Friday, February 25, 2011

Black Feminist Book Club: Black male freedom = black female subjugation?

This year, I pledged to read more black feminist writing and I invited What Tami Said readers to join me. Right now, our Black Feminist Book Club is reading When and Where I Enter by Paula Giddings. I welcome guest submissions on the content and themes of this book.

Below is an excerpt about how, during times of black radicalism, patriarchal insistence on lesser freedom for black women and girls increases. In these times, true freedom and equality for the black man has been presented, as contingent, in part, on his ability to "master" the black woman in the same way white men are believed to "master" white women in a sexist mainstream society.

Sadly, I think, more than 100 years on, this thinking still lives in the black community. What do you think?

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The incidents can be seen in the context of the heightened militancy of Blacks in the late forties and fifties. The Fugitive Slave Law, the repeal of the Kansas-Nebraska Act, and the Dred Scott Supreme Court decision had all served to push even the most sanguine activists, such as Frederick Douglass, to call for the violent overthrow of the slave system. In periods of Black radicalism, which always includes a self-conscious quest for manhood, Black men attempt to exercise their male prerogatives more vigorously.

This dynamic was evident in the Revolutionary period, when “manumission fever” was in the air. A petition for freedom presented by male slaves to the Massachusetts legislature in 1773 was especially revealing. The men asked for freedom on the grounds that as slaves they had no authority over their families. “How can a husband leave master and work and cleave to his wife?” the petition read in part. “How can the wife submit themselves to [their] husbands in all things?”9 (Emphasis added.)

Male attitudes in the mid-nineteenth century, when Black militancy was at its peak, also reflected a sharpened resolve to take possession of that which had been denied to them. In 1855 a Black convention of male leaders declared that “As a people, we have been denied the ownership of our bodies, our wives, home, children and the products of our own labor.” The convention men resolved to “vindicate our manhood, command our respect and claim the attention and admiration of the civilized world.”10

That vindication included establishing conventional patriarchal relationships, and women were expected to help in this effort. In contrast to the views that Maria Stewart had expressed twenty-four years earlier, a Philadelphia convention resolved:
…we recommend to our mothers and our sisters to use every honorable means to secure for their sons and brothers places of profit and trust in stores and other places of business, such as will throw a halo around this proscribed people.11 (Emphasis added.) 
To men’s minds, for a woman to work—especially when it wasn’t a question of dire necessity—undermined Black manhood and the race as well. “As an evidence of the deep degradation of our race,” observed the Black physician and newspaper editor Martin Delany in 1855, “there are among us [women] whose husbands are industrious, able and willing to support them, who voluntarily leave home and become chamber maids, and stewardesses…in all probability to enable them to obtain more fine or costly articles of dress or furniture.”12 Delany was convinced that racial progress depended on rectifying that situation. “Until colored men attain to a position above permitting their mothers, sisters, wives and daughters to do the drudgery of…other men’s wives and daughters,” he said, “it is useless, it is nonsense…to talk about equality and elevation in society. (pg. 60, When and Where I Enter, Paula Giddings)

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