Mark Twain said, in effect, that when a country enslaves a people, the first necessary job is to make the world feel that the people to be enslaved are subhuman. The next job is to make his fellow countrymen believe that man is inferior, and, then, the unkindest cut of all is to make that man believe himself inferior.
A good job has been done on the Black people in this country, as far as convincing them of their inferiority is concerned. The general white community has told us in a million different ways and in no uncertain terms that “God” and “nature” made a mistake when it came to the fashioning of us and ours. The whole society, having been thoroughly convinced of the stained, threatening, and evil nature of anything unfortunate enough to be, or to be referred to as, black, as an intended matter of courtesy refers to those of African extraction as “colored” or “Negro.”
The fact that “Negro” is the Spanish word for “black” is hardly understood, it would seem; or it would seem that the word “black” may be intimated or suggested, but never simply stated in good English.
Too many Negroes, if described or referred to as “black,” take it as an affront; and I was once told by a Canadian Irishman that I’d insulted him by referring to my person as a Black woman. He insisted that, in actuality, I was brown, not black; and I felt obliged to tell him he described himself as “white,” and that he wasn’t white either.
The fact that white people readily and proudly call themselves “white,” glorify all that is white, and whitewash all that is glorified, becomes unnatural and bigoted in its intent only when these same whites deny persons of African heritage who are Black the natural and inalienable right to readily and proudly call themselves “black,” glorify all that is black, and blackwash all that is glorified.
Yet, one is forced to conclude that this is not the case at all, that an astonishing proportion of the white population finds it discomforting that Blacks should dare to feel so much glory in being beautifully black. In the face of this kind of “reasoning,” the only conclusion one can logically come to is that there is something wrong with this society and its leadership. “The Man’s” opinion of God is sorry, to put it nicely, and his opinion of himself is simply vague and hazy.
Consider: Swearing his love and devotion to the Omnipotent One on the one hand, yet defying and cursing him with rank impudence on the other; using the crutch of his “inherently” base and callow nature on the one hand, and claiming his godhood on the other; worshipping a Jew as the Son of God on the one hand, yet persecuting all other Jews as enemies of God on the other; historically placing this same Jew on the African continent on the one hand, and describing him as a European in physical appearance on the other (still, one would suppose that it’s tacitly understood by all that “God” couldn’t be anything other than “white,” no matter where He was born); advocating that the Black man is made of inferior stuff on the one hand, yet defying him not to prove his superiority on the other; naming hurricanes for women on the one hand, yet H is for the heart as pure as gold on the other; giving her pet names such as “whore,” “slut,” “bitch,” etc., on the one hand, yet, put them all together and they spell mother, the word “that means the world to me,” on the other.
No wonder the slogan “white is right” could take a whole nation by storm. One could never accuse this society of being rational.
Still, instead of this irrational society warping my delicate little psyche, it only drove me, ultimately, to the conclusion that any Black human being able to survive the horrendous and evil circumstances in which one inevitably finds oneself trapped must be some kind of a giant with great and peculiar abilities, with an armor as resistant as steel yet made of purest gold. My mother is one of the most courageous people I have ever known, with an uncanny will to survive. When she was a young woman, the white folks were much further in the lead than they are now, and their racist rules gave her every disadvantage; yet, she proved herself a queen among women, any women, and as a result will always be one of the great legends for me.
But strange as it is, I’ve heard it 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.
As time progresses I’ve learned that this description of my mothers, sisters, and partners in crime is used as the basis for the further shoving, by the Black man of his own head into the sand of oblivion. Hence, the Black mother, housewife, and all-round girl Thursday is called upon to suffer both physically and emotionally every, humiliation a woman can suffer and still function.
Her head is more regularly beaten than any other woman’s, and by her own man; she’s the scapegoat for Mr. Charlie; she is forced to stark realism and chided if caught dreaming; her aspirations for her and hers are, for sanity’s sake, stunted; her physical image has been criminally maligned, assaulted, and negated; she’s the first to be called ugly and never yet beautiful, and as a consequence is forced to see her man (an exact copy of her, emotionally and physically), brainwashed and wallowing in self-loathing, pick for his own the physical antithesis of her (the white woman and incubator of his heretofore arch enemy the white man). Then, to add guilt to insult and injury, she (the Black woman) stands accused as the emasculator of the only thing she has ever cared for, her Black man. She is the scapegoat for what white America has made of the “Negro personality.”
Raped and denied the right to cry out in her pain, she has been named the culprit and called “loose,” “hot-blooded,” “wanton,” “sultry,” and “amoral.” She has been used as the white man’s sexual outhouse, and shamefully encouraged by her own ego-less man to persist in this function. Wanting, too, to be carried away by her “Prince Charming,” she must, in all honesty, admit that he has been robbed of his crown by the very assaulter and assassin who has raped her. Still, she looks upon her man as God’s gift to Black womanhood and is further diminished and humiliated and outraged when the feeling is not mutual.
When a white man “likes colored girls,” his woman (the white woman) is the last one he wants to know about it. Yet, seemingly, when a Negro “likes white girls,” his woman (the Black woman) is the first he wants to know about it. White female rejects and social misfits are flagrantly flaunted in our faces as the ultimate in feminine pulchritude. Our women are encouraged by our own men to strive to look and act as much like the white female image as possible, and only those who approach that “goal” in physical appearance and social behavior are acceptable. At best, we are made to feel that we are poor imitations and excuses for white women.
Evil? Evil, you say? The Black woman is hurt, confused, frustrated, angry, resentful, frightened and evil! Who in this hell dares suggest that she should be otherwise? These attitudes only point up her perception of the situation and her healthy rejection of same.
Maybe if our women get evil enough and angry enough, they’ll be moved to some action that will bring our men to their senses. There is one unalterable fact that too many of our men cannot seem to face. And that is, we “black, evil, ugly” women are a perfect and accurate reflection of you “black, evil, ugly” men. Play hide and seek as long as you can and will, but your every rejection and abandonment of us is only a sorry testament of how thoroughly and carefully you have been blinded and brainwashed. And let it further be understood that when we refer to you we mean, ultimately, us. For you are us, and vice versa.
We are the women who were kidnapped and brought to this continent as slaves. We are the women who were raped, are still being raped, and our bastard children snatched from our breasts and scattered to the winds to be lynched, castrated, de-egoed, robbed, burned, and deceived.
We are the women whose strong and beautiful Black bodies were—and are—still being used as a cheap labor force for Miss Anne’s kitchen and Mr. Charlie’s bed, whose rich, black, and warm milk nurtured—and still nurtures—the heir to the racist and evil slavemaster.
We are the women who dwell in the hell-hole ghettos all over the land. We are the women whose bodies are sacrificed, as living cadavers, to experimental surgery in the white man’s hospitals for the sake of white medicine. We are the women who are invisible on the television and movie screens, on the Broadway stage. We are the women who are lusted after, sneered at, leered at, hissed at, yelled at, grabbed at, tracked down by white degenerates in our own pitiable, poverty-stricken, and prideless neighborhoods.
We are the women whose hair is compulsively fried, whose skin is bleached, whose nose is “too big,” whose mouth is “too big and loud,” whose behind is “too big and broad,” whose feet are “too big and flat,” whose face is “too black and shiny,” and whose suffering and patience is too long and enduring to be believed.
Who’re just too damned much for everybody.
We are the women whose bars and recreation halls are invaded by flagrantly disrespectful, bigoted, simpering, amoral, emotionally unstable, outcast, maladjusted, nymphomaniacal, condescending white women . . . in desperate and untiring search of the “frothing-at-the-mouth-for-a white-woman, strong backed, sixty-minute hot black.” Our men.
We are the women who, upon protesting this invasion of our privacy and sanctity and sanity, are called “jealous,” and “evil,” and “small-minded,” and “prejudiced.” We are the women whose husbands and fathers and brothers and sons have been plagiarized, imitated, denied, and robbed of the fruits of their genius, and who consequently we see emasculated, jailed, lynched, driven mad, deprived, enraged, and made suicidal. We are the women whom nobody, seemingly, cares about, who are made to feel inadequate, stupid and backward, and who inevitably have the most colossal inferiority complexes to be found.
And who is spreading the propaganda that “the only free people in this country are the white man and the Black woman?” If this be freedom, then Heaven is Hell.
Who will revere the Black woman? Who will keep our neighborhoods safe for Black innocent womanhood? Black womanhood is outraged and humiliated. Black womanhood cries for dignity and restitution and salvation. Black womanhood wants and needs protection, and keeping, and holding. Who will assuage her indignation? Who will keep her precious and pure? Who will glorify and proclaim her beautiful image? To whom will she cry rape?
This essay appeared in the September 1966 issue of Negro Digest, John H. Johnson's first magazine. Negro Digest was founded in 1942 and renamed Black World in 1970. The magazine remained in print until 1976.