Yesterday, Brown Girl Speaks wrote about the notion, which Giddings refers to in her essay on Ida B. Wells' anti-lynching campaign, that black women are responsible for or to blame for black male sexuality. Today, Andrea Plaid discusses how that thinking has survived.
written by What Tami Said guest contributor Andrea Plaid
Moms and I had another round-and-round discussion about this—I’d swear that it started when I developed breasts. A distilled version:
“The woman’s role is to say ‘no’ to the man, to keep him at bay,” she’d start. “It’s not like the man doesn’t try to get his way, but it’s the woman who needs to say ‘no’ until he gives her a ring, at least. Then, she has something to back her up when she’s having sex with him.”
“But why should I have to keep the man at bay” I’d ask. “Why can’t he keep himself at bay?”
“Because the man wants what he wants. It’s his nature,” Mom would state. “It’s up to the woman to civilize him into wanting to be married. If not—and the woman just lays up with him and has babies by him—he just used her, spreads his seed, and keeps going.”At this point in The Sexual Message, Moms would illustrate her point by telling me about the Black girls who lived on her block, when she was a tween and teen, who became single teen moms. (Some context: Moms came “up North” from Mississippi during the Second Great Migration when she was 10. She grew up in mostly to all-Black neighborhoods, mostly because of de jure segregation that was slowly shifting toward de facto segregation. She graduated high school in 1963.) Moms and the girls would hang together, Moms would say, but she knew she wasn’t going to “let some boy use her like that.” (She’d add that, because of that singular decision, her girlfriends—and their children—never quite achieved the Black Middle-Class Dream. Moms knew this because she’s seen them over the years.) She’d talk about how she would sit under my “scoundrel” uncles at the table—they were much older than she was; (Moms is the youngest daughter out of 13 kids)--and would listen to how they talked about how they used women and knew no man would talk about her like that. Then she would underline her point by talking about The Bet: a group of Black men, including my late father, wagered that one of them would literally get Mom’s panties. (Yes, the actual proof of the event was to show the group her panties.) My father took on the challenge—and ended up taking my mom an engagement ring. And, my mom would brag, she didn’t have me until after they were married. Moms would also point to my sister’s birth as another example of the privileges of birthing after marriage, of doing it The Right Way.
In other words, her advice was infalliable--her life was proof of it.
Moms would then go on to emphasize why she was giving this advice: “You’re a Black woman in America. You need to have something in this world. You need to get your education. And it’ll be that much harder to get that education—and just get ahead in life—if you have a child, especially a child by yourself. ”
The rejoinder: “Oh, it’s fine to have children, especially as part of being married…”
“But what if I don’t want children but I want to be married? Or I just don’t want children at all?” I’d ask argumentatively.
“That’s fine,” Moms would quickly add. “All I’m saying is make sure you’re married when you decide to have them. A man is less likely to walk away from being a responsible father if he’s married to you. And the child has a foundation .“
Again, Exhibit A: her life, my sister and my “knowing who our fathers are.” With that, Mom would end the conversation…only to resume it when she would see another story on TV about another woman having babies “out of wedlock” or she’d spot one of her childhood friends and pictures of their grandkids (and she knew those grandkids came from the parents following her friend’s example). Or she was scanning my books for “questionable” (read: sexual) material. Or whatever would trip her indignity about “baby mommas” and “baby daddies.” Mind you, she also taught my sister and me about the mechanics of sex—though I remember learning more from her old nursing books—and that learning was supplemented by what I learned when I was in Catholic school (contrary to other experiences, those nuns and lay teachers did give accurate info, even when they gave us the official anti-abortion, anti-birth control line).
Just in case my sis or I missed what Moms lectured on, she’d summarize, usually during an activity where she knew we just couldn’t walk away, like pressing our hair or washing the dishes, and accompanied the talk with The Look: “If you wind up pregnant while you’re in this house, I. Will. Throw. You. Out.”
One of the many things assumed in her lecture and threat is the sexual/romantic partner. Moms thought, by providing the negative example of my financially irresponsible and emotionally immature father and my financially responsible stepfather—along with my “scoundrel” uncles who love their “surviving badass” niece (their words, not mine)—that my partner would be Black. Because the other admonition that came along with The Sexual Message was precisely that. However, Moms presented the message in reverse: no white man would darken their door. Other men of color were “all right” (usually said with a doubtful tone), but The Ofay was not OK. Good Black daughters came home with Good Black (Hetero Cisgender) Men—good because we deterred them from having pre-betrothed sex and out-of-wedlock babies with them--and The Ring. Everyone else…just no.
That is my socialization into being the Protector of the Black Dick. If I didn’t march or community organize or any other form of activism to Uplift the Race, I could at least do that much—safeguard my Black sexual/romantic partners’ raging sexual desires with my deterrence-- to ensure the next generation of Upstanding African Americans.
If I had to be honest, Mom’s words sort of worked. Though I didn’t say “no” to my Black (and other, including white) sexual partners, the “baby threat” sticks with me to this day: I am still childless and have a master’s degree as I approach my 42nd birthday. My sister, who’s has a bachelor’s degree in mechanical engineer, sowed her wild oats then married into a dynasty of Black preachers and gave me a nephew.
Now, are Mom’s words viable in the 21st century, as Brown Girl Speaks said in yesterday’s post? I wholeheartedly agree with her: everyone should be responsible for their own sexual affairs now, though I can’t quite agree with such a sentiment for back in the day because of the lethal circumstances and realities of my and other enslaved great-grandparents…
…and I also realize that there are some Black women my age who have reared or are rearing their daughters with the same sexual message to ensure another generation of the Black Middle (or Aspiring) Class.
It worked for their moms, right?