Tuesday, April 07, 2020

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Black Women in the Black Liberation Movement

Black women faced constant sexism in the Black Liberation Movement. Although there were several different movements for black liberation (the Civil Rights Movement, Black Nationalism, the Black Panthers, the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, and others) for the purposes of this paper they are all considered under the title Black Liberation Movement. The movement, though ostensibly for the liberation of the black race, was in word and deed for the liberation of the black male. Race was extremely sexualized in the rhetoric of the movement. Freedom was equated with manhood and the freedom of blacks with the redemption of black masculinity. Take, for example, the assumption that racism is more harmful to black men than it is to black women because the real tragedy of racism is the loss of manhood; this assumption illustrates both an acceptance of masculinity defined within the context of patriarchy as well as a disregard for the human need for integrity and liberty felt by both men and women. Many black men in the movement were interested in controlling black women's sexuality. Bell hooks comments that during the Black Liberation Movement of the 1960s, "black men overemphasize[d] white male sexual exploitation of black womanhood as a way to explain their disapproval of inter-racial relationships." It was, however, no contradiction of their political views to have inter-racial relationships themselves. Again, part of "freedom" and "manhood" was the right of men to have indiscriminate access to and control over any woman's body. As well, there was disregard for the humanity and equality of black women. Black men in the Black Liberation Movement often made sexist statements which were largely accepted without criticism. Consider these two statements, the first by Amiri Baraka and the second by Eldridge Cleaver.

And so this separation [of black men and women] is the cause of our need for self-consciousness, and eventual healing. But we must erase the separateness by providing ourselves with healthy African identities. By embracing a value system that knows of no separation but only of the divine complement the black woman is for her man. For instance, we do not believe in the 'equality' of men and women. We cannot understand what the devils and the devilishly influenced mean when they say equality for women. We could never be equals... Nature has not provided thus."

Baraka insists that men and women are unequal by nature. This is an attitude which he considers healthy and worthy of promotion to other black men and women. Not only are men and women different, he says, but there is no reciprocity in their relationship to each other; hence, a black man is not 'for' his woman as a black woman is 'for' her man. The two do not submit to one another; rather, the woman submits to her black man.

I became a rapist. To refine my technique and modus operandi, I started out by practicing on black girls in the ghetto-in the black ghetto where vicious and dark deeds appear not as aberrations or deviations from the norm, but as part of the sufficiency of the Evil of a day-and when I considered myself smooth enough, I crossed the tracks and sought out white prey.

Cleaver later goes on to express his remorse at his action but retains his misogynist attitudes. One can see both sexism and racism at work in this citation: not only is he committing violence against women, but he considers the violence against black "girls" to be less serious than that against their white counterparts. While it is true that a crime against a white woman bore more weight in the judicial system, the gravity of the crime-i.e., the damage it causes and terror it invokes both individually and within the community-is not diminished when committed against a black woman. Sexual discrimination against women in the Black Liberation Movement not only took the form of misogynist writings, it was also a part of daily life. Elaine Brown recalls an organizational meeting of the Black Congress in which she and the other women were forced to wait to eat until the men were served food for which they had all contributed money. The "rules" were then explained to her and a friend: "Sisters... did not challenge Brothers. Sisters... stood behind their black men, supported their men, and respected them. In essence, ... it was not only 'unsisterly' of us to want to eat with our Brothers, it was a sacrilege for which blood could be shed." Similar discrimination existed within the Civil Rights Movement. E. Frances White recalls, "I remember refusing to leave the discussion at a regional black student society meeting to go help out in the kitchen. The process of alienation from those militant and articulate men had begun for me." It must be stressed that it was not only many of the men but also a great number of the women in the Black Liberation Movements who were enforcing strict gender roles on black women. In much the same way that women in dominant society do not resist but encourage sexism, black women fell prey to perpetuating patriarchy within the black community.

 

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