Compared to the bulk of my intellectual trajectory, I have spent very little time engaging directly with Black feminism. Through much of college, I became deeply immersed in Ralph Ellison, James Baldwin, Richard Wright, W.E.B. DuBois, and other brilliant Black male intellectual thinkers who imbued me with the energy and provided a lens through which to explore and deconstruct racism. And though I recognized and emphatically extolled the brilliance of Black women writers like Toni Morrison and Zora Neale Hurston, I had yet to invest the same time and energy into the complexity of their ideas. For me, I was Black and gay, and these were the key issues of concern for me, and quite frankly, I was more involved with grappling with the “Black” moreso than other social identities.
Though probably a necessary step in my development, I have since become more immersed in reading the works of women of color. This is no small part because their positionality as women, people of color, and often times queer individuals meant that they had very few channels of power available to them. Therefore, it was through feminists of color that I began to gain insight into how oppression works to dehumanize and rob us from ourselves at multiple levels. I do not mean to set up a hierarchy, for all our ancestors were brilliant, but reading Ellison and Wright told me that racism keeps me from having power and control, Audre Lorde would tell me about racism and sexism and homophobia and everything in between. In short, it would be through feminists of color, particularly queer feminists of color, where I begin to delve even further into understanding the multi-headed hydra of oppression. By revealing what it was like to be queer women of color, they were helping me to understand more about myself as a queer Black male, as a human being.
And yet, my growing investment in the struggles of women of color, Black women from my vantage point, has often left me isolated from many of my male-identified counterparts, be they straight or queer. Many of my male friends and associates, who are often brilliant and insightful about racism, scoff, jest, or resist whenever I have tried to challenge them about their thinking in regards to women. After countless debates and arguments, I get relegated to being the “feminist” in the room, which for them is meant to be a reductive and derogatory term, rather than denoting someone who persists in a thoughtful and conscious vying for the liberation of all women. Or I get labeled as angry or crazy or silly—which is not dissimilar to how many racists attempt to undercut the feelings and emotions of people of color who call them out on their racism. I find this strange and frustrating. Which leads me to call out and question Black men about why many of us are not doing the work of standing with Black women?
In an effort to speak to my community, I feel it necessary to pose this question to Black men. Quite frankly because I wonder how many of us our doing the intellectual, emotional, and physical work to stand and show our support for Black women? Many Black women thinkers and feminists, like Audre Lorde, Alice Walker, bell hooks, and countless others always have incisive analyses and critiques of the Black male psyche often showing how we remain complicit in patriarchy, but also revealing how patriarchy threatens to destroy our own vitality as Black men. Many Black women continue to remain allies to Black men, and on a real practical level, many of us know the mothers, sisters, daughters, friends, partners, colleagues, and mentors who have made numerous sacrifices to come to our defense and sustain us. Yet historically, and structurally, their challenges as women were also forced to take a back seat, or they were silenced and forced to stand behind male leaders. And now, their pain continues to be downplayed or ignored in the face of extreme tragedy.
For instance, I am disheartened by the lack of public outrage for the recent homicide of Renisha McBride. A dearth of public and sustained rage quite similar to that of Rekia Boyd and Marissa Alexander. As my fellow Black Youth Project blogger Mo Green pointed out, the injustices waged against Black women are seldom given the mass media spotlight and organizing attention as those against Black men. There are of course many actors who have more control over which narratives get widespread attention. But I wonder what would happened if the Black community, and in particular Black men, would stand up and be as outraged and indignant about the deaths of Black women Or about the violence against trans women? Against sexual violence?
This is not to say that Black women need us for their liberation, they have most certainly been doing the work, with and without us. But, rather, I wish to say that those of us who are Black and identify as male cannot expect to make truly creative and radical change in our world if we fail to challenge the multiple oppressions that exist in this society. I have met many conscious, intelligent Black men committed to racial equality and social justice, yet who seem to have very limited understandings of their role in the oppression of Black women. This is not to shame Black men—for as bell hooks says in a recent talk with Melissa Harris Perry, shame produces paralysis—but this is rather a call for Black men to realize that to look at this world and believe that only certain oppressions concern us is incomplete. Why is it that I am met with such shock and resistance when I challenge my intelligent male friends about their paternalistic attitudes towards women (claiming right to how women should act), their complicity in rape culture by slut-shaming and victim blaming, or their egregious use of the “B-word,” or the ways in which they draw parallels to femininity in an effort to mock or deride one another? Clearly suffering from one oppression does not make someone more easily able to empathize with another, but I believe that we must hold ourselves to a higher standard of critical love and compassion.
The word is intersectionality.
As Black men, we cannot afford to combat racism, but refuse—and in many ways it is a willed resistance—to see how we are invested and enraptured by patriarchal notions of manhood and masculinity. We cannot continue to think that standing with Black women means labeling them hollow terms like “beautiful Black queens,” but not challenging our misogyny and sexism. Yes, there are many Black men who have become committed to studying and writing about how racism and gender intertwine to ensnare and confuse all of us. But there are many of us still who remain vigilant in the fight against racial injustices, but when faced with the problem and faults of our own maleness, we—to echo Dubois—answer seldom a word.
Aaron Talley is an activist, writer, educator, and blogger for the Black Youth Project. He is also a member of the youth-led activist organization the Black Youth Project 100. He is currently a graduate student in the University of Chicago’s Urban Teacher Education Program and works with youth on the South Side of Chicago. He is from Detroit, Michigan. You can follow him on Twitter @Talley_Marked.