ON THE SENSITIVE BLACK MALE
By Honorée Fanonne Jeffers
Monday, July 5, 2010.
Not too long ago, I listened to an extraordinary podcast on Black Male Privilege featuring a round table with brother-scholars R. L’Heureux Lewis, Marc Lamont Hill, Byron Hurt, and Mark Anthony Neal. The full title of the round table was “Esther Armah presents AFROLICIOUS Part 1: TROUBLE MAN: BLACK MALE PRIVILEGE. A Contradiction? An Illusion? A Reality?” Sister Armah has started a recurring forum on emotional justice, and this was the first fabulous forum in that series.
I am not playing when I say “extraordinary.” Frankly, I’ve been waiting for the last 25 years for a group of Black men to challenge other Black men on their privilege in the community—and really meant it. What was so wonderful about this forum is that none of the men expected a pat on the head for having a public conversation that Black women have been having for several decades, in public and private.
These brothers also shared their difficulties about confronting Black Male Privilege in their own lives and in their families. For example, documentary filmmaker Byron Hurt talks about when he and his wife had their first baby, a little girl, they quickly moved into traditional male and female gender roles, much to his concern.
Hurt said that he became aware of how much more mobility he had than his wife, because she was breastfeeding their daughter. He could come and go if he wanted, while his wife could not. He said he had to really make sure that he was spending just as much time with their baby, and to keep track of whether his personal behavior was in sync with his public proclamations of gender equity.
Mark Anthony Neal talked about how the bar for Black male behavior is set so low and so any small thing that Black men do is greeted with congratulatory remarks. Neal said that expectations for Black male patriarchal behavior—you know, the man as the head of the family—create impossible standards. First, in this economy, it’s not possible for most Black men to make all the money to keep a household going. And, further, he said that patriarchy just doesn’t work for the Black community. It’s like we’ve been trying to fit ourselves in a model that is destructive, but most folks in our community won’t believe it and keep trying to make this bad model work.
But Neal made sure to say, you know what? Just because things are bad for Black men on the outside of the Black community doesn’t mean that we don’t give them all sorts of passes for their behavior on the inside of the community.
He gave the example of Steve Harvey bursting into tears on a Christian talk show; Neal said old boy was starting to realize that all this Positive Black Male Patriarchal posturing was getting to him.
Sidebar: I can believe Steve cracking under the pressure, for real, because for one, this is Steve’s third marriage. And when a brother hasn’t confronted his own tendency to constantly chase after “strange”, sooner or later, those addictive negative behaviors are going to catch up with him. I don’t care how fine his latest wife is—the second wife was pretty cute, too and…you know the rest.
Still, we sisters take his advice for how to capture that ever-illusive legally committed monogamous relationship with a Black man. I admit it: I bought Steve’s book. I’m ashamed, but he got my $14.00 on Amazon.
But what really struck me—I mean hit me to my core—was when Byron Hurt talked about the fact that it takes so much courage to admit as a Black man that you want to confront your own privilege in your community. When you do so, he said, your sexuality is questioned.
Not that Hurt was criticizing gay men, because he wasn’t. But those of you out there who are reading this and who are Black know what he means. This is the way that progressive Black men—and women—often are silenced by conservatives who believe in patriarchy. It’s the old “bait and switch.” It is a slick trick, I must say.
When Hurt talked, there was real pain in his voice. And it got me to thinking about how sometimes, we sisters would rather talk about how we want better, more feminist/womanist, more emotionally honest and progressive Black men than actually to have those men.
Because in order to have these men, we women would have to change our own expectations of what gender roles are and change our actions as they relate to those gender roles. And sometimes—just sometimes—we don’t want to change those expectations, much less our actions.
Sometimes, I think in the back of our minds, we Black women are really hoping that the perfect macho Black male patriarch is going to show up, a man who will work all day and bring home a large paycheck, who will kill the bugs (or mice), who will get the oil changed in both cars, and who will grab us—playfully and not violently, of course—when we want him to be in charge “romantically.”
However, we also want this macho Black man to be tender and cuddly, respectful, loving, open with his feelings, good at housework—and cheerful while doing that housework—and really, really enjoy having sex with the woman on top.
Many of us sisters say that we want a Black man who’s a feminist or womanist, who is progressive when it comes to gender roles, but really, we only want to pick and choose which parts of feminism or womanism we like.
For example, a few weeks ago, I told y’all there was a tornado in my town. Well, I’m from the semi-country Deep South, and so I know that whenever there is bad weather, creepy crawly things get disturbed, but I only know that in theory, not in reality. Until, that is, the day after the tornado, when I walked into my bathroom and there–right in front of the toilet–was a multi-colored foot-long snake with a head about two inches in diameter. Ooh, Lord have mercy.
Sidebar: My mama, who is from the actual country—no semi about it—calmly told me on the phone, “Oh, that was just a king snake. He wasn’t going to bite you. You probably scared him.” Now, how the heck was I supposed to know that? Then Mama commenced to tell me about this rattlesnake that she killed in her garden by chopping his head off with her hoe.
Have you ever noticed that country people have always seen something worse whenever you tell them about your current traumatic experience involving nature?
Anyway, back to the snake. I was terrified. I screamed. And then—I swear—I looked around for a man. This is not an exaggeration in order to make my story better. I’m serious. I actually thought I could conjure a man up from thin air. A few seconds passed, while this snake lay there, licking his tongue in and out. And I realized, ain’t no man coming and I’m looking stupid here.
So, I ran into my closet, got a chunky high heel (out of fashion from a few seasons ago but I can’t bear to part with those shoes, not just yet), and I ran back into the bathroom and commenced to hitting the snake on the head until I killed it. (There was snake blood everywhere.) Then I flushed it down the toilet.
Then, a few days later–it took a while for me to stop being frightened–I thought, this is what a feminist is supposed to do. And why not? I’m pretty sure that snake would have creeped a man out, too. The difference is, if I had been standing there beside him, a man would have been embarrassed to scream in a high-pitched voice like I had. He would have thought that screaming would make him less than a man in my eyes.
I’m just saying that if we Black women want men who are different, at some point, we’ve got to be willing to 1) either kill the snakes ourselves, or 2) take turns with the brothers hitting those snakes on the head. And we can’t complain about how if they were real men, we wouldn’t have to go near any snakes in the first place.
Sidebar: I realize that my snake story could be taken as a metaphor for a particular part of a man in his nether regions. I really don’t mean it to be. I’m not that deep.
But we also have to hold a Black man to higher (than current) standards for his behavior and stick to those standards if we want different, more tender men who acknowledge and understand their privilege in the Black community–and I’m not talking about those Steve Harvey standards about withholding sex to get a ring.
What I’m talking about is allowing a man to be scared or to cry or to have emotional wounds like we women do, and not making him feel like “less of a man” when he communicates his feelings in a way that is not rage-filled or connected to sex. Because I don’t want somebody listening to me cry and then, taking advantage of my vulnerability or “weakness.” And I’m pretty sure, no other sister does either.
I think that those of us who call ourselves feminists or womanists need to start challenging ourselves in our own personal relationships to do what we claim to do in public. And if we keep expecting the men to kill the snakes at home while we lie to the world that we did it ourselves, nothing is ever going to change.
For over a decade, Honorée Fanonne Jeffers has been lifting her voice on the issues of black women in literature, African American culture, and American society. She is the author of three award-winning books of poetry, The Gospel of Barbecue, Outlandish Blues, and Red Clay Suite, and she is a fiction writer as well. Her poems and stories have appeared in literary journals such as African American Review, American Poetry Review, Brilliant Corners: A Journal of Jazz and Literature, Callaloo, The Iowa Review, The Kenyon Review, Ploughshares, Prairie Schooner, and Story Quarterly; in over a dozen anthologies; and a story of hers was cited as one of the “100 More Distinguished Stories of 2008″ in Best American Short Stories 2009.
She has won awards and fellowships from the Rona Jaffe Foundation, American Antiquarian Society, the MacDowell Colony and the Bread Loaf Writers Conference. She teaches creative writing at the University of Oklahoma, where she is Associate Professor of English and Creative Writing Coordinator. Jeffers blogs at Phillis Remastered.