Policing Black Feminism is Pig Work

"[The colonized struggle] with one another for failing to meet the standards of gender behavior imposed on us by colonial oppressors."

Policing Black Feminism is Pig Work
“Those who are exerting their 'manhood' by telling Black women to step back into a domestic, submissive role are assuming a counter-revolutionary position. Black women likewise have been abused by the system and we must begin talking about the elimination of all kinds of oppression. If we are talking about building a strong nation, capable of throwing off the yoke of capitalist oppression, then we are talking about the total involvement of every man, woman, and child, each with a highly developed political consciousness. We need our whole army out there dealing with the enemy and not half an army.”

~ Frances Beale,
“Double Jeopardy: To Be Black and Female”

As a cishet Black male from Amerikkka's Black colony, I'm implicated in a history of gender oppression that predates modern colonialism. More than that. In my private life I have oppressed Black women; and in my theory and practice I have often overlooked the ways in which my own struggle for freedom was connected with specifically Black feminist struggles and considerations. These blind-spots have made it harder for me to pursue my own liberation, and I can't expect that they will go away simply from acknowledging them.

It is only in the course of shared struggle with Black and other colonized women and non-men that I can learn and correct the limitations of my own male subjectivity, though I can't altogether erase them while remaining steeped in a sexist objective order. It's only in a society that is totally liberated from heteropatriarchy, that Black boys can grow into men without disfigurement by misogyny, and by the masculinist expectations that are its complement.

I know these things from studying the ideas and experiences of Black feminist theorists and activists, and from the patient and (justifiably) impatient correction of Black women in my life and my work. They have helped me become a better thinker, a better revolutionary and a more complete human being. I don't feel weighed down by “male guilt” in acknowledging these things. Rather, I feel prodded on by my own experience as a colonized subject to unite with Black women and non-binary people to tackle these oppressive structures in pursuit of my people’s freedom; and to de-center myself when faced with criticisms of oppressive male behavior and practices. Because, to paraphrase Fanon, they are within the African tradition of collective criticism; because, again, those who issue these criticisms want the same thing as me – decolonization.

I had to begin that way, because too often colonized cis males are unwilling to acknowledge that the contradiction between men and non-men in oppressed communities is very real, and that it has very real, negative effects on our prospects for liberation. This is usually coupled with an insistence that feminism, writ large, is a middle-class white women’s movement that's irrelevant to Black women’s experiences, and that it divides the collective fight for Black freedom.

It's correct, but all too easy, to simply acknowledge that white women have an oppressive relation even to Black men, and that white feminism conveniently overlooks this because of its colonial character. It's on that basis easier, but altogether incorrect, to pretend that the primary contradiction, between oppressor and oppressed nations, cancels out the secondary contradiction of gender, which feeds neo-colonialism as surely as our homelands feed our oppressor's machinery. And this is usually the unacknowledged subtext of Black male debates around the term “feminism”: the need to erase that non-antagonistic contradiction altogether, to act like gender oppression is a white institution, to police the terms of Black women’s liberation.

As revolutionary nationalists in the imperial center, we should avoid accounts of women’s oppression that police Black women’s power to name and define their own struggles against Black male misogynoir. We should think analogically from the example of class oppression in pre-colonial Africa. As Nkrumah famously noted in “African Socialism Revisited” and Neocolonialism: The Last Stage of Imperialism, though class society hadn’t developed as far in Africa as it had in the imperial core, this doesn’t mean that it didn't exist before the conquest. Rather, colonialism seized hold of existing contradictions along class and tribal lines in pre-colonial African life, and pressed them in the service of colonial society. Thus, while Western colonialism is the newer phenomenon in world history, it subsumes the other, older contradictions, producing a common interest in liberation among otherwise contradictory elements of the oppressed nation.

It’s not hard to see how this relates to the reasoning of Black feminists. An excellent model can be found in the activism and public statements of feminist activist Florence Kennedy. As Sherie M. Randolph notes in her article “Women’s Liberation or...Black Liberation,” Kennedy played a formative role in both the second-wave, predominantly-white feminist movement and in the Black Power movement, particularly as a defense lawyer for several Black Power figures and an organizer for the 1967 Newark Black Power Conference. While still a member of NOW (National Organization for Women), Kennedy held that “racism [is] the primary language scripting American society” and that “racism will always be worse than sexism until we find feminists shot in bed like...Mark Clark and Fred Hampton” (Want to Start a Revolution?, 229). Her struggles within NOW against the middle-class, white feminist leadership, and her comradeship with the radical white feminist Ti-Grace Atkinson, no doubt indicate the contradictions of working for Black women’s liberation within white organizations; contradictions that finally led to her resignation from that body. But those struggles also reveal that Black feminists have long thought through both their gender and their racial-national oppression, while recognizing the primacy of colonialism for explaining their condition.

The revolutionary feminist Frances Beale, in her classic essay “Double Jeopardy: To Be Black and Female,” clearly spells out the details of Black women’s oppression, and of its damaging effects for our struggle (The Black Woman: An Anthology, 109-111, 113). Beale notes that under the capitalist, gendered division of labor, the common assault on Black manhood and womanhood has taken distinct forms in each case. For the man, it has assumed the form of a standard of masculinity connected to buying-power that is usually impossible for him, given his historic exclusion from most sustainable forms of employment. For the woman, it assumes the form of the middle-class ‘cult of domesticity’, of the upkeep of the household and rearing of children as the natural responsibilities of women. That Black women’s work has historically been confined to the lowest-paying domestic service in white households, left little time for them to meet this standard of femininity, to embody the “feminine mystique” against which the white feminist Betty Friedan so un-self-consciously railed.

On Beale’s analysis, the structural inability of Black men to “bring home the bacon,” and the practical impossibility of overworked Black women to consistently maintain white, bourgeois standards of femininity in the domestic sphere, has fueled the contradiction between man and woman in the colony, inasmuch as we’ve struggled with one another for failing to meet the standards of gender behavior imposed on us by our oppressors. This leads to a zero-sum game to see who has it “worse” in the Black community. A game in fact perpetrated by many of Beale’s male contemporaries within the Black Power movement, like Calvin Hernton and William Grier and Price Cobbs; each of whom trafficked in tropes about the “castration” of Black males by Black women and the need for Black men to re-assert themselves. Not only against white males, but importantly, in competition with them.

As Margo N. Crawford notes in her important essay on The Black Woman anthology, “Must Revolution Be a Family Affair?”, Hernton’s and Grier and Cobb’s deployment of Black male “castration” tropes falls nicely within what she calls ‘the Moynihan paradigm.’ Daniel P. Moynihan was a bourgeois ideologist, a functionary for the Johnson Administration. His infamous sociological study, The Negro Family: The Case for National Action, attributes Black social and economic ‘failure’ to a pathological family structure, controlled by domineering Black women. In this way, it shifts the onus for Black underdevelopment from the capitalist power structure directly onto Black women, and prescribes middle-class, nuclear family structures with male heads as the solution.

That this analysis struck a resounding chord with so many prominent males in the Black movement bears out Beale’s analysis. It also indicates the continuing danger of the stubborn line that Black men are the primary targets of white supremacy. Attempts to downplay Black women’s oppression are usually tied to status-quo ideas concerning gender roles. Ideas that also legitimate the victim-blaming narratives hurled at Black families, naming our “dysfunction” as the source of our ills – and that, by implication, make the Western family structure the standard for material and social progress.

The Black male is not alone in succumbing to this temptation; for that reason, we are rightfully targeted by trans-national feminist critique. But our most direct analogues in the rest of the world are not to be found in Europe or White Amerikkka, but among the oppressed male populations of Asia and Latin America. As Kumari Jayawardena notes in her classic work, Feminism and Nationalism in the Third World, bourgeois nationalists in anti-colonial movements of the early 20th century took their cues on social modernization from the Western family, even as paradoxically they sought to liberate their peoples from Western-imperial structures and norms (14-15). In practice, this has meant only a partial liberation for women of the Third World upon the declaration of formal/flag independence. It has failed to translate into material liberation for the overwhelming majority of women of color across the planet, with obvious economic consequences for the family units under their care.

This last point is instructive, because it shows that feminist struggle is truly universal, if by “universal” we understand the struggles in which the overwhelming majority of our species is mired (i.e., the colonized world). The simple semantic trick by some Black men of substituting “womanism” for “feminism,” apparently to highlight Black women’s divergence from white women’s experiences, simply won’t do. There are women want to call themselves “womanist” instead of feminist, and as men we surely have nothing to say about it. But that principle extends both ways: women throughout the colonized world have identified with feminism, have distinguished their feminism from that of the colonizer's, and trace the lineage of their movement through struggles and traditions extending back through millennia, long before the invention of whiteness. We have no say in what to call that movement.

Unlike Mackinnon, Daly, and Friedan, the Black/Third World feminists Kennedy, Beale, and Jayawardena all understand that racial-national oppression co-opts the contradictions of class and gender on its course toward planetary destruction. They know that this antagonistic contradiction must be dealt with by oppressed nations in order to address their concerns as feminists, and they know that Western feminism is generally a hindrance to this project. But they also understand that women’s role in fighting that oppression has been hampered by the weight of historical misogyny on the minds of their brother-comrades; and they point out the ways in which we have too often, consciously or otherwise, pulled down half the sky. Our job as men is not to lecture about labels, but to listen and to lift our own burden from the shoulders of women fighters in our struggle. Acting otherwise is doing the imperialist pigs’ work for free.