Black Power, Black Manhood, and Black Womanhood: Voices from the Past and Present

‘Wathint’ Abafazi, Wathint’ Imbokodo’

(you strike the women, you strike the rock)

 

I think this is my time now and I’m goin’ to take it. Anybody’d be crazy not to take it.… I just don’t care about anything else right now but takin’ what my mother and my grandmother oughtta have had and they didn’t get it. —Anonymous black woman interviewed by Josephine Carson, Silent Voices: The Southern Negro Woman Today (1969)

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Spokesmen argued that black men were more damaged by racism than black women, that men should be the leaders, head of the household, and dominant. Black women were empowered and thrilled by the Black Power movement, including the Black Panther Party, but many had critiques of its male chauvinism, common to many nationalist movements.

 

A central goal of the Black Power and black nationalist political movement was for the black man to recover the manhood that had been destroyed by racism, to transform himself from a Negro into a black man. “Man” and “manhood” were often employed as equivalents for the achievement of personhood, respect, and dignity. The black male stood center stage, strong, proud, and furious, a crucial building block in the imagery of black nationalism. – Winifred Breines

 

Some of women’s problems stemmed from the fact that men were the hub of attention and concern, considered by many to be more damaged by slavery and racism than were women and therefore more deserving of admiration and support. The racial solidarity for which women hoped, the community they imagined, was weakened by male dominance and sexism. The movement empowered women while simultaneously angering and disappointing them.

 

“The need for psychological equality is the reason why the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) today believes that blacks must organize in the black community. Only black people can convey the revolutionary idea that black people are able to do things themselves.” – Stokely Carmichael, What We Want (1966)

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“My Miss America” – Black Womanhood by Ernie Barnes c. 1970

What is Black Power?

Black Power was a movement that “galvanized millions of black people in the broadest movement in African American history.” It was enormously influential among black youth, female and male. Some organized political and artists’ groups and others simply supported its ideas, but all were affected by black nationalism, a political and cultural movement that focused on achieving power, freedom, and affirmation for African Americans or, in the words of historian Komozi Woodard, “self-determination, self-respect, and self-defense.” A geographically diverse movement, it encompassed a range of cultural and political emphases, including the Black Arts movement, which articulated Black Power’s cultural perspectives; the Black Panther party, the most well known political organization of the time; Malcolm X and the Nation of Islam, or the black Muslims; and black workers’ organizations. Black nationalism is probably the most inclusive term for both the cultural and political aspects of the Black Power movement in the late 1960s and 1970s. – Winifred Breines

 

Sometime around 1966, Black Power in the South, Malcolm X’s influence in the North, Amiri Baraka and other Black Arts movement artists, Ron Karenga’s organization US, the Black Panther party, and urban rebellions converged into a powerful social movement centered on black radicalism’s insistence on self-determination and self-definition.

Blacks recognized that self esteem, confidence, pride, skills, and resources were necessary to build a movement, and believed they had to do it alone. A celebration of African-American culture, bodies, and history, of self-determination, and an affirmation of black life that had been destroyed, discredited, and appropriated throughout American history were at the heart of the move to Black Power.

 

“[B]lack phallic power” or the glorification of the new black man’s virility was a centerpiece of Black Power and “asserted black masculinity as coterminous with racial emancipation,” wrote literary critic – Robyn Weigman, 2007

Affirming popular notions of the family, black nationalist men wanted to put black women in a traditional place they had never occupied. Amiri Baraka wrote, for example, that cultural nationalists did not believe in the equality of men and women because they are different and complement one another. Each has separate functions, “which are more natural to us.” He continued, “We say that a black woman must first be able to inspire her man, then she must be able to teach our children, and contribute to the social development of the nation.” Baraka referred to those who advocated women’s equality as “devils and the devilishly influenced. – Amiri Baraka

“The black woman is, can be, the black man’s helper, an undying collaborator, standing up with him, beside her man. – Nathan Hare

“A woman attempting the role of leadership was, to my proud black Brothers, making an alliance with the ‘counter-revolutionary, man-hating, lesbian, feminist white bitches.’ If a black woman assumed a role of leadership, she was said to be eroding black manhood, to be hindering the progress of the black race. – Elaine Brown, A Taste of Power (2015)

The Los Angeles SNCC chapter “fell apart, largely due to women’s refusal to accept the masculinist posturing of the male leadership.” Female activists were expected to defer to men, who were extremely sensitive about women with “too” much power – Angela Davis

The women were accused of being domineering and controlling, insufficiently submissive and feminine, of in effect castrating the men. They had to create the illusion that men were the source of all ideas and to “genuflect,” in Panther leader Kathleen Cleaver’s words, when trying to get their views across. – Kathleen Cleaver

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Not only was black maleness celebrated, but critical assessments of the black woman accompanied the celebration. Much nationalist writing did not just marginalize or compartmentalize black women; it indicted them.  Militant black men appeared to “embrace and endorse” a picture of a “domineering, emasculating black womanhood,” a version of the controversial 1965 Moynihan Report, which argued that a black matriarchy undermined black men and black nuclear families.  The Moynihan’s black matriarchy thesis ended up indicting black women as the source of black men’s troubles. Ironically, many black women believed “that their men suffered more, and the Black women’s duty… was to absorb their justifiable rage.

Heterosexual black women were and wanted to be loyal to black men, and they longed for black men to be loyal to them. But many men were not, and the women were hurt.

In a poignantly titled essay in Cade’s The Black Woman, “Who Will Revere the Black Woman?” Black Arts singer and actress Abbey Lincoln lamented that she had heard echoed by “too many Black full-grown males that Black womanhood is the downfall of the Black man in that she (the Black woman) is ‘evil,’ ‘hard to get along with,’ ‘domineering,’ ‘suspicious,’ and ‘narrow-minded.’ In short, a black, ugly, evil, you-know-what.”

Adding insult to injury, some male writers used the supposedly over-bearing characteristics of the black woman to defend the black man’s “escape” to the white woman. Black women’s hurt, anger, confusion, and resentment crystallized around interracial liaisons between black men and white women.

I’m forced now to admit the white woman is obviously a natural and superior piece cause I have watched and am watching our men go ape shit to get it. Panthers coalescing and Communists communing are still talking about getting a white piece. And if it costs them their lives as it has been costing our men their cultural, emotional, spiritual and physical lives, that appears to be a small enough price to pay for it. – Nikki Giovanni

“Most black women accepted traditional notions of patriarchy from black men because they viewed the Afro-Christian tradition of woman as mother and wife as personally desirable and politically necessary for black people’s survival.” – Barbara Omolade

Malcolm’s desire to “protect” black women grew out of a sincere concern for their emotional, psychic, and physical safety; it was also reflective of the power struggle between black and white men and black men and women. Furthermore, the pure and protected black woman of his vision was also obligated to obey her protector— the black man. The exchange is as follows: The woman gets protection; the man acquires a possession.

Black people do not want to “take over” this country. They don’t want to “get whitey”; they just want to get him off their backs, as the saying goes. It was for example the exploitation by Jewish landlords and merchants which first created black sentiment toward Jews—not Judaism. This white man is irrelevant to blacks, except as an oppressive force. Blacks want to be in his place, yes, but not in order to terrorize and lynch and starve him. They want to be in his place because that is where a decent life can be had. – Stokely Carmichael, What We Want (1966)

Sources:

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.

Barbara Omolade, “Hearts of Darkness,” in Snitnow, Powers of Desire, 352

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2 Comments Add yours

  1. Vinny Idol says:

    This was an incredible piece. I learned a lot. Thank you

    Like

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