Some months ago, EBONY.com editor Jamilah Lemieux tweeted a live stream of "Black Female Voice", an engaging discussion between professor, author, and political-scientist Melissa Harris-Perry, and bell hooks, a woman often regarded as THE quintessential voice of the Black Feminism. In the talk at Eugene Lang College, the two brilliant thinkers discussed different issues they faced while navigating spaces of power and privilege as a Black women, and also analyzed the gender politics of movies like Beasts of Southern Wild, Django Unchained, and 12 Years A Slave.
As I watched the discussion, many of the ideas they brought up really fascinated me, and challenged the way I thought about things. But there was one statement by hooks that struck a deep cord with me.
“Radical self-invention isn’t as present for Black males in their life because for us (women) there’s no seduction of power,” she said. “There’s no idea that if 'I do the right thing with my dick, I will be able to enter into the power of patriarchy.'”
My first reaction to this statement was apprehension. It was a “Wait…what?” type of moment that I wasn’t expecting to have. The words sounded terse and oversimplified to me, and I couldn’t wrap my head around what she meant. +
Obviously men benefit from patriarchy in ways that women can’t. That idea isn’t debatable. But to say women have no "seduction of power" seemed just flat out untrue.
Trying to make sense of that statement and my reaction to it, I hit up one of my best friends Aleshia (a feminist who received a Masters in teaching from Boston College) for much needed perspective. I told her that statements like that are why engaging the ideas of Black feminism can be such a complicated task for a Black man. Being Black gives me a base level of empathy and awareness regarding the plight of the oppressed. But being a man can cause me to be oblivious to how I exercise my power as a man at the expense of women, or how my critiques of ideas in Black Feminism (no matter how well intentioned) can be seen as sexist, or even worst, unknowingly be sexist.
But then there’s this other part of me, a part I don’t like to admit. There are times certain ideas of Black Feminist thought make me feel…emasculated. And that's difficult to bear, because I know that word is beyond problematic. But I have to be honest with the way I feel before I can change it.
Aleshia implored me to interrogate those feelings more before I resolved why hooks’ statement made me so uneasy. Was it hurt? Denial? Ego? Confusion? Misunderstanding ? She explained that it was something I must deal with myself and that the answer would only come as I thought about it more, had more life experiences, did more research, etc. While she empathized with my feelings of being attacked as a Black man, she did put more of the onus on me.
“As Black women, we get tired of having to package our arguments so as not to offend. Sharing that voice should not mean one has to feel emasculated,” she wrote. “No one can do that to a man; men can only do that to themselves.”
As I digested her advice, I understood where she was coming from. Black women should not have to subscribe to the politics of respectability when expressing their truth. It’s up to us as men to listen attentively, internalize, and deal with it with love, respect, and understanding.
Nevertheless, the latter statement sparked a whole new line of questions. Men can only emasculate themselves? I don’t think I buy that. Does that make me sexist? Am I denying my own patriarchal ideas? I hope not.
There’s a maelstrom of conflicting ideas and emotions in my gut every time I engage feminism. For example, part of me is disgusted by the sexual exploitation of women of color in the media. But another part doesn’t want to be told that looking at a woman’s body is objectifying her. I’ve read feminist critiques of concepts like “the friend zone” and chivalry. But intellectual debates don’t stop me from recalling the numerous times I’ve been told by both men and women that if my courtship with a woman wasn’t going smoothly, I should try to be more aggressive or be aloof or an asshole. And I’ve had conversations with feminists who still think that the man should pick up the check on a date. Quite frankly, it confuses the hell out of me.
The dynamics of these ideas and situations are complicated, and most of the time, the offered explanations only raise more questions. Is my frustration rooted in feeling that Black feminists don’t discuss enough how women can promote patriarchy just as much as men? Is that even a fair critique, since I haven’t done nearly enough research into Black Feminism to make that claim? Am I upset that as an intellectual, I want to be able to critique feminist ideas I don’t agree with or would like to try and engaged in nuanced debates without being called a sexist, or, worse, actually being sexist? Or am I just in denial about not being ready to let go of the patriarchal privileges and parts of my identity as a heterosexual, Black man? All of it is just a lot to take in.
One thing I am sure of this: Every man who comes to feminism for answers is a man who can redefine his manhood. This endeavor can be liberating and transformative. It can also call to question personal truths, and raise defenses. Slaying the dragon of internalized patriarchy is hard, because it is a beast that doesn’t want to die. And to be honest, sometimes we don’t want to kill it. But it’s up to Black men to look into our hearts; to ask these tough questions, and reach a better understanding of our identity as men. All we can ask of Black Feminists is to give us a push in the right direction.
But it isn’t up to Black women to appease us when they share their truths with us, no matter how difficult they might be to hear. Their stories are important and they are valid, just like our own. And to quote my dear friend Aleshia, “We have to be able to tell our story, regardless of what wrapping paper it has”.