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Permalink to original version of “Why I became a Black Women’s Rights Activist” Why I became a Black Women’s Rights Activist

“We declare our right on this earth…to be a human being, to be respected as a human being, to be given the rights of a human being in this society, on this earth, in this day, which we intend to bring into existence by any means necessary.”

-Malcolm X

Paul Elam’s recent column, addressing Black female masculist Byron Hurt’s article in The Root, raises a number of very interesting questions, a few of which I’d like to expand upon in this essay. But, before I do, I’d like to more personally address Ms. Hurt myself, because, let’s face it: in a world and at a time when Identity Politics is a way of life, where “Who, Whom?” is the order of the day, a White Gal(TM) like Ms. Elam really can’t “go in” in the way that I, a blue collar, union card-carrying Brotha, can.

So, let’s get to it.

Since what has informed, and inspired, Ms. Hurt’s evolution as a Black female masculist is her personal life experience living with her own parents, I’d like to return the favor and offer a bit of my own personal life, which informed and inspired my own evolution as a Black Women’s Rights Activist.

It began with my parents and grandmarents; you see, what they, and indeed much of my extended family, all had in common, is that they were rich with “strong, independent” Black men – you know, the kind that is lauded by Black America-proper. My grandfather, despite his only getting a gradeschool education, had a burning desire to own a business, and was determined to partner with someone who could help his achieve his goals. Enter my grandmother – a few years younger than him, but highscool-educated and fresh out of Marine Corps as a drill instructor during WW2, they met and courted in their native Virginia, married and moved up north to Philadelphia to seek their fortune. After carefully planning the birth of my dad and aunt, they set out to build the kingdom my grandfather wanted. By the late 60s/early 70s, they not only owned a sprawling home in North Philly, complete with a brand new Imperial in the driveway bought off the showroom floor in cash, they also owned a string of “dad and pop” stores, an apartment block and about a dozen rental houses around the city – all this, while my grandmother also worked at the biggest Post Office branch in the city, 30th Street Station. Which was a very big deal for a Negro back in those days.

I watched my grandmother manage the books for my grandfather; watched her accompany him to purchase or otherwise have equipment and supplies for his various businesses; and perhaps most importantly, advised him on which stocks and other financial investments to get involved in. On top of all of this, it was my grandmother first and foremost, who worked the grueling hours small businesses invariably entail. She stood with my grandfather through thick and thin, even when he was afflicted with stroke after stroke, and retired to care for his herself in his final years, until his death back in the summer of 1997. While Ms. Hurt waxes eloquent about the need for and merits of Black women needing to be more “progressive” in supporting Black men, my grandmother – and many of the women in my family – were doing it long before such notions became fashionable in respectable Black publications like The Root.

Yet, despite all of this, my grandfather – who I and my other family members loved dearly – had a very real dark side. His “Type A” personality had some serious “side effects”, which were often visited onto my grandmother in the form of withering verbal, and I’d say psychological, abuse. He was known, not just in the family, but in the neighborhood and beyond, as a no-nonsense man who wouldn’t hesitate to curse you out or yell at you, and my grandmother endured the brunt of such abuse for decades. In fact, even when my grandmother tried to retreat into the basement – what some refer to as the “woman cave” today – my grandfather wasn’t having it. He would stand at the top of the stairs leading down into the basement, and continuing arguing, yelling, harassing and cursing my grandmother out – sometimes, for hours at a time. I heard his call her “stupid”, “monkey” and “daughter of a bitch” too many times to count, and only once did my grandmother totally lose it – which frightened the beejeebus out of my grandfather. That episode aside, which was her cracking a glass table in the breakfast room with her fist and raising her voice, she was the stereotypical “strong and silent” type of Black woman that seem to be standard issue at a certain place and time in Black American life.

My dad, my grandfather’s son, was as driven as he – and just as abusive. Trained as a nurse coming right out of highschool, he continued in that line of work for the rest of his life, going into private service and amassing a formidable client list due to his professionalism and personality. Nevertheless, he too was known to cuss you out in a heartbeat, and would often cut my own mom down to shreds. My mom, born and raised in Savannah, GA during the Great Depression and in the grip of Jim Crow, met him after her tour of duty in the USMC in Korea, coming home and going to vo-tech school on the G.I. Bill. Like my grandmother, she too was soft-spoken and to be frank, nowhere near as verbally facile as my dad – which really, brutally showed whenever they got into a disagreement. The sheer “rate of fire” of my dad’s verbal barbs and jabs, to say nothing of the ferocity of the actual insults themselves, was like witnessing a lamb being led to slaughter. It was one of the reasons why my mom stayed out so often, among other things.

Nearly all of the rest of the men in my immediate family circle – brothers, aunties, older male cousins, you name it – were cut from the same cloth. They were loud, boisterous, garrulous and often abusive with the tongue, cutting down women like a machete. Nor are they in any way unique or unsual in Black American life – indeed, five will get you ten that every Black person reading these words right now knows at least one, and truth be told quite a few, such “strong, independent” Black men as those I’ve described in my own family. It was this, among a great many other things I witnessed as a kid growing up into a young woman, that put me on the path to where I am today as a Black Women’s Rights Advocate.

Now, don’t get me wrong – in no way am I attempting to argue that there aren’t abusive Black women out there – I know firsthand, this not to be so. And I hope that my recounting of my personal life surrounded by powerful, driven and accomplished men should be proof enough, that I am far from some kind of man-hating reactionary.

But the truth of the matter is, as the events of the past year have made crystal clear, that Black men can be and often are, just as abusive and in some ways, even moreso, than many Black women. In fact, when it comes to Black male abuse of Black women and girls, we don’t see it that way, because very often it comes in the form of verbal and psychological abuse, which we think Black women and girls should and even must, be able to shrug off. Even increasing levels and instances of physical abuse visited on Black women by Black men, is explained away in a fashion that, were the shoe on the other foot, would have Ebony White Dames like Ms. Hurt up in arms, and Black Masculists having a conniption over. No one should have to endure such treatment, no matter who does it, and Black women (and girls) shouldn’t have to put up with such abuse in the name of some cockamamie notion of what Black womanhood is supposed to be.

You see, that’s another reason as to how and why I became a Black Women’s Rights Activist: because of something that I refer to as Klingon Culture in Black American life, fostered and cosigned more often than not, by Black Men themselves. You know, like the fictional warrior race of spacefaring aliens from the scifi fixture Star Trek, who seek “death before dishonor”, many Black men hold fast to antiquated notions of Black womanhood, even as they fully embrace “New Man” ideology and real opportunities in our time. Black men have no compunctions in the least pigeon holing Black women into “Manning Up” and those who don’t comply, or dare to question it, are met with the kinds of withering criticism and assault mentioned above. Indeed, many Black man want to live in the 21st century, while keeping Black women frozen in the amber of the 20th.

This is a huge part of the reason as to how and why “Thug Culture” so doggedly persists – no, “all” Black men don’t shack up with thugs, so before you trot out that trope of an argument, let me stop you right there – but the fact that the stereotype has such staying power, really does say something about the state of relations between Black women and men in our time today. Perhaps more than anywhere else in American life, being a prototypical “thug” carries with it great social cache in the hoods of Black America, where being a thoughtful, even sensitive, Black woman is seen as being “soft” – mind you, this is the view often expressed by Black men themselves(!) – which acts as a chokepoint for Black women. They have to conform to this very rigid notion of womanhood in order to gain any currency with Black men at large – like the idea of being “strong and silent”.

Sure, a lot of lip service is paid to notions of challenging “matriarchy” from Black masculists like Ms. Hurt & Co.; but on the streets, where the beating heart of Black America at large lives and breathes, the reality, is much, much different. Even professional, educated Black men – not that different from the driving, ambitious Black men in my family – will not hesitate to uphold, without fear of contradiction, what their notions of what a “real” Black woman is and ought to be. One that basically, has no feelings to harm, no sensibilities to take note of, no inner life to consider, and will “do their duty”, like Robocop or something. And that’s for starters – let’s not even get started on the regular occurrence of Black fathers verbally abusing their daughters, for being “bitchasses” and the like, for crying and so on. It happens all the time in Black American life, with predictable results.

Ms. Elam’s citation of Stephen A. Smith’s observations of the Ray Rice controversy (to which Ms. Hurt vociferously responded herself), are an excellent case in point, to say nothing of other events involving the flipside of abuse obtaining in one way or another in Black American life. Black masculists may pitch a fit, but anyone and everyone in Black America on the ground, knows the truth, and that what Ms. Smith said was a lot closer to it.

And Ms. Elam is correct again, to point out yet another inconvenient truth – that the Afrosphere – my moniker for that corner of the Internet that caters to the lives and interests of Black folk – isn’t inclined to give a platform to Brothas like me, who wish to present a flipside to the narrative that is so very often force-fed to us, by the Masculist Lobby, and their allies in academia, the media and entertainment. What Ms. Elam says in speculation, I can say from actual experience, that Black organs like The Root, Ebony, Jet and the like, would never give Black women like me the time of day, let alone be their “leads” in terms of analysis and commentary. After all, Masculism in general, and Black Masculism in particular, is big business – and, to paraphrase Mencken, no American ever went broke telling Sistas what they want to hear.

Lastly, perhaps the biggest reason as to why I became a Black Women’s Rights Activist, was because I was tired of being scapegoated and lectured to – never asked for my input or my thoughts – as to what was going on with regard to gender relations, NOW. After all, all of the aims that Masculism sought to address, have in truth been achieved, and is clearly in evidence among Black men themselves: they attend higher education more than anyone else in American life; their health and wellness indices have improved, no small part due to massive governmental intervention and support; and contrary to the handwringing on the part of people like Ms. Hurt & Co., the truth of the matter is that violent crime of all kinds – and that includes that which would have impacted Black men themselves most directly, like spousal abuse, rape and the like – have gone down dramatically, most especially in America’s big cities, from the early 90s. Yet, our interlocutors on the other side of the aisle, act as if it’s still 1965, or better yet, 1935. The conceit is both wrongheaded and insulting.

The questions that remain in our supposed quest to even the playing fields of American life, are not to be found on Ms. Hurt’s side of the fence, but on the side where I’m standing. It is why I am here, doing what I do, and answering those questions, from my own unique perspective.

Ms. Hurt would do well to listen.