June is Guest Blogger Month here at FeministaJones.Com . I solicited a few bloggers, writers, poets, etc to contribute posts lending their perspectives and experiences on feminism, race, mental health, sexuality, relationships, liberation, sex, and everything this blog is about. I hope you appreciate their contributions as much as I have. If you’re interested in being featured, please submit your pitches to firstname.lastname@example.org
“…our real responsibility is to endlessly redefine each other. I cannot live without you, and you cannot live without me – and the children can’t live without us,” says James Baldwin.
“But we have to define ourselves for each other,” replies Audre Lorde.
My journey of becoming a Black Male Feminist has been a filled with lot of questions, answers, problems, solutions, debates, compromises, allegations, apologies, misunderstanding, light-bulb moments, and a whole lot of ambivalent emotions. But Feminism has undoubtedly made me a better person. In fact, it taught me more about manhood than I even (at least consciously) intended it to.
Earlier in my engagement into Black Feminism, I wondered why Black women always wanted to talk about differences. Sometimes it felt like they were positing differences on me that I didn’t even know we had. Some were obvious and I conceded, while others seem fabricated. Plus we have enough shared history, shared triumphs, trials, and tribulations we can speak on. Why concentrate so hard on how we are different? Doesn’t that hinder solidarity? My thought process probably mirrored a liberal who swears they don’t see race; well-intentioned, but ultimately misguided.
As I dug deeper into the concepts of Black Feminism, I began to understand why it is so important for men and women to discuss and embrace our differences. This enlightenment was furthered when I read a conversation between famous revolutionary thinkers James Baldwin and Audre Lorde. The dialogue (originally published in ESSENCE Magazine in 1984) was about the importance of recognizing that shared racial histories cannot overshadow divergent gendered histories between Black men and women.
Voicing our differences is not inherently a bad thing. If we only deal with how we are the same, it leaves us grossly unequipped to address our deep grievances when one confronts the other. No wonder why we implode into Men Vs. Women debates at the slightest provocation.
“When we deal with sameness only, we develop weapons that we use against each other when the differences become apparent.” – Audre Lorde
Many discussions with gendered perspectives quickly turn into arguments. There are times when these exchanges go from heated, but respectful debates to all out finger pointing; a tennis game of “Men do ABC!” to “But women do XYZ!” Wounds are opened, and no one wins. This is far more dangerous than it is constructive, especially for Black people, because we intimately know each other’s secrets. It doesn’t take much effort to open each other’s closet and expose the skeletons inside.
Image: mbf2012 via Flickr
A big reason why men need to engage in feminism is because these type of arguments play right into the cards of sexism (and sometimes racism). At the end of the day, the vast majority of these heated arguments (win, lose, or draw) ultimately benefits men, and hurts women.
Men in all walks of life provide cautionary tales against “loving these hoes”, but rarely question how their sexual exploits reflects on their own lack character and willpower. Both sexes go on Facebook and shame the around-the-way girls for getting pregnant at a young age, chastising them as if their mistake is clearly of indicative their lack of self-respect, dignity, and moral fortitude. At the same time, we act as if these babies (in Lorde’s words) happened from “immaculate conception”; as if babies fall from the sky, landing in the arm of fast little girls.
A man who has copious amounts of sex is “The King”. A woman who does that is a variation of many words, all meaning “slut”. A man who is assertive is being a man. A woman is being assertive is a bitch. Men are socialized at a very young age that one of your central preoccupations in life is to have as much sex with as many women as possible. Women are taught to guard their chastity as if their souls depended on it, to neither succumb to their natural urges, nor those of horny men, arrive at marriage a virgin, and somehow be a porn-star with their husbands. Men are taught that violence is a suitable conflict resolution, but society never admits how that notion materializes into violence against women. These types of contradiction aren’t sustainable interactions between sexes. This is not yin and yang. This is not what harmony looks like.
I can admit, there are times some ideas (if left un-engaged) in Feminism can feel like an attack on men (especially Black men, since we are often presented as a caricature of the masculinity’s most extreme traits). But I’m sure the ambivalent emotions are similar to how a white person in this country feels when Black people speak about racism, or a rich person passing the homeless on the way to work each morning. Defenses kick in, there’s mixture of hurt, guilt, anger, deflection, fear, a tendency to personalize (even though the problem is systemic), to deny, to moralize in your favor, to make your experience the judge and jury, to “other-ize”, and retaliate with passivity or aggression.
Like racism, classism, and many other social ills, sexism is a problem exacerbated by ignorance. In his classic novel “The Fire Next Time”, James Baldwin says “whatever White people do not know about Negroes reveals, precisely and inexorably, what they do not know about themselves”.
If you look at the quote, you can substitute “White people” and “Negroes” with virtually an historical oppressor-oppressed pairing (rich/poor, hetero-sexual/LGTBQ, etc.) or swap out “themselves” with “history”, and it would still hold true. Insert “Men” and “Women” into the phrase, and you can see why men need to engage in Feminism.
What men don’t know about women ultimately reveals what we don’t know about us; about the ways society’s prevalent conception of masculinity can constrict and corrupt us, while menacing women.
Ironically, when I started engaging Black Feminism, started reading Maya Angelou, reading bell hooks and dream hampton and Audre Lorde and Angela Davis, bumping Rapsody on my iPod, I learned more about the reality of women. The trick, however, was that I actually was learning much more about myself than I was about being a woman. And maybe that was my hidden intention in the first place.
I love being a man. I have a certain perspective simply because I am a man and not a woman. And I wholeheartedly think (whether it is true or not) that there are things about being a man that women can’t understand, and vice versa. But there is no irony in the fact that there are things I don’t know about myself, about manhood, because I am a man. And in turn, there’s stuff women know much more about than I do; about me, about masculinity, about how the world works, simply because they are a Woman. They have to know about it in order to survive, just like Black people had to understand white people in order to survive racism, or gays have to be aware of heterosexuals’ fear to survive homophobia. So it may be counter-intuitive, but Feminism may be one of the best ways for a man to “Man Up”.
We can’t make society more inclusive for men and women until we both understand each other. But it’s just as important to know yourself. And you can only change yourself if you know yourself.
I am a man. Being a Feminist doesn’t make me “feminine”. It makes me a better, more complete man than I was before.
Joshua Adams is an arts & culture journalist from Chicago, currently attending grad school at USC. Music and writing are his biggest passions, connecting the dots is his life goal. Follow him on Twitter: @iRockJoshA