work and many of them earn more than their white male spouses, the evidence is there to confirm that men are less concerned about who earns more and more concerned about who controls the money. If the man controls the money, even if his wife is wealthy, the evidence suggests that he will not feel emasculated. Black men and women have always had a diversity of gender roles, some black men wanting to be patriarchs and others turning away from the role. Long before contemporary feminist theory talked about the value of male participation in parenting, the idea that men could stay home and raise children while women worked had already been proven in black life.
Black women and men have never been praised for having created a diversity of gender roles. In the first essay I wrote about black masculinity more than ten years ago the lengthy arguments I made are worth quoting again here:
Without implying that black women and men lived in gender utopia, I am suggesting that black sex roles, and particularly the role of men, have been more complex and problematized in black life than is believed. This was especially the case when all black people lived in segregated neighborhoods. Racial integration has had a profound impact on black gender roles. It has helped to promote a climate wherein most black women and men accept sexist notions of gender roles. Unfortunately, many changes have occurred in the way black people think about gender, yet the shift from one standpoint to another has not been fully documented. For example: To what extent did the civil rights movement, with its definition of freedom as having equal opportunity with whites, sanctioned looking at white gender roles as a norm black people should imitate? Why has there been so little positive interest shown in the alternative lifestyles of black men? In every segregated black community in the United States there are adult black men married, unmarried, gay, straight, living in households where they do not assert patriarchal domination and yet live fulfilled lives, where they are not sitting around worried about castration. Again it must be emphasized that the black men who are most worried about castration and emasculation are those who have completely absorbed white-supremacist patriarchal definitions of masculinity.
Black people begin to support patriarchy more as more civil rights were gained and the contributions black women made to the struggle for black liberation were no longer seen as essential and necessary contributions.
Significantly, when the white patriarchal world begins to turn its critical gaze on black families, a negative critique of black females becomes more commonplace. It had simply been an accepted norm that given the politics of white supremacy and racial injustice black women would struggle equally with black men on all fronts to ensure racial uplift. At the very beginning of the twentieth century the U.S. Census Bureau issued a warning about the nature of black families, calling attention to the fact that African-American women were disproportionately abandoned by their husbands or had never married but had children. When E. Franklin Frazier published his 1939 study The Negro Family in the United States (which was considered groundbreaking at the time it was written) he endeavored to call attention to the diversity of marital and partnership arrangements black people were making as well as the impact of class on black family relations. Frazier was one of the first academics to call attention to the way in which racist barriers to black people assuming sexist-defined roles disrupted marriage and black families because it led to a lack of interest in sustaining two-parent households. Yet Frazier never suggested that these arrangements were emasculating to black men.
Many males were as uninterested in traditional sexist roles as were females, if not more so. And unlike white males, black males did not have an institutionalized patriarchal-influenced morality to make them feel less manly if they abandoned families. In the fifties most black folks were trying to conform to patriarchal norms of marriage and family. Only 17 percent of black households were headed by women and homes with two parents present were more the accepted norm. Though limited, black females could find work in the service industry when there were no jobs available to black men, which meant that they were often primary breadwinners in black families.
There are no records to indicate whether masses of black men coming from a slave history where work was compulsory and oftentimes brutal saw work as crucial to their masculine identity. Educated black men, imitating the manners and mores of middle-and upper-class white men, were few in number, unlike their poorer illiterate black brothers, they were obsessed with the notion of protecting and providing for their families. Certainly, many black men adapted to the reality of white supremacy providing menial jobs for black women while denying employment to black men without either internalizing the blame for this situation or projecting it onto black women. Julius Lester wrote about this spirit of resistance to white norms in Look Out, Whitey! Black Power’s Gon’ Get Your Mama, explaining that: “It is partially true that blacks have accepted the white man’s image of themselves. However, it is also true that they have resisted accepting this image. It is not an exaggeration to say that the history of blacks in America is one of resistance. But that resistance has remained, for the most part, unorganized, and thus the difficulty in recognizing the struggle that has been constantly taking place. (The resistance in black peoples lives has remained little known in America because the racism that exists in this country will not allow any other view of blacks to exist except the racist view. When other views are presented, racism prevents their acceptan...