Episode 13: Race vs. Gender (Femiphobia and Homophobia Within the Black Liberation Struggle)

Uploaded by BlackStudiesOnline on 30.04.2012

Hello, and welcome to African Elements. In this episode, Race vs. Gender: Femiphobia
and Homophobia Within the Black Liberation Struggle. You've heard me say that racism
has impacted whites to their detriment in ways that most whites don't understand. By
the same token, I assert that patriarchal masculinity, sexism and homophobia impacts
men to their detriment in ways that most men don't understand. As expressed in the Black
liberation struggle in particular, I am further asserting that sexism and homophobia have
been the Achilles heel of the movement. In this episode, we will look at the social construct
of patriarchal masculinity as it is expressed in the Black liberation struggle. We will
start with the critical question posed by the brilliant scholar and social critic, bell
hooks. We will then take a look at some specific controversies vis-a-vis gender and homophobia.
Has homophobia and femiphobia (fear of women) hurt the Black Liberation struggle? All that,
coming up next.
In her book, We Real Cool: Black Men And Masculinity, bell hooks starts off with a brilliantly framed question
that paradoxically links the model blacks have adopted for gender relations
within the struggle for black liberation. She asks,
"To what extent did the civil rights movement, with its definition of freedom as having equal
opportunity with whites, sanction looking at white gender roles as a norm black people
should imitate?" The basis for this question is rooted in the
notion that the institution of slavery effectively removed gender from the equation with regard
to African-Americans. For the purpose of this episode, I'm defining gender as differences
in the social lives of men and women based on but not the same as biological differences.
In other words, whereas sex is a question of X and Y chromosomes, gender is the social
role ascribed to one's sex. Put another way, if you'll bear with for a short anecdote,
in 1992, a talking Barbie doll hit the markets that would belt a variety of different phrases.
One of the phrases it was programmed to say is, "Math class is tough!" Fast forward a
few years I'm teaching at a liberal arts university that is overwhelmingly female -- about 70%
female. On this campus that was predominantly female there was one school on campus where
the ratio was inverted. On a campus that was 70% female this one particular school was
70% male -- the School of Math and Sciences. Now, I would submit to you that there is absolutely
no biological reason why women would be underrepresented in the School Of Math And Sciences, and that
the reason why this is the case has more to do with the fact that the young girls attending
this school were bombarded with messages such as the one from this Barbie doll that told
them that the School of Math and Sciences was not where they belong.
So, with regard to enslaved African-Americans gender roles -- or the messages that told
black men and women what their social roles were didn't apply. That is to say black women
on the slave plantation were not confined to the home baking cookies. They were expected
to work in the field the same hours as the men and to bear the same physical burdens
alongside black men. By the same token the social role that went typically was ascribed
to men -- that of the protector that the provider -- was removed in that black men were not
in a position to provide for black women, but for the slaveowner. Additionally black
men were not in a position to protect black women from sexual abuse at the hands of the
slaveowner that were commonplace on slave plantations.
bell hooks argues that in emancipation, the black community, and black males in particular
adopted a model of gender relations that mirrored white society -- one in which women were confined
to the home and women's work with devalued. She further argues that, "When black males
in the name of 'black power" began to completely embrace patriarchal masculinity,
the historical movement for racial uplift rooted in nonviolence and gender equality
was ruthlessly undermined." Her analysis is brilliant, but I would add to that that the
embrace of patriarchal masculinity was not specific to the Black Power movement, and
it had infected the civil rights movement as well.
I have observed that Black men pay a heavy price in having adopted notions of masculinity
and patriarchy held by the dominant society. The dilemma that Black men face are manifest
in a 1965 Department of Labor report entitled The Negro Family: A Case for National Action,
or more commonly known as the Moynihan Report after the report's principal author. The
report tied social pathology, increasing welfare dependency and chronic poverty to the decline
of the nuclear family, arguing that the matriarchal, or female dominated structure of black families
weakened the ability of black men to function as authority figures and assume their role
as patriarchal heads of households. Among the many flaws inherent in the report, is
the simple fact that structural racism makes it difficult for black men to fulfill patriarchal
roles -- a fact that brings us back to bell hook's central question. If we accept the
report's findings that the problem with black families is that they don't look like
white families; if Black families base their family model on a patriarchal structure in
a context in which black men are socially handicapped; if Black men see successful Black
women as a threat to their manhood -- a phenomenon Michael Eric Dyson refers to as femiphobia
(or fear of women); what is the price we pay?
Michele Wallace found out firsthand how sensitive
the issue of race and gender could be when she released her controversial 1979 book,
Black Macho and the Myth of the Superwoman. She and several other feminists such as Alice
Walker, who I will discuss later, became disenchanted with the marginalized role that black women
played in the Black liberation struggle. In addition they found that the agenda for the
National Organization for Women (NOW), often paid insufficient attention to the concerns
of black women. So they were in a very difficult position of being the targets of sexism at
the hands of black males and racism at the hands of white women. To address these concerns,
they founded the National Black Feminist Organization, or NBFO, in 1973.
Wallace's book, touched off a firestorm of criticism for calling out the black macho
theme that was expressed vividly during the 1960s, particularly in the black power movement.
Wallace claimed that black power spokesmen equated black liberation with the
violent assertion of black manhood. She called attention to the fact that former Black Panther,
Eldridge Cleaver in his book, Soul on Ice, admitted "practicing" on black women before
raping white women as "an insurrectionary act" of revenge against white men. Additionally,
she called out Stokely Carmichael's for his 1963 statement that "The only position for
women in the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee is prone." For that, she was heckled
at all her public appearances and was called a traitor to her race for undermining prominent
black men in the movement for black liberation. A similar controversy erupted when a conservative
black man, Clarence Thomas was nominated to the Supreme Court to replace retiring Justice
Thurgood Marshall. Many civil rights organizations, such as Urban League had concerns over his
record on civil rights, but those concerns were muted because the bottom line was that
they did not want to obstruct the appointment of a black man to the bench, even, as it turns
out, if the appointee Clarence Thomas was not necessarily consistent with the civil
rights agenda. When Anita Hill came forward with allegations of sexual harassment based
on her experience with Thomas at the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, many in
the civil rights establishment questioned her integrity and, like Michele Wallace, Anita
Hill was lambasted as a race traitor. Again, the very touchy issue of race vs. gender
reemerged with another of the founders of the National Black Feminist Organization,
Alice Walker. Walker actually preferred to be called a "womanist."
Her 1983 novel, The Color Purple won Pulitzer prize for fiction, and the National Book Award.
The book is narrated by Celie, is oppressed less by white racists than by her stepfather,
who rapes her and takes away her children, and her abusive husband, who she calls Mister.
Her sister Nettie is sexually accosted by Mister, and is chased off of the property.
Many in the black community saw the novel as an attack on black men. The controversy
was further ignited when the novel was adopted for the big screen. Many criticized Walker's
decision to allow a white man, Steven Spielberg, to be the film's director. The Los Angeles
branch of the NAACP protested the depiction of black males in the film of The Color Purple.
Just under the surface there was also an element of homophobia in that Celie's lesbian relationship
with Mister's free-spirited girlfriend, Shug Avery was seen by many as an affront
and a rejection of black men.
Similar to patriarchal male dominance, homophobia
has also played a nefarious role in the Black liberation struggle. That the black community
had embraced and mirrored the gender constructs of the white community was made clear when,
as noted by bell hooks, Amiri Baraka boldy stated that: "American white men are trained
to be fags" and posed the question "Do you understand the softness of the white man,
the weakness?" This attack on white masculinity, and others like it, were common among militant
black power advocates. It was not a critique of patriarchy. It was "asserting that white
men did not fulfill the primal ideal of patriarchal manhood because they relied on technology
to assert power rather than brute strength." Several there are several ways in which homophobia
has kicked black folks in the teeth. Bayard Rustin, for example -- pictured on the right
with Dr. Martin Luther King, had proven himself invaluable in the struggle for black liberation.
He was a pacifist, and a founding member of the Congress on Racial Equality. An adherent
of the Gandhian principles of passive nonviolent resistance, he mentored Dr. Martin Luther
King during the Montgomery Bus Boycott of 1955 on the strategies that would become the
hallmark of the national civil rights movement that King would later lead. Rustin had a powerful
influence on Dr. King who initially did not fully embrace passive nonviolent resistance
-- in fact at the time of the Montgomery Bus Boycott, Dr. King had a gun registered in
his name. Later, Rustin demonstrated his uncanny ability
for organizational detail during the Civil Rights March on Washington in 1963 when he
organized every detail of the March from the programs to busing and transportation. As
valuable as he was, Bayard Rustin had two liabilities. First, he had been affiliated
with the Communist Party which, in the age of the Red Scare and the Cold War, placed
him on the margins in terms of political and social status. Second, he was homosexual.
Because of his sexuality, Dr. Martin Luther King was pressured to distance himself from
Bayard Rustin -- one of the most talented civil rights organizers the movement has ever
seen. In fact, some people around Dr. King even began to insinuate that Dr. King himself
had had a homosexual relationship with Bayard Rustin. As it turns out, Martin Luther King
did have certain proclivities toward marital infidelity -- but there's no basis to suggest
he had any sexual relationship with Bayard Rustin. The insinuation, though, is indicative
of the homophobia that, in this case kicked the civil rights movement in the teeth.
Additionally, the stigma of homosexuality and homophobia has had a devastating effect
on black women. It has produced a "Down-low" culture among black men -- black men who do
not consider themselves homosexual, but secretly engage in homosexual sex with other black men.
Because many of these men on the downlow have multiple partners, black women are the
fastest-growing population of infection of HIV/AIDS -- even as overall rates are continuing
to decline. As Michele Wallace found that black women
were targets of sexism among black men, and racism among white women, African-American
gays and lesbians are similarly finding themselves to be targets of oppression on multiple levels.
As we will see in the following clip, the friends and family a young African American
lesbian, Sakia Gunn, who was attacked and murdered because of her sexuality, found little
sympathy in the African American community (as voiced by the African American principal
of her high school) due to homophobia, and little sympathy in the gay community due to racism.
AMY GOODMAN: Some 300 people gathered at Sheridan Square
in New York City's West Village Friday to remember Sakia Gunn. Sakia was a fifteen -year-old
African-American lesbian. Two months ago Friday, in the early hours of May, 11, she was murdered.
That night, Sakia and her friends traveled from their hometown of Newark, New Jersey
the Chelsea piers in Manhattan. Scorers says young queer people of color spend weekend
nights there where they feel safe and part of a community. After their evening on the
piers, the young group took the train back to Newark. They walked to the bus stop and
waited. A large police booth stood at the corner. It was unoccupied. A white station
wagon with two men or her home in it pulled up to the curb. According to one of Sakia's
closest friends, Valencia, the men started harassing girls asking them to come closer.
The girl said, no, they weren't interested. They said they were gay. One of the men got
out of the car. He attacked the girls holding one of them in a choke hold. Sakia and Valencia
started fighting him. Sakia hit him. He stabbed her in the chest. The man ran back his car,
sped away. The girls raced to a car that it stopped at red light and asked the driver
to take them to the hospital. He did. Sakia died in her friend Valencia's arms in the
emergency room. On Friday in Manhattan of the vigilers marched from Sheridan Square
through the heart New York's gay district down Christopher Street to the peers were
Sakia spent last night. There, one of her closest friends, Spanky Ross, did her best
to address the crowd.
SPANKY ROSS: I'm not really a public speaker.
I don'treally have too much to say, because I'm going to get emotional,
but, as everyone knows,Sakia was of real close friend of mine.
In Jersey we don't really have anywhere to go
to be free with our sexuality so, we come out here to be around people like us . . .
It's a shame that we have to walk down the streets not knowing what's going to happen to us ...
AMY GOODMAN: With that, Spanky you Ross left the stage and cried. . . .
AMY GOODMAN: We're joined in the studio by Laquetta Nelson, who is the founder of New Jersey Stonewall
Democrats and an organizer of the Newark pride alliance. Also in the studio with us is Mick
Meenan. He's a reporter for the Gay City News, one of the few publications in this country
that has given consistent coverage to the murder of Sakia Gunn. Were also joined on
the line by Jamon Marsh, who is Sakia Gunn's girlfriend, and by Kathryn Cuomo Cessare,
the director of Health And Human Services for the city of Newark. Let's start Laquetta
Nelson. This happened on May, 11 in the early morning. Just this weekend in the Washington
Post there was a major profile on Judy Shepard becoming the mother of a movement. Judy Shepard
fighting so hard for justice in the of her son Matt Shepard, who became a national symbol
of violence against gay men and lesbians when he was murdered. Sakia Gunn's name is almost
nowhere in the press.
LAQUETTA NELSON: . . . One thing, as far as the press goes
that I've discovered is that I was under the impression, just as all of us were, that everybody knew
about Sakia's murder, and what had happened in Newark. But, a few weeks later I discovered
that story had only been covered in the Essex County section of the Star Ledger which is
New Jersey's, a major newspaper, and so that that meant that everybody else the state did
not know or was not aware of what we were going through in Newark.
AMY GOODMAN: And yet, at Sakia's funeral thousands of especially young African-American lesbians turned out.
Let's talk about what's happening in the school. We are joined on a line by Jamon Marsh,
Sakia Gunn's girlfriend. Welcome to Democracy Now. It's good to have you with us. Can even
talk about the response in the school?
JAMON MARSH: As far as people morning, or as far asthe principal?
AMY GOODMAN: As far as the principal.
JAMON MARSH: Like I told Laquetta, I graduated from west side already, and people were coming
to me and they were telling me about how we couldn't get a memorial service for her in
Westside, and I believe it has a lot to do with the fact that she was gay, because
a lot of people that passed away had a memorial service, they had grief counseling, and they
just didn't do that. They basically just sent students home and told them that they could
not come back until after the funeral, and they did not offer any grief counseling
for none of the students - even Valencia that is here right now. They didn't offer any counseling.
They told her that she had to get it on her own.
AMY GOODMAN: Lauqetta, the statement of principal . . . we attempted, by the way, to get the principal
on, the superintendent the mayor we didn't succeed, although we have with us, the head
of of the Department of Health and Human Services of Newark . . . but, the controversy around the principal.
LAQUETTA NELSON: Well, I called and spoke with someone in
the... at the school board, and I told them what the children were telling us, and what
I told was that the principal denies not giving them grief counseling. He also denies making
any anti-gay statements towards the Sakia. And . . .
AMY GOODMAN: What was said that he said?
LAQUETTA NELSON: Well, basically the kids said that... something
to the effect that if you live a certain kind of life, you deserve certain kinds of outcomes,
but he said it a little differently.
MICK MEENAN: Well, again, I've never been able to
get Fernan West on the phone. The school system has done a really great job of stonewalling
any media contact with any local school officials, and he's been in Westside high school for
quite some. And, I should add that the mayor of Newark, Sharp James, once taught at Westside
High School. So, there is a nexus of political connections here that needs be explored. However,
the youth told me on the street and... Again, just reiterate, there were thousands of young
people on the street. I spoke to a lot them. The comment was that when you choose a certain
lifestyle, you must pay a certain consequence, which of course, is a horrendous thing to say.
Femiphobia and homophobia have clearly taken
a toll in the Black liberation movement -- causing Black families to adopt patriarchal models
that don't work for them. Putting patriarchy aside, perhaps it will be possible to adopt
new models in which in Black men and women can be equal and mutually supportive partners
of within the family. Putting aside our fear, perhaps we can allow space in which Black
women gays and lesbians are embraced as valued members of the community and are able contribute
to their full potential. To do so will be an enormous challenge, but consider the alternative.
When we consider the extent to which the civil rights movement defined equality as looking
at white gender roles as a norm black people should imitate -- we have to ask ourselves,
How is it working? That's it for this episode. You can see
everything you've seen here as well as the entire archive of episodes at my website www.africanelements.org.
You can also join the discussion on our Facebook Group African Elements.
I'm Darius Spearman. Thank you for watching.