Can Black Men Say Anything Meaningful About Black Feminism?

January 13, 2024
6 mins read


By Kinohi Nishikawa

 Tuesday, July 14, 2009.

A pivotal moment in James Baldwin’s novel Go Tell It on the Mountain (1952) sees the churchman and patriarch Gabriel being confronted by his sister Florence over a devastating past infidelity. Upon fathering a child with his mistress Esther, Gabriel stole the savings of his first wife Deborah and gave it to Esther to hush up the matter. Deborah wrote a letter to Florence testifying to Gabriel’s ruinous behavior, which left her neglected, isolated, and economically dependent on him.m

When Florence musters up the courage to confront Gabriel, ten years after having received the letter, the effect on his psyche is profound: “It had lived in [Deborah’s] silence, then, all of those years? He could not believe it…And yet, this letter, her witness, spoke, breaking her long silence, now that she was beyond his reach forever” (212).

Confronted with the suffering wrought by his patriarchal authority, Gabriel reels from the memory of Deborah as it is framed by Florence’s criticism of his actions. As if to underscore the power of speech in these women’s intertwined voices, Baldwin has Florence rebut Gabriel’s power over her by uttering, “When I go, brother, you better tremble, cause I ain’t going to go in silence” (215).

In Breaking the Silence David Ikard references Florence’s incitement to speak out against Gabriel’s power as a means of “expos[ing] and explod[ing] the victim status upon which black patriarchy is premised” (4). Following the example set by Michael Awkward’s black male feminist literary criticism, in which “critical perspective, not gender [identity], [is] the measuring stick of a black feminist methodology” (29), Ikard presents readings of Go Tell It on the Mountain and five other twentieth-century African American fictional works that stake out new terrain in thinking about black gender relations.

Unlike Awkward’s body of criticism, however, Ikard is interested in parsing discourses of race and gender in not only black women’s writing (Toni Morrison, Toni Cade Bambara) but also black men’s writing (Chester Himes, Baldwin, Walter Mosley). Broadening the scope of black male feminist literary criticism to include works by men addresses a lacuna in Awkward’s thought: the notion that “only black women deal with issues of gender” in literary fiction (29).

Ikard wants to show how black men too have advanced complex responses to patriarchy, sexism, and homophobia as these bear on so-called “race matters.” In this way, Breaking the Silence sketches a new direction for black male feminist critique. By staging an intergender dialogue about black gender relations, Ikard suggests that the discursive silence surrounding African American patriarchy must be undone by men and women alike.

One of the interpretive consequences of Ikard’s focus on black male literary texts is that he is able to deconstruct the ideology of black male victimization “from within.” In his analysis of Himes’s If He Hollers Let Him Go (1945), Ikard understands the protagonist Bob Jones as someone whose sense of racial oppression is decidedly gendered. Ikard’s argument is that Jones’s desire for different female characters indexes his struggle to overcome racism through a calculus of patriarchal privilege: “The tension between Jones’s need to be nurtured by black women and his desire to be recognized as a dominant patriarch contributes to his ‘crisis’ of masculine identity” (33).

When Jones intuits that his needs are not being met by a black woman, Ella Mae, he pursues a near-white woman, Alice, in order to increase his social capital among whites.

Yet when Alice attempts to pass in white society on her own terms, without Jones in tow, her behavior is read as a betrayal of the race. Drawing from Deborah King’s inquiry into the “monism” of black male political posturing, Ikard reads Jones’s relationships with Ella Mae and Alice as a reinscription of “phallocentric notions of power and control,” whereby “Black male oppression…masquerades as the oppression of all black people” (46, 40).

Ikard begins here, with Himes’s sympathetic portrait of Jones, in order to foreground the harms done to black women in the name of racial resistance. By attending to female voices in Himes’s text which were largely ignored by previous critics, Ikard highlights the limited political vision of discourses of black male victimization.

In subsequent chapters of Breaking the Silence, Ikard is concerned to illuminate how authors since the male-dominated “protest school” of the 1940s have rendered the crisis of black masculinity in arguably more critical ways. Ikard’s chapter on Go Tell It on the Mountain is exemplary in this regard because it introduces the idea that both men and women have a stake in black patriarchy—a dynamic that underscores the need for genuine intergender dialogue (rather than, say, a feminist critique of male oppression as “only” an issue of men dominating women).

On the one hand, Ikard shows how the novel’s patriarch, Gabriel, consistently shores up his sense of masculine identity by compelling the black women in his life to submit to his religious and familial authority. When his mistress Esther is left on her own with their unborn child, she is “virtually at Gabriel’s mercy” because she is a “poor pregnant woman of disreputable social standing” (64).

Esther might reveal Gabriel’s infidelity to the church, but Ikard understands this as an impossible choice, given the practices of community policing which downplay such infidelity in the name of securing strong black male leaders. In this way, Gabriel’s sense of himself as “the chief victim of white oppression and the burden-bearer of his family” continues to justify his ill treatment of black women.

Yet in his chapter on Baldwin, Ikard is also keen to show how the novel “disrupts the victimization discourse that allows black men like Jones and Gabriel to explain away their subjection of black women” (50). Crucial to this narrative disruption, according to Ikard, is black women’s recognition of and rebellion against their complicity with black patriarchy. In the figures of Elizabeth (Gabriel’s current wife) and Gabriel’s mother, Ikard identifies how “women unknowingly support patriarchy in their relationships with men,” particularly through the “internalized…expectation of black female self-sacrifice” (50, 67).

Elizabeth buttresses Gabriel’s authority by assuming guilt for being a “bad mother” and having had sex prior to their marriage. Gabriel’s mother is a more resonant example of black female patriarchy in that she “rears him to believe that as a man he should expect black women to cater to his every emotional, physical, and material desire” (55).

In both cases, Ikard outlines a convincing case to extend the study of black patriarchy to women who support its ideological and institutional viability. Importantly, this perspective does not cast judgment on black women for supporting patriarchy but instead seeks to understand 1) how their stake in it is conditioned by white supremacy, and 2) how a more inclusive politics of resistance would overturn both racists and gendered structures of oppression. Ikard’s perspective is echoed in the character of Florence, who emerges as the novel’s privileged witness to the range of patriarchy’s harms precisely because she has also suffered from black women’s (her mother’s) investment in patriarchy.

The idea of complicity organizes Ikard’s readings of works by Morrison, Bambara, and Mosley. As Baldwin does with Gabriel’s mother, these authors represent black men and women who draw from victimizing discourses in order to justify violent and impoverishing acts of community policing. Among these interpretations, Ikard’s treatment of Mosley’s Always Outnumbered, Always Outgunned (1997) and Walkin’ the Dog (1999) is especially notable, given the fact that Mosley is rarely, if ever, mentioned in black feminist discourse.

Yet in these two works from Mosley’s Socrates Fortlow cycle, Ikard brings his analysis full circle to identify ways in which black men reflexively deconstruct their investment in patriarchy and white supremacy. Socrates’s hardened criminal past informs his ability to mentor young urban black men who are trapped, Mosley wagers, between poverty and a racist criminal-justice system, on the one hand, and a community discourse of perpetual victimization, on the other. In his bravura readings from the Socrates cycle, Ikard shows how black men suffer from an “implosive victimization,” whereby “rage and despair are systematically turned against the victimized” (142).

Like Florence, Socrates emerges as a voice warning against the internalization of racist and patriarchal ideals as a matter of securing short-term, small-scale privileges. That Socrates counsels mainly young men in these works illuminates Ikard’s point that intragender dialogue about resisting racism and patriarchy is not only productive for black gender relations but a way for black men to reclaim social agency over and against victimizing discourses.

It may well be Ikard’s identification as a black male feminist—a necessarily identity-transitive critical perspective—that allows him to analyze black complicity with racism and patriarchy in such a compelling fashion. Ikard’s critical voice allies itself with characters—both men and women—in the African American literary tradition that have challenged black patriarchy (and its concomitant dependency on white supremacy) from within. His Breaking the Silence exemplifies the spirit of a black male feminist criticism whose power comes from a mediating critical perspective rather than an essential gender identity.

The inter- and intra-gender insights the book presents through African American fiction pave the way for a more robust practice of studying race and gender relations through literary interpretation. More broadly, in divesting black patriarchy of its ideological coherence—its harmful and self-replicating victimization (which often takes place through and at the expense of black women)—Ikard challenges African Americans to reconceptualize their social identities around new racial and gender possibilities.

With thanks to New Black man.

David Ikard’s Breaking the Silence: Toward a Black Male Feminist Criticism is published by Louisiana State University Press.

Kinohi Nishikawa is a Ph.D. candidate in the Programs in Literature and Women’s Studies at Duke University. His dissertation analyzes the pulp fiction of Iceberg Slim and Donald Goines in the context of the black urban experience during the civil rights and Black Power movements.

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