Will The World Ever Recognize The Legitimate Rage Of The Black Feminist Or Write Her Off As An Angry Black Woman?
Every movement has its mood. In a sense, we memorialize metaphorical personas as the faces of the movements, often interlocking the outcome of the cause with the likeability of the muse.
The Women’s Rights movement, organized in 1848, is often characterized by the bandanna-clad woman flexing her muscle known as Rosie The Riveter. She is strong, she is unashamed, and she is relatable. Women of all walks have paid homage to Ms. Women’s Rights and even a number of celebrities, from Beyoncé to Christina Aguilera and even Kanye West. Rosie knows no race or gender; she is the memorialized mood of the fight for gender equality all-across the globe.
The Civil Rights movement of the 1950s & 60s is often depicted by the well-dressed Black man, his demeanor calm and committed. The first image to come to mind is that of Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. His likeness alone tells the story of a struggle rooted in pacifism and sacrifice. The Anti-War Movement spawned a persona so strong, the movement itself became subject to its own counterculture. Today this period in history is almost synonymous with the hippie movement. The image of free-thinking, weed-loving, flower halo-wearing 20-somethings casts a soft shadow over a violent struggle against the ongoing Vietnam War.
As I watch Black women around me clamor to join the modern day sociopolitical movement known as intersectional feminism, I can’t help but wonder about the mood of the movement. What image will the world create to tell the story of these women when given the chance? And will that image give credence to their grievances or further undermine its validity? Will the world recognize the legitimacy of the rage fueling the contest or will it reduce the passion to nothing more than the mechanical manner of the angry Black woman?
Intersectional feminism was birthed out of the neglect of marginalized groups of women and their specific needs at the hands of members of the dominant society. The idea that race adds an additional layer of challenges to the pre-existing battle that is womanhood has historically been dismissed by the white voices at the helm of the feminist movement and continues to be to this day. Essentially, relatively privileged women were asked to consider that their non-privileged counterparts might face challenges that they themselves were exempt from and they responded with a resounding “Nah.” Out of this rejection, rejection that Black women have faced since stepping on American soil, Black women cultivated a movement of their own.
It should come as no surprise that the energy felt pulsating through this movement is sometimes seen as vengeful, harsh, and embittered. If rejection breeds obsession, what kind of fixation does 500 years of rejection produce? In 2015, scientists observed that repeated incidents of rejection created an environment in the brain that resulted in each rejection feeling more impactful than the last, even when the circumstances were equal. In a sense, a traumatized brain over time begins to increase the effects of its own trauma, processing incidents of rejection through the anterior cingulate cortex (ACC), a part of the brain that processes physical pain. In addition to this finding, scientists observed that brains having experienced repeated incidents of trauma experienced the emotional effects of said trauma for longer periods of time than individuals with no reported trauma. So imagine a movement started by a group of women who have not only endured centuries of mental and psychological rejection, but have begun to experience physical manifestations of this repeated trauma. Can you picture them engaged in a riveting game of ring around the rosie in their flower halos and rose-colored sunglasses? Yeah, me neither. The Black feminist is mad as hell and she has every reason to be. She’s in pain, she’s wounded, and in her frustration she seeks out the atonement of anyone who’s hurt her, even at the expense of her own mental health. We all have friends who intently seek out toxic spaces on social media, re-traumatizing themselves through triggering exchanges with people who will never see their value. The Black feminist is mad as hell and she has every right to be, but her anger is just as destructive as it is deserved.
We would be fooling ourselves to believe that rejection is the only driving force behind today’s Black feminists. Not only is she see subjected to repeated incidences of psychological trauma, but she’s also felt completely unsupported by her male counterparts in this fight. Just to be clear, I’m talking about Black Men. Black women have long carried the weight of an entire community with only a silent expectation of eventual retribution. For far too long, we’ve often done for others with the audacity to expect reciprocity. Over the years, this has led us to conflate the systemic struggles embedded in feminism with the strained internal dynamic between Black men and women. While white feminism may hold individual white men up as examples of the validity of certain grievances, the buck stops there. Rarely have we witnessed “all” white men painted with the same misogynistic brush despite the entirety of feminism being founded upon their behavior. Feminism was created in direct opposition to the virulent behaviors and beliefs held by white men in power, and yet Black men have become martyrs for the movement. This isn’t to say that Black men can’t be misogynistic, this isn’t to say that Black men can’t be perpetrators of violence within our homes and communities, and this most certainly isn’t to say that Black men haven’t capitulated to the chauvinistic program we call patriarchy, they have. But this is to say that even in their capitulation and the adaptation of white male ideology, Black Men could never wield systemic power against Black women the way history has documented because they simply don’t have the power. And let’s not confuse power with authority. Authority is the manager, power is the CEO.
Feminism isn’t anti-male, but it has become increasingly anti-Black male. And we haven’t done a good job in literature or even in mainstream culture of evaluating the ways that white feminism paints Black men to be hyper sexual brutes who use violence to try to gain power in a patriarchal society. That idea is so overwhelming that it blinds us to the victimization of people like Terry Crews and many others. And once confronted by this we often diminish it by saying Black men aren’t really victims of rape and sexual assault or that the numbers are so small that it’s almost not even a real issue. On the contrary, Black man substantially suffer from rape, statutory rape, sexual coercion and abuse and molestation in this society. In addition to recognizing that patriarchy has built in variances of misogyny directed against women, we also need to recognize that subordinate and racialized men have experienced a very real misandry throughout the centuries. Not just in homicide rates and mass incarceration but also in testimonies in male victims of domestic violence, rape at the hands of police, anal penetration that Black men often testify is part of stop and frisk, and interactions with men and women throughout their lives.
And make no mistake, the history of white feminism is full of violence. Before the fight to vote, there was the fight to murder slave men, women and children with impunity, a law known as the Casual Killing Act that historians argue was passed at the pressure of the wives of slave masters. Before the fight to burn bras, there was the fight to declare that the bastard children of enslaved women had no legal claim to the wealth of their wealthy white fathers. White women have been fighting alongside white men since the beginning of time, playing an integral part in our hardship while demanding our loyalty by declaring that we share a common enemy. What it boils down to is that Black feminism must recognize that some of its inherited convictions come from a place not fully rooted in the liberation of Black people and until we filter out underlying seeds of dissolution, we will continue to fight an exhausting war on all fronts.
Solange said it best, we undoubtedly have a right to be mad. The question becomes at which point does being mad impede our ability to be anything else. The fight for Black women’s rights is a complex and multilayered story told through the narratives of strong, unyielding women who refused to accept their fate. Black feminism tells the story of the collective refusal to accept another “not now.” The mood may be sour but the motive, as palpable as they come. I can only hope that when history tells her story, they do so with understanding, with compassion, and with truth. The Black feminist is mad as hell and she has every right to be. My hope is that at some point, society will no longer demand that of her.