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Female Identity, Male Domination, and Black Power Movements

We're Not Just Black Power Groupies

(A Pro-active Womanist Critique)

by Stephanie Mason

I was watching a music video when I began thinking of this piece. It was the one from the forthcoming "Panther" movie. I have to admit that while I find most music videos (as of late) pretty mediocre, I was ever so slightly moved by this one. I watched with a lot of interest and more than a little pride as a massive chorus of black women sang about freedom and revolution. As the women sang these words, images of the film were flashed before my eyes. They were romantic and stirring images of the Black Panthers, of Huey Newton, of white oppression and black revolution. What caught my eye most of all were the images of Elaine Brown (as portrayed in the film). Many of you may or may not know that Elaine Brown led the Panther party for a brief stint during their "glory days." She and the other women of the Panthers looked strong and proud in the video, all dressed in black, wearing sunglasses and unrelenting afros. While most of us will catch the beauty and the drama of both the music video and the motion picture, the irony will be lost on many more.

That's the part that disturbed me. I became unsettled when I thought of the reality of black power movements, during and since the '60s. No, I wasn't alive during the '60s. I was just learning to walk and talk during the early '70s. I was born on the tail end of a lot of the important events in the history of black radicalrevolutionary politics. That doesn't mean that I have nothing to say on the matter. I'm a product of those movements. The course of my life has been shaped, to a certain extent, by the black power movements of that era. If the Panthers hadn't come before me, I never would have gotten away with decrying all of the great, white fathers of this country in my eighth grade social studies class. I got some ugly looks and a few disparaging remarks, but there was really nothing anyone could do with me. Had Eldridge Cleaver never written Soul On Ice, I might not have developed the confrontational style of writing (and living) that endears me to some and angers others. Had I not been exposed to Angela Davis, I might not realize what it means to for a black woman to be strong, revolutionary, and truly together.

I've learned a lot from black power movements. They've played a large part in making me who I am today. That is an angry black woman who wants to work it out. And is willing to by any means necessary. I'm also a woman who knows that she doesn't have to live her life around white values, sensibilities, or politics. I owe a debt of gratitude to those strong-willed, serious-minded, angry, intelligent, pro-active, Afro-centric, brothers and sisters who came before me. That doesn't mean that I don't also wish to critique black power movements. Critique and re-evaluation promote growth as long as they come from the desire to grow and not the desire to destroy. Black power movements are no exception. I love and embrace black power in all of its movements. As such, I wish to see it grow.

Before we can look at the ways in which black radical/revolutionary politics need to grow in the future, we must examine their past failings. Many, whites and blacks, have called black power movements "too aggressive," or "too confrontational." Many whites feel that black power movements are trying to "take too much," or trying to take over. That's not where my problem lies. Coming from a womanist perspective, I have a problem with the androcentrism that is often present in such movements. Many brothers have asked black women to subjugate their identities as women to their identities as African-Americans. They've asked, even demanded at times, for black women to give up their struggles as women for the black struggle. Those are demands that are neither fair nor realistic. The biggest problem for me is that, in large part, black power movements and the men involved in them, haven't allowed black women to act out the multipositionality that is their birthright. The denial and/or subjugation of black female multipositionality has been manifested in a number of ways. Most of these manifestations are still being carried out today. Misogyny in black power movements didn't go away with the '70s. Black women have always been characterized as domineering and overbearing. They've been accused of emasculating black men. The reality has been that black women have been compared to a weak, helpless European/Western model of womanhood. Black men who are concerned with empowerment often look at black women through European eyes. They want to liberate "the race," yet they feel that liberation can only be achieved through the domination and oppression of black women.

That is not only reactionary. It's simply antithetical to Afrocentrism and black revolution. We need to realize that none of us are free until all of us are free. (That also goes for classism in the black community, but that's a whole different story.) Which brings me to the reactionary nature of misogyny in black radical/revolutionary politics. If we want to enact a revolution, then we should be thoroughly revolutionary about it. We can't call ourselves true radicals or revolutionaries if we're operating as a carbon copy of white gender relations. Black men, if you continue to oppress black women in the name of revolution, then you're no better than the first Europeans to settle in this country. Supposedly, they came here looking for freedom from religious persecution and the tyranny of the monarchy. The only freedom they wanted was the freedom to tyrannize Native-Americans and enslave Africans in the name of capitalism. Let's not follow this example in fighting for black power. How much integrity can black power politics have if it is used to make black men feel more "manly," and authoritative? As a black woman, I have to doubt the integrity of any movement that doesn't allow me the full range of my identity and my humanity (that also goes for white feminism).

I could sit here and complain until the end of time, but what would that do to encourage the growth of black power movements? My elders always told me not to complain unless I had a better idea. I remembered those wise words. If I didn't, I'd be just another whiner with nothing to contribute. It's essential to take black power movements and black radical/revolutionary politics into the twenty-first century as strong and whole as possible. We can't afford to fall apart when we're living in the aftermath of the republican revolution and in the midst of a growing white backlash. More and more of us are going to find it necessary to embrace liberation, revolution, and black power as American politics and economics become increasingly polarized. If you think things are bad now, just wait. (For those of you who don't believe that we're really in trouble now, I fear for you when you wake to find yourself shackled and picking cotton.) To make it through this post-modern madhouse, we're going to have to do what we've always done so well. That is to adapt, re-shape, and re-invent ourselves. We have to expand our vision of blackness in order to expand our base for black power.

That's really not as complicated as it sounds. It means a number of things. In general, it means de-compartmentalizing blackness, letting go of the stereotypes and the unwritten rules. We should embrace all forms of blackness. There is no monolithic black experience except oppression. Specifically, with regard to the womanist dilemma within black power movements, we need to allow black women to live out their multipositionality. It is possible to be concerned with being black and a woman simultaneously. It is also possible to fully participate in the struggles that arise from being black, female, and both at once. If all of us, especially black men, don't come to that realization, two things are bound to happen. Black women are going to be alienated from womanist identities and struggles. That's not fair to black women as women. And black women are going be alienated from black power movements, even in the midst of them. Having a bunch of black power groupies is counterproductive to the revolution. Either possibility is frighteningly limiting and extremely damaging.

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Meanderings 2.04 -- April 1995