Sisters in the Struggle: African American Women in the Civil Rights-Black Power Movement by Bettye Collier-Thomas and V.P. Franklin
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Excerpt: Black Power Collides with Female Assertiveness
As Ruby and her colleagues wrestled with the issue of gender roles in the latter years of the Civil Rights Movement, their views were filtered through the prism of male chauvinism that accompanied the rise of Black Power. One of the distinctive tenets of the Black Power philosophy was the belief in black male dominance. For so long, Black Power advocates argued, black men had been virtually emasculated by white American society. Thus, they must assume leadership roles and reclaim their masculinity as a prerequisite to the empowerment of all black people. Some reasoned that men could only assume their rightful place, though, if women would step aside and stop interfering. Such a negative judgment of black female leadership was inextricably bound to a twisted assessment of black female self-reliance. This fallacious assessment blamed black women for the emasculation of their men because of their willingness to assume dominant roles. As this attitude became increasingly prevalent among advocates of Black Power and black nationalism, African American women leaders were subjected to tremendous and often unpleasant pressures.
Well-known activist Angela Davis experienced some of those pressures when she organized a rally in San Diego, California in 1967. She recalled, I ran headlong into a situation which was to become a constant problem in my political life. I was criticized very heavily, especially by male members of [Ron] Karenga’s [US] organization, for doing a “man’s job.” Women should not play leadership roles, they insisted. A woman has to “inspire” her man and educate his children. Davis reasoned that this male attitude was particularly ironic since “much of what I was doing had fallen to me by default.” This was only the beginning of such problems. By 1968, Davis was obliged to confront similar male attitudes in the Los Angeles chapter of SNCC where both men and women served on the central office staff. She clearly describes the circumstances: Some of the brothers came around only for staff meetings (Sometimes), and whenever we women were involved in something important, they began to talk about “women taking over the organization”—calling it a matriarchal coup d’etat. All the myths about black women surfaced. (We) were too domineering; we were trying to control everything, including the men— which meant by extension that we wanted to rob them of their manhood. By playing such a leadership role in the organization, some of them insisted, we were aiding and abetting the enemy, who wanted to see black men weak and unable to hold their own.
Other strong African American women leaders experienced similar problems. Kathleen Cleaver, an officer in the Black Panther Party, was particularly frustrated by the males’ refusal to respect her ideas. She recalled that, “If I suggested them, the suggestion might be rejected; if they were suggested by a man, the suggestion would be implemented.” Gloria Richardson, the undisputed leader of the Cambridge movement in Maryland, faced a forceful show of male chauvinism at a Cambridge rally in the late 1960s. When Richardson attempted to address the crowd, male members of CORE shouted her down and called her a “castrator.” This blatant sexism also became an integral part of the emerging cultural nationalism of the era. Cultural nationalists sought to define and popularize a black value system that would promote a positive self image— at least for some. An important part of this value system was an emphasis on black male strength, which was defined in the context of an idealized image of a submissive black woman.
Imamu Amiri Baraka, noted author and activist, clearly explained the cultural nationalist view in 1967 of the black woman’s character. As he put it, “Nature . . . made woman submissive, she must submit to man’s creation in order for it to exist.” Fellow cultural nationalist Ron Karenga agreed with this assessment. He wrote, “What makes a woman appealing is femininity and she can’t be feminine without being submissive.” The teachings of these cultural nationalists clearly implied that black women who refused to submit to male authority could prevent their men from properly developing a strong male personality. With this in mind, black cultural nationalists demanded that women conform to certain standards of behavior. For example, they thought black women should not use birth control devices since having more children was the most strategically important service to the struggle that women could perform. They reasoned, “For us to speak in favor of birth control for Afro Americans would be comparable to speaking in favor of genocide.” Even as many of the cultural nationalists were calling for black women to have more children, there were some in the scholarly establishment who claimed that black mothers were crippling their sons.
For example, psychiatrists William Grier and Price Cobbs insisted that black mothers did this both through example and direct interaction. They argued that:Black men develop considerable hostility toward black women as the inhibiting instruments of an oppressive system. The woman has more power, more accessibility into the system, and therefore she is more feared, while at the same time envied. And it is her lot in life to suppress masculine assertiveness in her sons. It seems, then, that black women were being blamed and chastised by many— both inside and outside the movement. The debate was sharp, emotional, and exhausting. Strength and self-reliance had been part of the black female role and persona for generations, stretching all the way back into slavery. More recently, African American women had been the leaders and the backbone of the Civil Rights Movement. But now they were being told that they had stepped out of bounds and the black freedom struggle could not succeed until they returned to their “proper places.”
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Collier-Thomas, Betty, and Franklin, V. P., eds. Sisters in the Struggle : African-American Women in the Civil Rights & Black Power Movements. New York, NY, USA: New York University Press (NYU Press), 2001. ProQuest ebrary. Copyright © 2001. New York