Posts from December 2007

Over My Shoulder #40: bell hooks on plantation patriarchy, black feminism, and black men’s relationship to masculinity. From We Real Cool.

Here’s the rules:

  1. Pick a quote of one or more paragraphs from something you’ve read, in print, over the course of the past week. (It should be something you’ve actually read, and not something that you’ve read a page of just in order to be able to post your favorite quote.)

  2. Avoid commentary above and beyond a couple sentences, more as context-setting or a sort of caption for the text than as a discussion.

  3. Quoting a passage doesn’t entail endorsement of what’s said in it. You may agree or you may not. Whether you do isn’t really the point of the exercise anyway.

Here’s the quote. This is from the first chapter of bell hooks’s We Real Cool: Black Men and Masculinity.

When we read annals of history, the autobiographical writings of free and enslaved black men, it is revealed that initially black males did not see themselves as sharing the same standpoint as white men about the nature of masculinity. Transplanted African men, even those coming from communities where sex roles shaped the division of labor, where the status of men was different and most times higher than that of women, had to be taught to equate their higher status as men with the right to dominate women, they had to be taught patriarchal masculinity. They had to be taught that it was acceptable to use violence to establish patriarchal power. The gender politics of slavery and white-supremacist domination of free black men was the school where black men from different African tribes, with different languages and value systems, learned in the new world, patriarchal masculinity.

Writing about the evolution of black male involvement in patriarchal masculinity in the essay Reconstructing Black Masculinity I write:

Although the gendered politics of slavery denied black men the freedom to act as men within the definition set by white norms, this notion of manhood did become a standard used to measure black male progress. The narratives of Henry Box Brown, Josiah Henson, Frederick Douglass, and a host of other black men reveal that they saw freedom as that change in status that would enable them to fulfill the role of chivalric benevolent patriarch. Free, they would be men able to provide for and take care of their families. Describing how he wept as he watched a white slave overseer beat his mother, William Wells Brown lamented, Experience has taught me that nothing can be more heart-rending than for one to see a dear and beloved mother or sister tortured, and to hear their cries and not be able to render them assistance. But such is the position which the American slave occupies. Frederick Douglass did not feel his manhood affirmed by intellectual progress. It was affirmed when he fought man to man with the slave overseer. This struggle was a turning point in Douglass’s life: It rekindled in my breast the smoldering embers of liberty. It brought up my Baltimore dreams and revived a sense of my own manhood. I was a changed being after that fight. I was nothing before–I was a mannow. The image of black masculinity that emerges from slave narratives is one of hardworking men who longed to assume full patriarchal responsibility for families and kin.

This testimony shows that enslaved black males were socialized by white folks to believe that they should endeavor to become patriarchs by seeking to attain the freedom to provide and protect for black women, to be benevolent patriarchs. Benevolent patriarchs exercise their power without using force. And it was this notion of patriarchy that educated black men coming from slavery into freedom sought to mimic. However, a large majority of black men took as their standard the dominator model set by white masters. When slavery ended these black men often used violence to dominate black women, which was a repetition of the strategies of control white slavemasters used. Some newly freed back men would take their wives to the barn to beat them as the white owner had done. Clearly, by the time slavery ended patriarchal masculinity had become an accepted ideal for most black men, an ideal that would be reinforced by twentieth-century norms.

Despite the overwhelming support of patriarchal masculinity by black men, there was even in slavery those rare black males who repudiated the norms set by white oppressors. Individual black male renegades who either escaped from slavery or chose to change their circumstance once they were freed, often found refuge among Native Americans, thus moving into tribal cultures where patriarchal masculinity with its insistence on violence and subjugation of women and children was not the norm. Marriages between Native women and African-American men during reconstruction also created a context for different ways of being and living that were counter to the example of white Christian family life. In southern states enclaves of African folk who had escaped slavery or joined with renegade maroons once slavery ended kept alive African cultural retentions that also offered a subculture distinct from the culture imposed by whiteness.

With keen critical insight Rudolph Byrd, co-editor of the anthology Traps: African American men on Gender and Sexuality, offers in his groundbreaking essay The Tradition of John the mythopoetic folk hero John as a figure of alternative masculinity. Byrd explains:

Committed to the overthrow of slavery and the ideology of white supremacy, John is the supreme antagonist of Old Massa and the various hegemonic structures he and his descendants have created and, most disheartening, many of them predictably still cherish. In John’s various acts of resistance are reflected his most exemplary values and attributes: motherwit, the power of laughter and song, self-assertion, self-examination, self-knowledge, a belief that life is process grounded in the fertile field of improvisation, hope, and most importantly, love. And his aspirations? Nothing less than the full and complete emancipation of Black people from every species of slavery. These are the constitutive elements and aspiration that together comprise the tradition of John. In these days of so many hours, it is a mode of black masculinity grounded in enduring principles that possess … a broad and vital instrumentality.

Clearly, the individual black males who strategized resistance to slavery, plotted paths to freedom, and who invented new lives for themselves and their people were working against the white-supremacist patriarchal norm. They were the men who set the stage for the black male abolitionists who supported more freedom for women. Alexander Crummell in his address before the Freedman’s Aid Society in 1883 spoke directly to a program for racial uplift that would focus on black women, particularly on education. He announced in his address that: The lot of the black man on the plantation has been sad and desolate enough; but the fate of the black woman has been awful! Her entire existence from the day she first landed, a naked victim of the slave-trade, has been degradation in its extremest forms.

Frederick Douglass spoke regularly on behalf of gender equality. In his 1888 talk I Am a Radical Woman Suffrage Man he made his position clear:

The fundamental proposition of the woman suffrage movement is scarcely less simple than that of the anti-slavery movement. It assumes that woman is herself. That she belongs to herself, just as fully as man belongs to himself–that she is a person and has all the attributes of personality that can be claimed by man, and that her rights of person are equal in all respects to those of man. She has the same number of senses that distinguish man, and is like man a subject of human government, capable of understanding, obeying, and being affected by law. That she is capable of forming an intelligent judgment as to the character of public men and public measures, and she may exercise her right of choice in respect both to the law and the lawmakers… nothing could be more simple or more reasonable.

Nineteenth-century black leaders were concerned about gender roles and exceptional black men supported gender equality. Martin Delaney stressed that both genders needed to work equally for racial uplift.

Like Frederick Douglass, Delaney felt that gender equality would strengthen the race, not that it would make black females independent and autonomous. As co-editors of the North Star, Douglass and Delaney had a masthead in 1847 which read right is of no sex–truth is of no color. At the 1848 meeting of the National Negro Convention Delaney presented a proposal that began: Whereas e fully believe in the equality of the sexes, therefore…. Without a doubt black males have a historical legacy of pro-women’s liberation to draw upon. Even so there were black male leaders who opposd Douglass’s support of rights for women. In the essay Reconstructing Black Masculinity I state that most black men recognized the powerful and necessary role black women had played as freedom fighters in the effort to abolish slavery, yet they still wanted black women to be subordinated. Explaining further:

They wanted black women to conform to the gender norms set by white society. They wanted to be recognized as men, as patriarchs, by other men, including white men. Yet they could not assume this position if black women were not willing to conform to prevailing sexist gender norms. Many black women who had endured white-supremacist patriarchal domination during slavery did not want to be dominated by black men after manumission. Like black men, they had contradictory positions on gender. On one hand they did not want to be dominated, but on the other hand they wanted black men to be protectors and providers. After slavery ended, enormous tension and conflict emerged between black women and men as folks struggled to be self-determining. As they worked to create standards for community and family life, gender roles continued to be problematic.

These contradictions became the norm in black life.

In the early part of the twentieth century black male thinkers and leaders were, like their white male counterparts, debating the question of gender equality. Intellectual and activist W.E.B. DuBois writing on behalf of black women’s rights in 1920 declared: We cannot abolish the new economic freedom of women. We cannot imprison women again in a home or require them all on pain of death to be nurses and housekeepers. … The uplift of women is, next to the problem of color and the peace movement, our greatest modern cause. Influenced by the work of black woman anti-sexist activist Anna Julia Cooper, DuBois never wavered in this belief that black women should be seen as co-equal with black men. Despite the stellar example of W.E.B. DuBois, who continually supported the rights of women overall, black males seemed to see the necessity of black females participating as co-equals in the struggle for racial uplift with the implicit understanding that once freedom was achieved black females would take their rightful place subordinate to the superior will of men. In keeping with sexist norms, sexist black folks believed that slavery and racism sought the emasculation of Afro-American men and that the responsibility of black folks to counter this, that black women were to encourage and support the manhood of our men.

As editor of the Women’s Page of the newspaper the Negro World, Amy Jacque Garvey, wife of the radical thinker Marcus Garvey, declared: We are tired of hearing Negro men say, There is a better day coming while they do nothing to usher in that day. We are becoming so impatient that we are getting in the front ranks and serve notice that we brush aside the halting, cowardly Negro leaders…. Mr. Black Man watch your step! … Strengthen your shaking knees and move forward, or we will displace you and lead on to victory and glory. This passage gives a good indication of the fact that educated black women struggled to repress their power to stand behind their men even as they were continually questioning this positionality. Outspoken women’s rights advocates in the latter part of the nineteenth century, like Anna Julia Cooper, were more militant about the need for black women to have equal access to education and forms of power, especially economic power.

Throughout the 1900s black men and women debated the issues of gender equality. White-supremacist capitalist patriarchy’s refusal to allow black males full access to employment while offering black females a place in the service economy created a context where black males and females could not conform to standard sexist roles in regard to work even if they wanted to. It was the participation of black women in the workforce that led to the notion that black women were matriarchal leaders in the home. In actuality, black female workers often handed their paychecks over to the males who occupied the patriarchal space of leadership in the home. Simply working did not mean black women were free. The gender roles that black folks formed in the twenties, thirties, and forties were complex. It was not a simple world of black women working and therefore exercising power in the home. Many contemporary black folks forget that in the world of the eraly twentieth century black people were far more likely to live with extended kin. A black woman who worked as a maid, a housekeeper, a laundress, etc., was far more likely to give her money toward the collective good and not for her own use or power.

While social critics looking at black life have continually emphasized the notion that black men were symbolically castrated because black women were often the primary breadwinners, they have called attention to the reality of the working black woman giving away her earnings. Not all black families cared about black women earning more as long as black males controlled their earnings. And now that a vast majority of white women in this nation work and many of them earn more than their white male spouses, the evidence is there to confirm that men are less concerned about who earns more and more concerned about who controls the money. If the man controls the money, even if his wife is wealthy, the evidence suggests that he will not feel emasculated. Black men and women have always had a diversity of gender roles, some black men wanting to be patriarchs and others turning away from the role. Long before contemporary feminist theory talked about the value of male participation in parenting, the idea that men could stay home and raise children while women worked had already been proven in black life.

Black women and men have never been praised for having created a diversity of gender roles. In the first essay I wrote about black masculinity more than ten years ago the lengthy arguments I made are worth quoting again here:

Without implying that black women and men lived in gender utopia, I am suggesting that black sex roles, and particularly the role of men, have been more complex and problematized in black life than is believed. This was especially the case when all black people lived in segregated neighborhoods. Racial integration has had a profound impact on black gender roles. It has helped to promote a climate wherein most black women and men accept sexist notions of gender roles. Unfortunately, many changes have occurred in the way black people think about gender, yet the shift from one standpoint to another has not been fully documented. For example: To what extent did the civil rights movement, with its definition of freedom as having equal opportunity with whites, sanctioned looking at white gender roles as a norm black people should imitate? Why has there been so little positive interest shown in the alternative lifestyles of black men? In every segregated black community in the United States there are adult black men married, unmarried, gay, straight, living in households where they do not assert patriarchal domination and yet live fulfilled lives, where they are not sitting around worried about castration. Again it must be emphasized that the black men who are most worried about castration and emasculation are those who have completely absorbed white-supremacist patriarchal definitions of masculinity.

Black people begin to support patriarchy more as more civil rights were gained and the contributions black women made to the struggle for black liberation were no longer seen as essential and necessary contributions.

–bell hooks (2004), We Real Cool: Black Men and Masculinity, pp. 2–12.

A Higher Law than the Constitution

Ron Paul is perfectly capable of making sharp and incisive moral arguments against the foolishness, and the destructiveness, of U.S. imperialism, whether in the form of the ongoing catastrophe in Iraq or in the form of proposed new slaughters in Iran or North Korea. He has done so many times in the past, both in writing and in speeches, and he deserves praise where he is in the right, as he usually is. But he has also spent quite a bit of time explaining his position in terms of the separation of powers between the President and the Congress, as established in the U.S. Constitution. In response to questions about foreign policy, he has repeatedly argued, first, that current U.S. foreign policy is both foolish and evil, but also, second, that if he became President, he would go to war when, and only when, Congress duly passed a formal declaration of war. See for example the exchange in GT 2007-09-06: Marching orders, and his remarks on attacking North Korea or Iran in his recent interview with Tim Russert.

So here is my open question for Ron Paul, and for the anti-war libertarians who support his candidacy. Suppose that Ron Paul were elected President and publicly declared his intent to put his fundamentalist reading of the Constitution into practice. Suppose also that Congress continues to be what it currently is — a bunch of mad dog world bombers, on the one hand, and a gang of opportunistic doughfaces who go along to get along, on the other. It’s perfectly likely that at some point in the upcoming years, Congress might pass a declaration of war in the name of bogus national interests in order to spread the slaughter into Iran or North Korea. At this point, President Ron Paul has two options:

  1. He can fulfill his Constitutionally-enumerated role as commander-in-chief of the military, and prosecute the imperial war that Congress has ordered him to prosecute; or

  2. He can refuse to fulfill his Constitutionally-enumerated role, by sitting on his hands and refusing to prosecute the war in any way even though Congress has declared it, on the grounds that there is a higher law than the Constitution, and that under the circumstances, following government law would require him to do something that no honest and decent man can do.

In case (1), Ron Paul would willingly make himself the instrument of death and slaughter in the name of a paper rag whose virtues, if it ever had any, must depend entirely on whatever capacity it has for safeguarding, rather than destroying, the life and liberty of innocent people. In case (2), Ron Paul would be taking a powerful moral stand against aggressive war; but in so doing he would have to give up entirely on his palaver about declared wars and strict construction of the Constitution. Which would he be willing to do? I am genuinely unsure myself, based on his statements and actions thus far, and I wonder what others think.

(Interview link courtesy of Austro-Athenian Empire 2007-12-24.)

Two brothers

There’s a famous midrash about two brothers. One was single and the other had a wife and children. Each night each one would go out in secret to deliver a gift of wheat to his brother’s home. The brother with the family would figure: I am so fortunate to have a family; my brother has nothing; let me at least give him some extra wheat. The single brother would figure: I live alone, but my brother has a family to support; I have no need for all this wheat; let me give him some of the extra. One night, while each was delivering wheat to the other, they met on the road, cried, and embraced. The place where they met became the Temple Mount.

There’s a modern version of this midrash. Each night the two brothers go out in secret to take wheat from his brother’s field. The single brother rationalized: my brother is so fortunate to have a family; I have nothing; at least let me have a larger portion of wheat. The brother with the family rationalized: I have a family to support, but he lives alone; he has no need for all that wheat; let me take some of the extra for myself. One night, while each was walking home with the wheat he had taken from the other, they met on the road, cried out, and fought. The place where they met became the site of Parliament.

(Thanks to Micha Ghertner @ The Distributed Republic 2007-12-24.)

Bomb after bomb

Last weekend, CounterPunch featured Howard Zinn’s introduction to elin o’Hara slavick’s book of cartographic drawings of American aerial bombing, Bomb after Bomb. I agree with Mark Brady that this is one of the best things that Zinn has ever written. Some of the most important stuff in the essay has to do with patriotism, the conflation of the country with the State, and the criminality of aerial warfare as such. A sample:

We have had enough experience, with the Nuremberg trials of the Nazi leaders, with the bombings carried out by the Allies, with the torture stories coming out of Iraq, to know that ordinary people with ordinary consciences will allow their instincts for decency to be overcome by the compulsion to obey authority. It is time therefore, to educate the coming generation in disobedience to authority, to help them understand that institutions like governments and corporations are cold to anything but self-interest, that the interests of powerful entities run counter to the interests of most people.

This clash of interest between governments and citizens is camouflaged by phrases that pretend that everyone in the nation has a common interest, and so wars are waged and bombs dropped for national security, national defense, and national interest.

Patriotism is defined as obedience to government, obscuring the difference between the government and the people. Thus, soldiers are led to believe that we are fighting for our country when in fact they are fighting for the government — an artificial entity different from the people of the country — and indeed are following policies dangerous to its own people.

My own reflections on my experiences as a bombardier, and my research on the wars of the United States have led me to certain conclusions about war and the dropping of bombs that accompany modern warfare.

One: The means of waging war (demolition bombs, cluster bombs, white phosphorus, nuclear weapons, napalm) have become so horrendous in their effects on human beings that no political end– however laudable, the existence of no enemy — however vicious, can justify war.

Two: The horrors of the means are certain, the achievement of the ends always uncertain.

Three: When you bomb a country ruled by a tyrant, you kill the victims of the tyrant.

Four: War poisons the soul of everyone who engages in it, so that the most ordinary of people become capable of terrible acts.

Five: Since the ratio of civilian deaths to military deaths in war has risen sharply with each subsequent war of the past century (10% civilian deaths in World War I, 50% in World War II, 70% in Vietnam, 80-90% in Afghanistan and Iraq) and since a significant percentage of these civilians are children, then war is inevitably a war against children.

Six: We cannot claim that there is a moral distinction between a government which bombs and kills innocent people and a terrorist organization which does the same. The argument is made that deaths in the first case are accidental, while in the second case they are deliberate. However, it does not matter that the pilot dropping the bombs does not intend to kill innocent people — that he does so is inevitable, for it is the nature of bombing to be indiscriminate. Even if the bombing equipment is so sophisticated that the pilot can target a house, a vehicle, there is never certainty about who is in the house or who is in the vehicle.

Seven: War, and the bombing that accompanies war, are the ultimate terrorism, for governments can command means of destruction on a far greater scale than any terrorist group.

These considerations lead me to conclude that if we care about human life, about justice, about the equal right of all children to exist, we must, in defiance of whatever we are told by those in authority, pledge ourselves to oppose all wars.

— Howard Zinn, Introduction to elin o’Hara slavick’s Bomb after Bomb

Read the whole thing.

(Via Mark Brady @ Liberty & Power 2007-12-15.)