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Race vs Gender – Femiphobia and Homophobia Within the Black Liberation Struggle
In this episode, Race vs. Gender: Femiphobia and Homophobia Within the Black Liberation Struggle. I have previously asserted 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-à-vis gender and homophobia. Has homophobia and femiphobia (fear of women) hurt the Black Liberation struggle?
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Critical Questions on Gender
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 with 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. 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 for 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?
Femiphobia in the Black Liberation Struggle
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 Cleaver and other 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.
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 profound 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.
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.
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.
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 that working?