Re-Evaluating Gender Manipulation in African American Communities
It is helpful to study other Black cultures in a comparative sense. No, I am not talking about learning a foreign language — as comparative studies are traditionally taught in the academy. I am talking about looking at the colonial situation throughout various points of the African Diaspora, and comparing those attempts to colonize gender divisions to African Americans.
One of the thorniest points in researching and presenting my book to potential publishers was how I classified African Americans. Let me just tell you, that my classification of African Americans alongside other, formerly-colonized Black populations garnered me raised eyebrows from colleagues, SCATHING rejections from several academic publishing houses, and laughter from seasoned academics. African Americans, they all said, have never been colonized. And the African American experience is an exceptional, unique experience. While that may be true, I pressed forward with the project.
This book was a lonely, lonely venture. I had no reading circle, no encouragement, and sometimes, no hope that it would ever see the light of day. In this text, I chose to read African Americans alongside other, formerly colonized Black people. I DO NOT PRIVILEGE THE AFRICAN AMERICAN EXPERIENCE OF BLACKNESS AS THE EXPERIENCE OF BLACKNESS. And I read these texts for gender comparatively. What I saw in the primary texts — from the United States to the Caribbean to Africa — is the only thing that kept me writing, researching, and editing. If you, dear reader, run across a few typos in the book, please forgive me. I could not afford an independent copy editor and wrote under extreme stress at times (let’s see, an upper-respiratory tract infection during my second pregnancy that led to a premature birth, a job where I was harassed EVERY DAY OF THE WEEK, teaching 10 classes per year when I was fully employed while being paid for only 8, and underemployment in which I strung two adjunct positions together in order to make ends meet). But I kept going, because the material was there and there is still more to be explored. I hope that I can expand this to a second edition in the near future. The rhetorical strategy is comparison-contrast, though I do not claim that I present any of the Francophone authors in their original language.
Here’s why I chose that rhetorical strategy: we need to seriously rethink how we teach and write about African American gender relations. We need to stop seeing gender relations as separate from racial issues. They are intertwined and cannot be separated in most cases. Let me give you a simple (almost too simple)example of what I mean: there is a cute twentieth-century construction of slavery. The house slave versus the field slave is a concept that most scholars (and nonscholars) of African American Studies are familiar with. It is also a reflection of the masculinization of African American culture via masculine/nationalist rhetoric. The house slave is the lighter-skinned slave who lives close to the master and almost always tells on the darker-skinned, more masculine field hand who tries to run away. From this construction, a question arises: “do you want to be a house slave who mimics the master and lives a life of relative physical ease and material comfort or a field slave who takes his own agency and rebels against the master?” Of course, most students choose the field slave. This type of rhetoric still causes deep, skin-color based division within African Americans, and this type of rhetoric is ultimately juvenile when gender is added. I challenge my students to stop thinking that race/blackness equals maleness and start thinking through the prism of gender. If we think through such a construction in which Harriet Jacobs (who wrote under the pseudonym, Linda Brent) is as representative of African Americans as Frederick Douglass, the question becomes one of sexual danger. For a woman slave, the question becomes: “would you like to be raped in the house or raped in the field?” Harriet Jacobs was a light-skinned house slave with fine and beautiful hair. She faced tremendous sexual assault from her master, got pregnant twice just to escape his advances, was thrown down a flight of stairs for her “insolence,” endured the wrath of a jealous mistress, and hid in a hole for seven years in order to escape her master’s predatory nature. Her body never quite recovered from the experience.
In fact, when we began to look at the original, Enlightenment/Scientific Racism justifications for the enslavement of Africans, the reader finds that many of those philosophical “reasons” were based on European ideas of gender and women’s inequality in addition to race.
When European encountered West African cultures, they saw women who worked outside the home and contributed economically to their families. This mode of living was directly opposite of European ideas about femininity. According to European men, the public domain and economic contributions belonged to men only. Philosophers such as Hegel, Kant, and later, Thomas Jefferson, claimed that African men were not “real” men, because they did not properly subdue African women and keep them inside the home. Hegel’s entire “Thesis on Africa,” rests on the premise that African male rulers are “weak” and that they can be easily subdued by hypermasculinized African women. While there are no records that would indicate when or if Hegel visited Africa and studied gender relations in order to confirm this bizarre piece of writing that passes itself off as authoritative reporting and philosophical polemics, it was accepted throughout Western European society as veritable “proof” of African “backwardness.” According to Enlightenment philosophers, if African men were not real men, they should be made to serve men. Even enslavement would give them contact with European men, and that would show them how to properly subdue their women.
This policy of imposing European gender standards upon African population continued into the colonial era. For example, a particular culture in Nigeria practiced a “title” system in which “titles” or social awards are given to individuals who achieved something magnificent. There was a title system for men and women. When the British colonized Nigeria, one of their first acts was to banish the title system and ceremony for women while allowing it to continue for me. Nigerian women, in this part of their country, had also run the market for centuries. The British concluded that running the market (the economy of the area) was for men, and attempted to banish women from running their market the way they had done for centuries before the British arrived. The constant erosion of women’s rights led to the Aba Women’s Riot of 1929. It took the government months to put down this insurrection, and it led to significant changes in how Nigeria’s government was run and women’s inclusion in the government.
The French, who also held colonies in Africa, also tried to impose their standards on African families. They tried to eradicate polygamous families by controlling the amount of government allowances given to family heads. Their harshness led to a violent strike, which was led in part and supported by women, in Senegal in the 1940s.
The attempt of Europeans to manipulate, change, and control African family systems is something that I called, “racialized degendering” throughout my own book. Enlightenment philosophers literally erased or reversed African gender distinctions in order to impose their own standards upon those populations. When those populations would not/could not readily comply with European definitions of feminine inferiority, both GENDER AND RACE were used to justify enslaving and colonizing them. And since the earliest plantations in the New World were labor-intensive, the labor force was mainly African males. African males were painted as stupid, effeminized, and physically small and weak in stature alongside European men.
When we juxtapose African American experiences of oppression and gender alongside other experiences of blackness in the African Diaspora, something sinister about the United States becomes clear: the United States developed an unequal, anti-Black race-based capitalism that entailed but obscured all of the European class boundaries that informed the founded of the country and rested upon European definitions of “natural” gender inequality. Just like our Igbo and Woloft counterparts, gender relations have been manipulated by the American hegemony when it was economically convenient. While European gender rhetoric labeled the public domain and economic contributions as “masculine,” nascent capitalism was fueled in part by African American women’s physical, labor contributions. Mercantile capitalism linked the Black woman’s womb to the stock market, because she was valued less for her physical labor (Black males always garnered more money at the stockyards), and more for her ability to reproduce the next generation of workers.
After enslavement, many Black women made every attempt for “normalized” gender relations. But, racial discrimination and underemployment of African American men made that all but impossible. For Black women, here is a stark choice: work in the public domain and contribute to the physical well-being of the family or face starving children. Because the hegemony of America, imbued with a false sense of “rugged individualism,” has never and probably will never acknowledge that its economic system has never and probably will never be the purely meritocratic fairy tale that its rhetoric claims it to be, it found a way to blame the victim for his own illness. After slavery, a proliferation of stereotypes bombarded the bodies of Black men like they had never seen during slavery: “Black men are lazy”; “Black men are criminals”; “Black men are not intelligent enough to run their own businesses”; “Black men are rapists.” When we take a serious look at all of the “race riots” and lynchings from this era, what we really find is a group of anxious white men who did not want the honest, economic competition from Black men. This is patently obvious in cases like The People’s Grocery Store incident in Memphis, Tennessee that led to the lynchings of innocent Black men who owned a successful grocery store, complete with a delivery service in 1892.
When the stereotypes about Black men and the violence against Black men had run their gamut, the hegemony found a new target of blame: Black women. Using social science “data,” the hegemony claimed that Black culture is deviant from white culture in America, because many of their families are female-headed. And Black fathers leave Black families, because Black women are “dominant,” screaming banshees who do not know how to be properly submissive to a man and allow him to be the breadwinner. In many of these publications, there is no mention of employment discrimination and how the selective dissemination of goods and services influence culture at large and strain relationships at the microlevel. These types of reports, complete with data, lead us to believe that if Black women would just shut up, go to our homes, and stop feeding our children via outside economic, our homes would be “normal” and there would be no poverty in our neighborhoods. Black women’s silence and submissiveness would eradicate racism, employment discrimination, poor medical services, outrageous rents, and the subpar educational systems in our communities.
Complete with data and numbers, social scientists have replaced Enlightenment philosophers. There is no mention of how Black men define themselves — either by philosophers or social scientists. There is no mention of the gender divisions Africans set for themselves. There is no mention of the humanity of Africans, even though they are the subjects of these social science studies. If that sounds ridiculous, well, it is ridiculous. But this post has gone on for a very long time. I will be back soon with a second part. I have a problem with Black folk in social science, and I am going to lay it out in several parts.
If you like this post, let me hear about it. If you dislike this post, let me hear about it. This comes directly from my research and not from my teaching lectures.