A Black Feminist on the Blame Game

I’m a proud and adamant black feminist.

And ever since I took on that designation, in my late teens, I’ve had a lot of men and women argue with me about how “problematic” it is for me to call myself a feminist as a black woman.

The standard explanation that they give me–for why feminism is so destructive to black life and community–is it emasculates and displaces men.

But the meme that I saw on Facebook earlier today explains why I think black feminism is absolutely necessary:

meme

Black feminism is necessary because it helps black women to see the fallacy in misogynistic bullshit like this.

It helps us to cope with the undue hostility with which so many black men treat us in an attempt to hide from culpability for what they’ve done with their lives and to themselves and their families.

Tonight is not the first time that I’ve read this particular story of the destruction of the black family, in which black women are the scapegoats for black men’s inability to fight effectively against certain destructive influences in their lives.

It’s not the first time that I’ve read this fucked-up fable of what “feminism” did to the black family, but it’s the first time that I’m going to argue against it on this blog. Because it’s untrue.

In the 1950s and 1960s, yes, there were far more married black people than there are now. But we have to look at the factors that contributed to that outside of the absence of feminism.

The church played a much more encompassing role in black life at that time.

College and professional careers were only possible for a small segment of the black community, so adult rites of passage boiled down to getting a job, getting married, and having babies.

Segregation made it so people socialized almost exclusively with other black people, so they paired off almost exclusively with other black people.

Black people made–believe it or not–even less money than they do now, so men and women used marriage to combine incomes and strengthen their chances of survival.

Marriage was much more of a necessity than it is today.

Yes–the feminist movement of the 70s gained women better pay and more work opportunities, making marriage less of a economic mandate and more of an option, but let’s be realistic about how much the feminist movement of the 70s–the mainstream feminist movement–the white feminist movement–really benefited black women. It didn’t do as much as people like to pretend.

In fact, according to the Census Bureau, black women still make less income than white men, white women, Asian men and women, Hispanic men and women, and black men in 2016.

So in actuality we stand to gain more than anyone when it comes to creating two-income households.

This has been true for us since Emancipation.

Because welfare doesn’t make single black women so financially stable that they would discount the prospect of marriage and a two-income household.

According to the statistics, unmarried women receive an average of $337 in monthly benefits compared to $447 for households headed by single men and $420 a month for households headed by married couples.

In all, people on welfare received an average of $404 a month in food stamps, SSI benefits, TANF, or general assistance in 2012.

To be middle class in America–which is what most people–black, white, purple or polka-dotted–desire, you need to make anywhere from $50,000 to $250,000 a year, depending on where you live. If you receive $400 a month from the government, you’re only getting $4800 a year. That’s far below the poverty line.

Even if you’re getting other forms of assistance–Section 8, Medicaid–along with the cash, you’re not a middle class existence. You may be benefits rich, but you’re cash poor.

Plus, the capacity to live off most forms of welfare usually only lasts for about 60 months (five years), thanks to President Bill Clinton. It’s not a legitimate replacement for a financially contributing spouse. It’s not a legitimate replacement for a living wage or job.

But we can even step away from the money discussion. We can deal with the whole “independence” thing. Perhaps once and for all.

The story says black women “were told” they were independent in the 70s, and that’s what caused us to separate ourselves from black men–to “remove” them from our homes.

Well . . .

Because of the circumstances by which we came to America, black women have had to be independent. Independence wasn’t some revolutionary concept that feminism introduced to us in the 70s.

Slavery required us to learn to survive without the protection of our men or their participation in family life.

The continual disfranchisement and murder of black men that continued through Reconstruction and Jim Crow made it so that many of us had to play breadwinner either because we could acquire more gainful or steady employment than our men or our men were taken from us by lynching, incarceration, war, and disproportionately poorer health.

Yes–in the 90s, mass incarceration became the most destructive force to the black family alongside drug abuse and homicide. So the story gets at least part of it right. The government has used certain forces, historically, to remove black men from black homes.

The story is wrong, though–I think–in making black women seem complicit in the disappearance of black men from the community through some collective, antagonistic choice to pursue “independence.”

I think black women have chosen survival, from slavery until now, because a certain level of dependence on black men has been impossible, and I think it’s unfair to vilify us for that when we are victims of institutional racism too, and black men have not done everything that they could to avoid certain racist traps or overcome certain psychological and social pathologies that keep them from being as healthy as they need to be in order to function.

I also think the story that black women chose independence and welfare over black men ignores a really important truth about how most black women feel about love and marriage.

Black women by and large want to get married. They want partners. They want co-parents. They’ve been conditioned by religion and tradition. They seek to be socially and psychologically validated by marriage like other women do. You see it all the time in the media–educated, professional cis hetero black women lamenting the fact that they can’t find cis hetero black men to marry.

If independence robbed them of the desire to be married, this tired-ass news story wouldn’t still be circulating like it does.

So the story in the meme doesn’t reflect the reality–that black women are just as conditioned by patriarchy as anyone else.

N0–the story in the meme tells the lie that black women’s independence destroyed the black family–it makes black women the “enemy,” if you will–to cover up for how culpable black men are in helping to destroy the black family.

“Angela Sams” may be who posted the story, but I doubt very seriously that she–or another woman–composed the story, and, if a woman did, she did it more than likely to ameliorate the resentment–male to female–that gave life to the prejudiced lies it tells.

Because let’s be real here: Institutional racism does account for the absence of a huge number of black men from black homes. But if we go back to the 60s and 70s, it was integration that began the noticeable shift away from marriage in the black community.

Once black men were able to go to college and pursue professional careers, they lost interest in getting married (and they still get married later than white, Asian, and Hispanic men or remain unmarried at a higher rate than white, Asian, and Hispanic men).

Once they were able to socialize with women of other races, black men began dating and marrying them (25% of black men that married in 2013 “married out” versus 12% of black women that married in 2013).

Then there’s the personal choices that a lot of men made in the 80s and 90s that took over their lives.

A lot of men chose to use crack  and became addicted and unfit to participate in family life. A lot of men chose to sell crack and ended up murdered and incarcerated. Some men contracted AIDS from bad lifestyle choices and died from the hateful disease.

And we can go back even further and be even more frank.

A lot of black men have simply abandoned their families. They’ve walked away from their women and children; they haven’t been dragged away.

So many men that migrated from the South during the Migration never went back to get their families.

So many black men from Emancipation to now have been invited to leave their families because they were abusive, shiftless, or unfaithful.

In various ways, and through their own decisions and actions, men largely subtracted themselves from the black home, then and now.

The myth of the impeccable black family of the mid-20th century is just that. The black American family has never been the pillar that we’ve wanted it to be because it originated in slavery–it was besieged from its inception.

And it’s also true that the overwhelming lack of father figures has made it difficult for black men to be effective parents. That the lack of married models has made it difficult for black men to know how to be partners.

But these crises within the black community have just as much to do with what black men have chosen for themselves as they have to do with what black women have chosen for themselves.

Again, millions of black men–across generations–have fled their responsibilities, not been pushed out of them.

They have either put themselves, knowingly, in positions where the government was entitled to remove them from their homes, or they’ve left of their own volition.

The misconception at the center of the argument that black women wholesale “removed” black men from their homes in the 80s is that black men are total victims of some unholy alliance formed between black women and white men.

It conveniently glosses over two truths that I think contribute directly to the estrangement of black women and black men.

The first is that victims can be aggressors.

You can be oppressed by institutional racism but then turn around and oppress those that are stacked under you on the social totem (women and children).

In fact, it’s likely that you would because white patriarchy is your model for leadership and “success (For example, black women are almost three times as likely to die as a result of domestic violence and intimate partner violence than White women. We only make up 8% of the population, yet 22% of homicides that result from DV/IPV happen to us).

The second thing the story tries to blanket over is the fact that black men can’t have it both ways.

You can’t portray yourselves as devoid of autonomy, agency, respect for women, or intelligent understanding of the black American condition but then blame black women from turning away from you as a source of protection, support, love, or assistance.

By making an argument that seeks to absolve you of responsibility for your role in destroying the black family–that it’s all black women’s fault–you undermine your subargument that the black family needs you.

You make it sound as if you have nothing to offer black women but the opportunity to strap your pouty, powerless asses onto our backs with the kids and our own racist and sexist baggage and try to make it over the proverbial finish-line of respectability before collapsing from prostration first.

You make it sound as if you’re holding a grudge against us because we’ve developed our own set defense mechanisms to navigate the negative effects of slavery while still retaining some level of pride, dignity, and sanity, and I think it’s only natural–it’s only logical–for us to be apprehensive of what you might do to us when given intimate access to our bodies, hearts, and minds to relieve that grudge.

I also think it’s fair to say that you–black men–do just as much deflecting from your choices as black women do.

You’ve done just as much to hurt the black community as black women have done with our entrenched attitudes about the need for self-sufficiency or so-called high-achieving partners.

And of course you have. James Baldwin tells us that dealing with racism’s constant onslaught distorts our personhood in a myriad of ugly ways. Toni Morrison’s whole fictional oeuvre illustrates the ways that racism corrupts the most fundamental of our human characteristics and behaviors.

Morrison has even said, “Love is never any better than the lover. Wicked people love wickedly, violent people love violently, weak people love weakly, stupid people love stupidly . . .”

Black people love in a lot of mistaken ways because we are wrong about ourselves. We don’t realize how amazing we are. We don’t realize how undeserving we are of the horrible way American treats us. We don’t realize how powerful we actually are to stop so much of the pain we put ourselves and each other through.

We don’t realize that love is the answer to so many of the problems that we have. Love for ourselves and love for each other. Across all those falsely drawn color, gender, class, and sex lines.

And until we learn to talk about what really makes it difficult for cis hetero black women and men to love each other–until we grow brave enough to get emotionally and intellectually naked with each other about our true wants and needs, hopes and fears–our dealings will remain as one dimensional and masturbatory as that fucking stupid meme.

Our homes will never become the incubators of greatness and exultant blackness that they can and should be.

 

 

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4 thoughts on “A Black Feminist on the Blame Game

    1. I’m not sure what “real” means in this context, or what women you’re talking about, or whether it’s accurate to say “most” women–black or white– are feminists. I think feminists may be more vocal when it comes to discussing cultural and/or political matters, not that there are more of them.

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