Several years ago, I worked at an educational program for adolescents facing a plethora of socioeconomic, legal, and sociopolitical (oppression via racism, sexism, misogynoir, homophobia and classism) challenges. The staff was more diverse there than at any other job I’ve had, while still of course reflecting the usual hierarchies; White women in higher positions than Black women, White men in higher positions than White women etc.
One day after a long day of work, some of the coworkers decided to go out for wings and beer. It happened quite a bit, perhaps bi-weekly. This time, one of the Black male employees (one of the few times I’ve had a Black male coworker in my adult life) decided to come too. We sat down at a table; it was about six of us. The conversation moved from politics to Civil Rights-era specific politics and the Black male coworker asked me if I would have been a Black Panther.
Those “would have been” questions can become problematic. I don’t know what I would have done then (though I do not buy into the myth that racism is gone solely because it CHANGES appearance). I may have been killed long before I had a chance to join. Conversely, I may have been overcome with fear and tried to live my life as best as possible under the radar, knowing the price of resistance was often immediate death or elaborate COINTELPRO and other State-sponsored surveillance and terrorism meant to dis-empower and destroy Black people. Even if I didn’t feel “political” then (or now), being a Black woman means I could’ve faced the same things that those who were considered “political” faced then (or now). Black people were spread over a spectrum of political action and resistance, and not all resistance looks the same. (Check out Patricia Hill Collins’ book Black Feminist Thought for how she articulates how Black women engaged in resistance in a plethora of ways; her writing on Black domestic workers and Black blues singers is great.)
I told him that I am not sure; the sexism of the Black Panther Party was palpable and could also be seen amidst the Civil Rights Movement itself and other movements. (And to be clear, this is not an “in hindsight” response; many Black women DURING the time spoke of the sexism). It doesn’t erase their accomplishments, however. These both can exist at the same time and be embodied in the same people. However, the end of my response was ignored by my coworker. He was angry that I mentioned their sexism (and colorism and misogynoir too, actually) and said that his father was a Black Panther so my nuanced response could not be true. (He himself was quite the sexist and colorist as a Black man, so I found his paternal reference rather comical.)
Then a White female co-worker jumped in; she was about 20 years older than I am. About me she said “no way, she would have been burning bras with us.” Us? Would this be with the White women from Susan B. Anthony to the ones who fill Twitter today obscuring or straight up ignoring Black women’s experiences? Would this be the ones who will gladly acknowledge sexism while pretending that any claim of racism (or the intersectional experience of racism and sexism, with misogynoir) is an “overreaction” by Black women and other women of colour? I just laughed when she said this. I found them both painfully amusing and amusingly painful to be around. And these were theoretically “progressive” people. They couldn’t see me beyond whatever category applied to them, race or gender. Their privilege obscured their views.
I simply told them that I am not interested in any group where I would be marginalized or silenced. In fact, modern Black feminism (I say “modern” in that Black women have embraced womanism and Black feminism LONG before the terms were even common) came about because of the marginalization Black women faced in pro-Black and pro-woman progressive movements, in addition of course to what they faced in the larger society.
(Both of them got upset and then another co-worker changed the topic. Ever since that time of hanging out, it was never the same with me and those two co-workers. I eventually left that job and never saw or spoke to the White woman again; I saw the Black man again a few months later at a store and of course he was rude. I was with a friend who was surprised by his actions.)
Often times, people forget that even in “progressive” spaces, Black women’s voices are drowned out or disregarded. Worse, some Black men and White women engage in the same oppressive acts or ones that reinforce the same imperialist White supremacist capitalist hetero-patriarchy that Black women expect “outside” of “progressive” conversations and spaces.
I am not interested in the cultural reductionism that dictates that Black women be “team Black men” or “team White women.” As I’ve mentioned before, much of the interpersonal social headache that I deal with outside of feminist spaces involves street harassment by Black men and dealing with microaggressions from White women, even regarding my hair. In progressive spaces, I’ve encountered some feminist Black men that seem to want trophies for not being misogynoirist and White feminists who think I must like what they like (and who they like), and only view me as an “ally” to their feminism, as if that’s all Black women can be—distant allies.
Maya Angelou already told us when people show you who they are, believe them. I am not interested in having “allies” where my experiences talking to them or sharing progressive spaces with them mimic experiences with those who know nothing of justice and are committed to the oppression of others. What’s the difference then?
Unfortunately, yes. Yep. He wrote this criticism during the 80s when Black women’s literature began to flourish and reach mainstream in a way that it had not previously. I see every addition, by Black women or Black men, as important to the collective works of Black culture. I cannot ascribe to celebrating Black men’s literature and admonishing Black women’s literature. Don’t work like that. (I alluded to the importance of Black literature in my posts The Most Commonly Challenged/Banned Books and White Responses To Black Literature.)
A Note To Some Feminist Black Men: Though bell hooks Is Exquisite, There’s More To Black Feminism Than bell hooks
bell hooks is one of the most exquisite, thoughtful, complex, intellectual, and compassionate Black feminist scholars of our time. She’s often the doorway to Black feminist thought for Black feminists, whether women or men, and even White feminists who seek to move beyond the writing of “mainstream” feminists and begin to commit to intersectional feminist scholarship. Her writing is probing and thoughtful and while like all writing, not above critique, it really helped to form part of the foundation of a lot of modern feminist scholarship. I’ve read quite a few of her books, essays, papers and have seen videos of her talks. I quote her often as well. She’s brilliant.
I also know that there is more to Black feminist thought than bell hooks alone. I sometimes wonder if some feminist Black men do.
I know that look that they get—that moment when they first start to realize that patriarchy and patriarchal masculinity are constructs and not fixed or “natural” ways of being. Some start to embrace the concept of anti-sexism and anti-homophobia and not just anti-racism. This is good. They read The Will To Change - Men, Masculinity and Love by bell hooks. They read We Real Cool - Black Men and Masculinity by bell hooks. They start to listen to Black women and consider Black women as truly human even beyond the idea of their connection to men as mom/sister/daughter/GF/wife. This is also good. But this only scratches the surface.
I know that “entry into Black feminism” look and vigor too. My pathway to womanist thought was via The Color Purple by Alice Walker, which I first read when I was 12. My mind was blown. Here was a complex portrait of Black girlhood/womanhood beyond the White gaze and shaped by a Black woman. Here was multiple depictions of Black womanhood with depth and complexity and challenging INTRARACIAL oppression of Black women in addition to interracial oppression. (At such a young age I was already force-fed the idea that intraracial oppression was non-existent—that racism was evil but that intraracial sexism, homophobia, misogynoir and colourism, for example, were “right” or “natural.”) This was new to me on paper though at this age, I was already experiencing street harassment by Black men yet faced racist and sexist oppression at school and intraracial sexist and misongyoirist oppression at church. I lived intersectionality long before I knew of it ideologically. My life changed forever after reading more of her writing. Another pivotal moment for me was when I first heard Queen Latifah’s song “U.N.I.T.Y.” as a freshman in high school. That song is a true womanist epistle. (I didn’t get into Toni Morrison until high school and bell hooks until undergrad for example, where her writing was like an adult doorway into more feminist thought; even so, I embraced Alice Walker first.)
Thus, I don’t dismiss that initial entrance or that book, concepts and/or person that causes an internal paradigm shift for a womanist/feminist. But even at 12 I knew (though I couldn’t articulate it at this level yet) that no one person should be treated as a mascot for Black feminist thought or have Black feminist thought affected by essentialism where any one person becomes what the theory and praxis is about. Even bell hooks would not want that and alludes to this in her writing.
When Black men reduce Black feminist thought to one author and need that to be their go to author, there’s a problem. Sure, we can all have authors/writers that we love (such as Alice Walker, Toni Morrison, Audre Lorde, Maya Angelou, Kimberlé Crenshaw, Patricia Hill Collins, Sonia Sanchez, Nikki Giovanni, Angela Davis, Sikivu Hutchinson and yep, bell hooks are for me) but Black feminist thought is not solely about famous names. Feminist praxis is not solely about pasting quotes from bell hooks on Twitter. Feminist writing is not only what is on Amazon from a formal publisher by the few who even get to that level of platform.
Anytime I challenge Black men who are interested in feminist scholarship to READ MORE and LEARN MORE than just bell hooks or even primarily bell hooks, I receive pushback. They go full into male privilege or bust mode. Some suggest that since she specifically addresses men at times, she’s “better.” Um…doesn’t this sound like Whites who need a White character (and even worse, a “hero”) in a Black novel before they can care or “relate” to the story? Privilege much? If they need a man on the cover of a book or masculinity and nothing else addressed in feminist scholarship, their feminism is not intersectional; they’re basically engaging in a reductionist approach, viewing feminist scholarship in print as elaborate self-help books and little more. Feminism cannot solely be about them proving how they’re “good” men. While I do believe that how we embody the oppressor within is where all feminist work begins, I also know that feminism is not about me “proving” how “good” of a woman I am.
The reality is if a feminist Black man cannot care about feminist scholarship unless they feel the writing is specifically for men only, or centered on masculinity from how they perform it versus how it impacts Black women, children, families and themselves, there’s a problem. This is not progressive. There is more to intersectional feminism than solely considerations of gender. Their feminism needs to be intersectional. While critiques about patriarchy are critical, where is their understanding of White supremacy, racism, sexism, colorism, misogynoir, misogyny, homophobia, transphobia, ableism, fatphobia, and more? It’s one thing to be new on the path and journey of feminism and simply not have embraced these topics…yet (though oppression is intersectional, so to only study patriarchy and masculinity without other axes of oppression is missing something huge). It’s another to assume that they have all of the answers to Black feminist thought because they are men who sometimes challenge patriarchal thinking and found a favorite author.
A commitment to justice is MORE than about how they can personally be less patriarchal in their personal lives. It’s more than them reading and citing her books daily and then retreating to male privilege to either heavily critique women who haven’t embraced feminism at all yet (I loathe this; it’s like White atheists telling Black theists to reject theism because of slavery) or ignoring calls for them to check their male privilege by feminist Black women. Black men who engage in essentialism with bell hooks run the risk of doing what Whites do with anti-racism study by reading/quoting MLK and little to no one else. (This holds a special irony since Black women’s contributions to Civil Rights work is heavily marginalized/ignored by Whites and Black men quite often.) Doing this makes their profound work caricatures and gimmicks instead of tools to deconstruct and fight oppression.
The worst of all is the attitude that I’ve received from some feminist Black men—as if I should be “desperately” thankful for their existence and endlessly and daily applaud them for not being misogynist. Excuse me for not creating thrones—I could’ve sworn that’s something that occurs amidst patriarchal thinking, not anti-oppression, intersectional feminist thinking. The thing is, I do talk to feminist Black men, read their writing, share important dialogue and more. I recognize when they’re doing something interesting. I won’t worship them, however, any more than I will Whites engaged in anti-racism work. I won’t praise anything they do over those with the lived experience of the form of oppression they’re against. If an ally requires worship to be an ally, they aren’t an ally. Ally work needs to be noble without the incessant need for the praise of its nobility, otherwise it becomes about oppressed people applauding their oppressors, which is not revolutionary.
In the same way that I expect White feminists not to engage in essentialist thinking of Gloria Steinem, I expect feminist Black men not to engage in essentialist thinking of bell hooks. While the journey into Black feminist thought by Black men matters deeply, intellectual laziness, essentialism, a lack of commitment to intersectional thinking/complete commitment to justice and male privilege will not be ignored, at least by me.
From the ‘Lean In’ pushers who demand I read the book to understand how great it is or to decide that I am justified in not reading it, I am told that Sandberg deals artfully with the limits of her advice. I am told that she is clear that she has privilege and I am told that knocking down a successful woman for writing the kind of business books men write all the time is some sort of violation.
I do not accept that it is my responsibility to authenticate my disinterest. I also think Sandberg will manage without the support of one low-status black woman.
Sandberg doesn’t have to attend to things I care about like race, class, inequality and capitalism. But when she does not then you must understand why I mostly tune out all those imploring me to lean in.
An “anti racist” scholar in Canada took me to task of my criticism of Slaughter’s Having It All thesis awhile back in an online forum. She said that I can no more expect Slaughter to speak to my feminist concerns than I can be expected to speak of Slaughter’s.
That gave me pause.
I think I have determined how I would respond to that criticism as it relates both to Slaughter and Sandberg.
Basically, so what?
Privilege is about never having to critically engage the realities of others. So what if the threshold for clearing my litmus test for relevance adds an additional burden for those in privileged positions? If the burden is so great, I am always willing to trade my privilege for Sandberg’s.
It is not fair but I do not think I am arguing for fairness. Fair ignores the reality of structural inequality. Fair supposes that Sandberg and I are peers. And while I thank you for the back-handed compliment, you and I both know that is blowing smoke up my arse. We are not peers. We are not equals. Expecting some arbitrary ‘fairness’ index in our engagement of ideas effectively reproduces our respective unequal power relations. Sandberg should have to work harder to earn bona fides in my feminism because she needs my kind of feminism the least. Wealth and privilege inoculate her from the job insecurity, poverty, and isolation that other women work to provide through feminist ideals and labor. They have less time, fewer resources, less attention to be divided across concerns with concrete implications to their actual livelihoods, if not their very lives. Running a multi-billion dollar company is, without a doubt, stressful and time-consuming. But when Sandberg drops a ball her children likely will not go hungry. That difference requires, from me, a different litmus test for relevancy.
I am arguing for relevant cultural work that contributes to a feminism that is not all about privileged women."
Tressie McMillan Cottom (@tressiemcphd)
This is an excerpt from her essay Lean In Litmus Test: Is This For Women Who Can Cry At Work?. It is truly exquiste and perfectly encapsulates my feelings, thoughts and perspectives regarding Sheryl Sandberg’s book Lean In: Women, Work, and the Will to Lead, and this particular brand of feminism that some have referred to as 1% Feminism (no pun intended, I think…)
This book is NOT for me. Sandberg was not thinking about anyone even remotely like me when she wrote it. What is NOT okay is the presumption that this is some sort of feminist pathway for all women. To me, it is a work-life advice book for a particular sliver of women in the way that Seth Godin writes modern marketing and business advice. It won’t replace any bell hooks on my shelf, is my point. It’s not for me.
As Tressie points out in other parts of the essay, it may be for women who can cry at work, as she writes: “Crying at work is a euphemism for the myriad ways in which black women are sanctioned for demonstrating behavior from which white women benefit.”
Again, this book is not for me. And that is okay. I hope people will stop demanding that I worship this book sometime soon.
In addition to being the birthplace of womanism, speaking to a long legacy of Black women’s anti-oppression feminist praxis, In Search of Our Mothers Gardens by Alice Walker also includes some very wise perspectives on being a writer/writing. (I think some of James Baldwin’s essays in Cross of the Redemption does the same from a Black man’s perspective.)
Here are some of my favorite quotes:
For me, black women are the most fascinating creations in the world.
The artist then is the voice of the people, but she is also The People.
Zora Neal Hurston is probably one of the most misunderstood, least appreciated writers of this century. Which is a pity. She is great. A writer of courage, and incredible humor, with poetry in every line.
The quality I feel most characteristic of Zora’s work: racial health; a sense of black people as complete, complex, undiminished human beings, a sense that is lacking in so much black writing and black literature.
So much of the satisfying work of life begins as an experiment; having learned this, no experiment is ever quite a failure.
Critics seem unusually ill-equipped to discuss and analyze the works of black women intelligently. Generally, they do not even make the attempt; they prefer, rather, to talk about the lives of black women writers, not about what they write.
It seems to me that black writing has suffered because even black critics have assumed that a book that deals with the relationships between members of a black family—or between a man and a woman—is less important than one that has white people as primary antagonists. The consequences of this is that many of our books by ‘major’ writers (always male) tell us little about the culture, history, or future, imagination, fantasies, and so on, of black people, and a lot about isolated (often improbable) or limited encounters with a nonspecific white world.
The writer—like the musician or painter—must be free to explore, otherwise she or he will never discover what is needed (by everyone) to be known. This means, very often, finding oneself considered “unacceptable” by masses of people who think that the writer’s obligation is not to explore or to challenge, but to second the masses’ motions, whatever they are. Yet the gift of loneliness is sometimes a radical vision of society or one’s people that has not previously been taken into account.
The duty of the writer is not to be tricked, seduced or goaded into verifying by imitation or even rebuttal, other people’s fantasies. In an oppressive society it may well be that all fantasies held by the oppressor are destructive to the oppressed. To become involved in them in any way at all is, at the very least, to lose time defining yourself. To isolate the fantasy we must cleave to reality, to what we know, we feel, we think of life. Trusting our own experience and our own lives.
Writing saved me from the sin and inconvenience of violence—as it saves most writers who live in ‘interesting’ oppressive times and are not afflicted by personal immunity.
Whites who assume that everything is about or revolves around them and if not, should be approved by them or doesn’t matter as much are engaging White supremacist thinking. The sheer act of endless White consumption (and appropriation) of Black art does not mean that said artists created with White consumption in mind. At all. (Conversely, some Black artists create with the presumption of “universal” consumption. Others create specifically for White consumption, assuming that said consumption reveals the “quality” of their art, and such an assumption is the manifestation of internalized racism.)
I know that Whites who appropriate don’t care—entitlement and arrogance are a part of the cycle of cultural appropriation. For Whites who solely consume, many still seem confused about the fact that Whites may not truly be a Black artist’s intended audience…at all. Thus, before becoming obsessed with or offended by said art, Whites should examine whether or not they actually understand said art, and not solely through the White gaze shaped by White supremacy. Are they endlessly consuming Black art on some sort of perverted binge without any actual knowledge of (beyond stereotypes, which are NOT knowledge) or connection to Black people? That art, whether visual, auditory, performance or literary may actually be a love letter to, reflection of, or story about the same Black culture (i.e. the American South, the American North, Caribbean, Brazil, Cuba—all have specific aesthetics and cultural facets) that the artist originates from themselves. The reason why many Whites automatically feign comprehension and if not, retreat to disdain is because of White privilege; it’s a challenge for them to accept that solely being White confers no actual special skills or talent in cultural comprehension; consumption, appropriation or destruction actually require much less work than creation. This challenge exists since they’ve clearly received the opposite message in a White supremacist society.
Many Whites read books or listen to songs by Black artists solely to look for key words or language styles that they dislike (and deem usage of them to be conferral of Black inferiority) because of the context in which they use (or don’t use) the words, ignoring the cultural contexts particular to that Black artist’s life (by region, or nationality etc.) which could differ from theirs. Art has to be viewed as whole works with multiple layers, not as bits of layers floating randomly through space without context or meaning and if so, only ones ascribed by Whites.
Black creativity, especially when it’s not solely about reaffirming the status quo or not solely about White consumption is usually approached by Whites with fetish-like consumption or antagonism. Many Black people know how fetish-like obsession of Black creativity by Whites can be just as annoying and polarizing as thoughtless, anti-critical thinking, White supremacy-reaffirming negative approaches to Black creativity.
Reclamation of words (i.e. nigga) even if the validity of the reclamation process itself is problematic, poses a direct threat to White control. Notice the overwhelming outrage many Whites feel about being told not to say nigga? How dare any Black people suggest something Whites should not do, in a White supremacist society? This is the origin of the outrage. Notice how antagonistic Whites can be about us code-switching in corporate workplaces, actually articulating the nuances of African American Vernacular English, as language, not as the slang of the “inferior” that they want it to be. Notice the consistently virulent outrage towards and destruction of Black Studies programs, despite the notion that if all Humanities programs are “useless”, why do Jewish Studies, American Studies and even Women Studies face fewer attacks than Black Studies? Ah, because the former still presumes White control and Whites as the center of study. White responses to Black creativity rarely step outside of the need to disdain if the ability to dominate, let alone interfere is not possible.
Much of Black creativity is born in genuine love but also born in response to racism and White supremacy. Whites who view Black creativity as a threat to Whiteness never seem to be clued into the fact that this creativity which supposedly antagonizes them is born in response to them being antagonistic, oppressive, exclusionary and White supremacist in the first place.
Because we live in a White supremacist society, Blacks are usually significantly more educated on White artists (than Whites are on Black artists) because they aren’t ever even considered “White” (one of the subversive ploys of White supremacy is to present Whiteness as raceless and “universal”) and are considered people that “everyone” should know.
How many Whites and Blacks know Emily Dickinson not Phillis Wheatley? William Faulker not Toni Morrison? Ernest Hemmingway not Richard Wright? Gloria Steinem not Alice Walker? Tennessee Williams not Lorraine Hansberry? Eric Clapton not Howlin’ Wolf? Elvis not Muddy Waters and Little Walter? How many think Adele and Amy Winehouse are amazing yet have no time for Jill Scott or Janelle Monae? (I could go on like this for hours…) How many are going to focus on this one paragraph trying to rationalize why the Whites mentioned matter more or are “better” and miss the point of this essay?
It seems that some Whites will remain in a perpetual state of obsession, confusion or disdain where Black creativity is concerned. This doesn’t mean that no White person can ever understand Black artists, Black art and Black processes of creativity. It does mean that rejection of White supremacist thinking, some actual introspection and also some cultural immersion (without obsession, fetishistic actions or implications of dominance) are needed for them to do so. It also means acceptance of the fact that some art simply was never intended for them. They exist as acts of resistance to White supremacy. Their quality doesn’t need White approval or consumption for them to be relevant or good.
Related Post: White Responses To Black Literature
Below are some of my essays where I explore art and race, gender, technology, education, television/film and more…
- White Responses To Black Literature
- 3 iOS/Android Apps I’d Like To See Made For Black People
- Writing and Pacing In The Age of Social Media
- Black Funds For Black Films?
- Life Is But A Dream - Beyoncé’s Documentary on HBO
- No, I Don’t Like The Volkswagen Super Bowl Commercial
- The Digital Black Diaspora
- Why I Post Television Commercials That I Like
- The 2013 Golden Globe Awards and Race
- Black Men, Patriarchal Masculinity and Django Unchained
- Black Harry Potter Nerds…And Such…
- Music: Facts vs. Feelings
- I Like Empty Movie Theatres
- Beyoncé and “Iconic” Album Theory
- Black People, Celebrity Ageism, Death and Grief
- The Charming “White Male Asshole” Character On Television
- I Miss Salsa Dancing
- Generational Music Comparisons That STINK
- Mainstream Media & Accountability With Social Media
- You Don’t Like…Music?
- Hierarchy…Even Among The “Useless” Degrees?
- Thoughts About “Useless Degree” Lists
- When I Am Most Creative…
- Black Girls, Black Women and TV Commercials
- Why I Don’t Like Tyler Perry’s Work
- Shows About “Single” Life
- Thoughts About The Hunger Games and Race
Related: View all Essay Lists
left her husbands
the one who wanted to change her
into a mule
And the other who tried to interest her
in being a queen.
A woman, unless she submits,
is neither a mule
nor a queen
though like a mule she may suffer
and like a queen pace the floor."
Her poem about Zora Neal Hurston’s protagonist, “Janie Crawford” in Their Eyes Were Watching God. There’s so much said in these few words…so much unsaid, but so much that so many Black women connect to.
Alice is NOT here for those patriarchal labels either…
I find it interesting how limited the range of emotional response and analysis seems to be by the average White reader of Black literature (assuming of course, they actually read it and know it exists, which is already a hurdle unto itself). One response that I usually hear, especially regarding Black women’s literature is “oh that book was so sad!” And, I’m like…“And…that’s it? Is that all that you thought?” Naturally this evokes a hyperbolic response by some White people who will incredulously say “well it’s not like abuse/sexual abuse is happy!” (Abuse is a part of much literature from every race of writer, revealing the complicated and destructive human condition, included in Black literature as well.) I then wonder, who created such a limited (in depth and range) binary of emotional expression and reaction to Black literature, “sad vs. happy?” Is that it?
What’s interesting is that some of the Black literature that they have such pedantic and limited emotional reaction to is some that has even won awards that they created and idolize. National Book Award. Pulitzer. Nobel.
They read Their Eyes Were Watching God by Zora Neal Hurston, The Color Purple by Alice Walker, Beloved by Toni Morrison, and others of our exquisite literary treasures of such a calibre and think “that’s so sad!” And that’s it. (I’d also point out how they view Black men’s literature as “that’s so scary/angry,” such as Richard Wright’s Black Boy and Native Son or Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man. Again, such a limited response. I won’t even address how some of them don’t even have these reactions at all and instead, they rather books like these be excluded from curricula/personal reading altogether.) The most our lives on paper and that level of literary exquisiteness evokes is such a limited range of emotion and analysis for many of them, because ultimately, the responses that many Whites can offer are truly limited to pity or indifference altogether. They’d have to recognize the cultural references, emotional nuance, and complexity of such literature. Also, they’d have to see the characters in those works, the skilled and insightful Black authors who wrote them and Black people themselves as truly human, capable of layers of experience, reflection and life itself. To be human is to be more than solely what happens to us. If they can only view Black women and Black men as victims/victimizers (as well as the White characters [if present, and I mention presence since some Whites reject Black literature solely because Whites aren’t central/lead/hero characters] as random and disconnected from actual Whiteness) with the roles of race, gender, sexuality etc. and racism, sexism, homophobia and White supremacy itself as vapors floating by but not actually impacting the actual stories and lives of the characters, the Black authors and Black people at large, then I’m not sure what it is that they are experiencing when they read Black literature. It makes sense then that their responses are so juvenile and limited.
I can’t classify such complex literature as “sad” or “happy.” That’s a simplification that I actually find offensive. I view the fullness of those characters and what they mean for actual Black life. It evokes a range of emotions, complexities and thoughts for me, in the way that say…the Blues does. I just…even bubble gum evokes more in me than “sad” or “happy.”
Certainly, some people will wonder if my analysis of White responses is cloaked in educational privilege. I almost wish this were true. The problem is when equally educated (or not) Whites can clearly offer nuance and range in their responses to someone White in the same genre, say…William Faulkner, then I KNOW that this is not a question of am I just being hard on White people who perhaps don’t have a graduate degree like I do. Nope. This isn’t the issue. In fact, I recall my days in high school AP English courses in 11th and 12th grade at one of the top 10 of the top 1000 high schools in the United States. The White students there offered the same imagination-less, pitiful, pedantic responses to Black literature. These were some of the smartest students in the nation yet their analyses were barely different from an uneducated older White person. However, they offered the opposite for White literature. They could see depth there. Not surprising.
The bigoted concept of hierarchy in terms of what is deemed quality literature (White) and even within that literature, what characters (White) are considered human and more than what negative events occur within their lives prevails. It’s not an intellectual or comprehension issue (though of course, privileges of both education and literacy itself are at play here to even be able to read and respond to any literature at all); it’s a racial one that micro-cosmically reveals through the response to Black literature what’s happening macro-cosmically in response to us in actual life. Disconnection. Pity. Indifference. Devaluation.
3 things come to mind here: 1) How James Baldwin wrote about Whites’ refusal to come to grips with the delusions (fostered by White supremacy) that they create and live by, regarding their own existences; it makes it that much harder for them to examine our existences beyond the lies that they’ve learned to live by. 2) How bell hooks wrote about their tendency to turn our sacred into spectacle. 3) How Alice Walker wrote about how both Black and White writers seem to be writing one immense story, the same one for the most part, with different parts of the story emerging from different perspectives—and she focused on this more than the differences (though she acknowledged differences exist), but since this commonality isn’t recognized, White people rather pretend that Black literature is completely different, disconnected from them, and thus, for some, inferior.
Related Post: The Most Commonly Challenged/Banned Books
There is a long list of the most commonly challenged books in the United States, many of which appear on various “banned” books lists. Some of the ones on this list by Black authors include:
- Beloved - Toni Morrison
- Black Boy - Richard Wright
- The Bluest Eye - Toni Morrison
- The Color Purple - Alice Walker
- Go Tell It On The Mountain - James Baldwin
- Invisible Man - Ralph Ellison
- Native Son - Richard Wright
- Their Eyes Were Watching God - Zora Neal Hurston
You know what this means; if you haven’t read them, now you must. :) I have.
I love all of the authors mentioned above. I mentioned Beloved first since there is a White mom actively trying to get this book removed from a high school curriculum in the effort to whitewash and “sanitize” history in regards to the reality of slavery. James Baldwin wrote so well about the delusions and “sanitation” involved in preserving White supremacy. Check out his book Cross of The Redemption for some of his non-fiction writing on this very topic.
Related Post: Good Reads In 2012
This is my 34th Read This Week feature! Below are some great essays/articles to consider:
What Romantic Comedies Teach Us Wrongly About Sex by Robert Reese and Jazmine Walker of Still Furious and Still Brave is a good read that critically examines the messages that these films convey; they’re hardly ever “just” laughs. The connection between media and culture isn’t parallel lines; it’s smudged. It actually presents a fascinating juxtaposition between pornography and romantic comedies, in a way that I suspect most readers wouldn’t have guessed prior to reading it.
Protecting white kids from history by @graceishuman is about the effort that one White mother is making to have Toni Morrison’s book Beloved banned from school. She claims it gave her son a nightmare. Imagine the nightmare felt by Margaret Garner, the woman that inspired Morrison’s book in the first place. Important read here; she elaborates on WHY a parent would do this and how this connects to a great problem of White-washing history and privileging White literature over other literature.
Who’s Afraid Of Post-Racist? by @tressiemcphd is an interesting read. She debates five points in another writer’s post that claimed that society might not be post-race but it is post-racism. Yeah…someone believes this. Anyway, her essay is thoughtful, insightful and critical. I enjoyed reading it.
King Bey: Beyoncé’s History of Gender Non-Conformity by @anti_intellect is an interesting read. He examines the two leading perspectives regarding her calling herself a “king” (reaffirms patriarchy vs. reveals freedom), and explains how these perspectives merged, not opposing, reveals a more nuanced and accurate picture. Interesting read! (He’s the same person that posited an interesting perspective on Beyoncé and feminism, that I previously posted.)
Stay tuned for next week’s suggestions!