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My Black Male Feminist Heroes

Mark Anthony Neal

It is much more difficult for black men to own up to their backward-ass gender politics, particularly in public, but this is the stance that longtime writer and journalist Kevin Powell took in his brilliantly brave essay 'The Sexist in Me.'

A few years ago I was invited to appear on BET Tonight to discuss black masculinity. In the hour long pre-interview before I appeared on the show, I mentioned to one of the producers that I considered myself a "male feminist". During the program's broadcast, the producers flashed the phrase "male feminist" under my name whenever I appeared on screen. I was made aware of this the next day when friends and family asked, rather pointedly, "what the hell is a male feminist?" For some time now, I've considered myself a feminist, so the decision of the BET producers to acknowledge me as such was not a problem. In fact I welcomed the opportunity to be identified as a "feminist" as it celebrated those of us who are serious about embracing politics that are anti-sexist/misogynist and anti-homophobic, those of us who are serious about uprooting impulses within the black community that work to deny community and diversity.

As a young graduate student I was mentored by poet and Audre Lorde biographer Masani Alexis DeVeaux. She taught me the importance of being a black man who closed ranks with those black women who resisted and challenged the sexism, misogyny and patriarchal norms found among some black communities and institutions. There were many quiet moments then where I engaged the work of bell hooks, Michele Wallace and Patricia Hill-Collins and still more quiet moments now where I currently find feminist grounding with the intellects of Joy James (Shadow Boxing: Representations of Black Feminist Politics), Kimberle Crenshaw and Sharon Patricia Holland (Raising the Dead: Readings of Death and (Black) Subjectivity) whose books and articles are crucial components of the knowledge that I introduce to my students as a scholar of African-American literature and culture. It was about a decade ago when I first came out of the proverbial closet and acknowledged to the world that I considered myself a feminist. Though it has often been much easier to represent feminist politics in my writing and teaching than in the field -- where shit is real -- I've never passed on the opportunity to confirm, as Manning Marable once described it, my "groundings with my sisters."

Many black men who consider themselves feminists, were initially impacted by black women feminists (keep in mind, not all black women consider themselves feminist -- a measurement of the level of patriarchy's influence in some black spaces). But what was just as crucial to my own development as a feminist, was the identification of other black men who embraced feminist politics. In his essay "'When and Where [We] Enter': In Search of a Feminist Forefather", Gary L. Lemons identifies Frederick Douglass and in particular W.E.B. DuBois as role models for generations of black male feminists that have emerged over the last century. The title of Lemon's essay is based on Anna Julia Cooper's classic claim (regularly bastardized by Tavis Smiley) that "only the black woman can say when and where I enter. The whole race enters with me." Lemons appropriates the phrase to argue the importance of figures like DuBois and Douglass as in the continued emergence of black male feminists. As Lemons admits, "Profeminist-identified Black men have begun to set the stage for a womanist men's counter movement against sexism. Reclaiming the feminist politics of Du Bois opens up the possibility for progressive dialogue between Black men and women about the necessity of a new vision of Black liberation-one infused with the spirit of womanist feminism" (Traps: African-American Men on Gender and Sexuality).

Like many young men in America, my initial sense of what feminists were, was couched in popular descriptions of them as "man haters" and "braless lesbian". A child of the post-Civil Right era, I was among of generation of young blacks who actively embraced the politics and rhetoric of a distinct 80s styled neo-black nationalism as consumed in the speeches of Louis Farrakhan and a host of other part-time theorist and full-time demagogues, who had convinced me to look skeptically and suspiciously at those black women who called themselves feminists. I remember being down with the chorus of black men (and far too many black women) who shouted down Alice Walker for her book The Color Purple on the basis that it unfairly depicted black men. Years later I would count Walker's In Search of Our Mothers Gardens as one of the books that made the politics of womanism and black feminism a tangible concept in my life.

I was already deep in the throes of my meditations with Collins's Black Feminist Thought (1990) and hooks' Yearning: Race, Gender and Cultural Politics (1991), when I cracked open a copy of Greg Tate's Flyboy in the Buttermilk (1992). I was familiar with Tate's brilliant riffs on black music and culture in the pages of the Village Voice (which as a teen-ager I always viewed as the "gay paper"), but it was Tate's obituary for Miles Davis that awakened me to the existence of a black male feminism. In the essay "Silence, Exile and Cunning: Miles Davis in Memoriam" Tate writes that Davis is the "black aesthetic. He doesn't just represent it, he defines it. Miles rendered black a synonym for the best of everything," but takes Davis to task for his almost gleeful descriptions of his acts of violence against women in his autobiography Miles (1989). Tate admits "[M]uch as I loved Miles, I despised him after reading about those incidents. Not that I worshipped the ground he spit on, but because I'd loathe any muhfukuh who violated women the way he did", adding that "Miles may have swung like a champion, but on that score he went out like a roach."

Tate's critique of Davis was likely inspired by Pearl Cleage, who the year before offered a retort to Davis's autobiography with the book Mad at Miles. Davis's status as resident black genius often discouraged the kind of scrutiny that Cleage and Tate were willing to offer. In that regard Tate' s essay offer a template to deal with a spate of demonic black male geniuses -- R. Kelly, Dr. Dre and Bill Withers come immediately to mind -- who have less than savory gender politics.

But Tate also used his Afro-Boho Niggeratti pulpit to share the stage with black women artists. In the essay "Cinematic Sisterhood", also collected in Flyboy in the Buttermilk, Tate gives love to the artistry of black women filmmakers Michelle Parkerson, Jackie Shearer, Daresha Kyi, Ellen Sumter, Dawn Suggs, Zeinabu Irene Davis, and Ayoka Chinzera (gotta check out Alma's Rainbow). According to Tate, "the intention of this article is to move perception of black women from margin to center stage.We need to take stock in those Black filmmakers, male, female, indifferent, who serve up visions of black life beyond homies slangin' and gangbangin'".

In the book's closing essay "Love and the Enemy" Tate takes stock of the black community at large. His closing shot was indeed a provocative one: "If Black Male leadership doesn't move in the direction of recognizing the pain and trauma beneath the rage, as the work of Toni Morrison, Ntozake Shange, Alice Walker, bell hooks and other women writers have done.then what we're struggling for is merely the end of white supremacy-and not the salvaging of its victims". I have a vivid memory of one reviewer who viewed Tate's pro-feminist stance in this instance, and others throughout the book, as an overt attempt to cater to female audiences. In other words he called him a punk and thus has been the critique offered by many black men (and women) of black men who stand behind progressive gender politics.

In some regards, Tate's efforts were easy, as he simply offered a vision of the role that black men can play in supporting a black feminist world view. It is much more difficult for black men to own up to their backward-ass gender politics, particularly in public, but this is the stance that longtime writer and journalist Kevin Powell took in his brilliantly brave essay "The Sexist in Me." Originally published in the September 1992 issue of Essence, Powell's piece describes an act of violence that he carried out against a former girlfriend. In the essay Powell recalls, "I grabbed her by the seat of her shorts and pulled her back into the apartment. We struggled in the kitchen, the dining area and the bathroom. As we were moving toward the living room, I shoved her into the bathroom door. Her face bruised, she began to cry uncontrollably, and I tried to calm her down as we wrestled on the living room floor.shaking with fear and exhaustion, I watched my girlfriend run barefoot out of the apartment into the street."

Writing about the incident a year later Powell admits that he "managed to join the swelling ranks of abusive men with relative ease" adding that "it wasn't until I committed a violent act that it hit me how deeply I believed women to be inferior to men." In the essay Powell exhibits the kind of self-critical reflection that is absolutely necessary for the realization of a black male feminism.

At the time that "The Sexist in Me" was published Powell, was at the height of his mainstream popularity (if you call being consistently portrayed as the Angry Black Man on the first season of The Real World as evidence of mainstream appeal), thus his self-critique carried a power that it wouldn't have coming from someone with less celebrity. At the time, Powell was also recognized as one of the voices of the hip-hop generation, thus his commentary was in striking opposition to the status quo within the hip-hop nation, which couldn't even bring itself to hold Dr. Dre accountable when he threw video show host Dee Barnes down a flight of stairs. In his memoir Keepin' It Real: Post-MTV Reflections on Race, Sex, and Politics (1997), Powell recalls some of the letters he received in response to "The Sexist in Me", including one brother who asked "Man, why you gotta put your shit out there like that?" and another who wrote "I bet you getting' a lotta pussy now, right?"

Both comments speak to the way the Powell was put into the unenviable position of being viewed as either an opportunist or a punk. According to Powell, "I'm no hero, nor was I trying to make myself out to be martyr or a sacrificial lamb.I simply wanted to tell the truth because I felt it was the only way I could ever begin to move forward."

In the decade or more since Powell's unfortunate experience with his girlfriend, he has been a very vocal and visible proponent of the need for black men to revaluate their relationship with black feminism and their own masculinities (he was fired from his gig as staff writer at Vibe for questioning the gender inequities at the magazine). Whereas Powell could trace his transformation to a painful psychic event, literary theorist Michael Awkward traces his own quest for a transformative black masculinity in his relationship with his alcoholic mother. In Scenes of Instruction: A Memoir (1999), Awkward writes, "loving my mother required that I try to understand why she drank, why she frequently neglected her children's needs. Loving her meant recognizing logical connections between my father's brutality and her drinking." Awkward found common-ground with his mother via her constant reminder that he not be like his father. According to Awkward "[D]oing anything but pursuing black feminist insights would have meant being like my father. I could no more have rejected feminism than I could have chosen not to love my mother." But Awkward is conscious that he also, could be perceived as an opportunist, adding that "[T]o speak extensively about why I am a black male feminist is to expose myself to charges that I have visited upon my mother a discursive violence similar in intensity to the unimaginable physical pain she suffered at my father's hands." Awkward's reputations as the leading black male feminist intellectual owes a great deal to his groundbreaking essay "A Black Man's Place in Feminist Criticism", which was included in his book Negotiating Difference: Race, Gender, and the Politics of Positionality (1995). The piece was largely a response to the kinds of resistance that Awkward faced from fellow feminist critics regarding his desire to "read" and write feminist. Awkward's first book Inspiring Influences: Tradition, Revision, and Afro-American Women's Novels (1989) provided such a read of black literature. Awkward is on the leading edge (both in age and scholarly acumen) of a generation of black male scholars, for whom the study of feminist theory was a regular activity, thus his scholarly interests in black feminist theory was not surprising. Virtually all of the major black male public intellectuals -- especially those on the Left -- have made it their business to give lip services to black feminist politics. But the reality is that their failure to do so would have direct impact on everything from their books sales and speaking engagements, to their ability to hold endowed chairs at major universities and colleges. Awkward, though, has worked against that grain and openly acknowledges the contradictions of claiming a black male feminism, while remaining wholly invested in the importance of it. In Negotiating Difference, Awkward writes, "the most difficult task for a black male feminist is striking a workable balance between male self-inquiry/interest and an adequately feminist critique of patriarchy. To this point, especially in response to the commercial and critical success of contemporary Afro-American Women's literature, scores of black men have proved unsuccessful in this regard." Ultimately Awkward sees the rewards of black feminism in its ability to help redefine "figurations of 'family matters' and black male sexuality."

As an emerging black intellectual in my own right, I found the distinct black male feminisms of Greg Tate, Kevin Powell, Michael Awkward and others like Michael Eric Dyson, crucial to my ability to see myself as a viable black male feminist, who like Alice Jardine implores her white colleagues in Men in Feminism, puts in the work. That work includes providing feminist insights in my role as a scholar and critic of popular culture, creating anti-sexist (and anti-homophobic) classroom spaces, challenging gender inequities in the work-place, and owning up to my own failings as I struggle to find a mode of progressive black masculinity that I can wear.

In March a loose collective of black men known as Black Men in Support of the Film NO! will gather at the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture for a rough cut screening of Aishah Shahidah Simmons's brilliant and brave documentary about sexual violence against black women by black men. Simmons has faced a myriad of struggles trying to get the film, which she began in 1994, completed. Some potential funders, have even accused her of adding to the on-going attacks on black men in American society.

The film screening is just another example of communities of black men dedicated to a black male feminist politics -- communities whose ranks will swell, if more men are willing to publicly embrace notion of a progressive black masculinities that share in the goals of black feminism and Womanism.

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