ActivismRaceSex & Gender
decentring black male paragons during black history month
By Gender Bent
February 22, 2018
By Suprihmbé* / WearYourVoice Mag, AFROPUNK contributor
During Black History Month we gird ourselves for the inevitable white-centered mentions of Martin Luther King Jr. and his supposedly pure non-violence compared to our supposedly recent civil unrest, à la the Black Lives Matter movement.
We spit curated “facts” about everyone from MLK Jr. to Madam CJ Walker to The Black Panther Party and we have our paragons lined up and ready just the way we learned them in school: Rosa Parks, George Washington Carver, Malcolm X, Frederick Douglass, etc. What happens when we center people like Marsha P Johnson, people like Trudy of Gradient Lair, people like me?
Well, usually what happens is an immediate shutdown. Someone brought up colorism in regards to Rosa Parks success as a public civil rights figure and people were up in arms. Instead of placing Parks into historical context where colorism is definitely relevant, the response was an All-Lives-Matter esque, “We are ALL Black.” The same thing happens with Beyoncé — but that’s nothing compared to the uproar a mention of MLK Jr.’s infidelity brings.
In conversations about our Black idols we are encouraged to forget their very human transgressions or imperfections in favor of “preserving the legacy.” Perfection over reality or relatability engenders idolization, and that’s why political leaders preferred monotheism to paganism — control.
Black men are still overwhelmingly the majority seen and celebrated during Black History Month. Black feminism and womanism tends to take a back seat in talks about Black civil rights movements and culture. I cannot count how many Gen X/Boomer Black women I hear saying that feminism is for white women and womanism is for Black women, because they don’t know that Black/brown feminism has its own parallel history distinct from white/mainstream feminism, which tends to focus on a different, more inherent-to-them, power.
Womanism is another name for Black feminism, it’s distinct in its own way from Black feminism, and it also has its different iterations — for instance many of the women who tell me that feminism is a white woman thing have had lives that were saturated with androcentrism and tend to (unknowingly and unsurprisingly) lean toward an Africana Womanist point-of-view. That we have been told that centering Black women is harmful to Black men, i.e. Black culture — because race first is BIMOC first — speaks volumes. Africana womanism is a heterocentric theory which tends to characterize feminism as a white woman politic, irrelevant to Black women and ignorant of our issues. In this assumption she ignores the long history of Black feminism (which focuses on race and class as well as gender, unlike white feminism) and Black queer theorization.
That decentering Black men is viewed as a betrayal or, to some, an act of violence, shows the lack of knowledge we have about our civil rights history. Indeed, many are unaware of the feminist or woman-centered leanings of many of our predecessors. In Danielle L. McGuire’s book “At the Dark End of the Street”, she connects a nascent/adjacent Black feminist movement with the Civil Rights Movement by bridging the gaps in the history we are taught in school, filling them with oft-erased history and anecdotes of Black women fighting against rape, assault, abuse and other injustices. Lacing together stories of race and gender we learn about Rosa Parks detective work and discover a movement that began around Black women’s resistance to sexual assault. McGuire’s book places Black women and our unique struggles at the center of the movement without taking anything away from Black men the way that people seem to think we do when we focus on Black women or Black queer and trans struggles.
There is a book on my Amazon wish list that I am hoping will bridge more gaps in our Black history: “Black on Both Sides: A Racial History of Trans Identity” by C. Riley Snorton. The description reads:
In Black on Both Sides, C. Riley Snorton identifies multiple intersections between blackness and transness from the mid-nineteenth century to present-day anti-black and anti-trans legislation and violence. Drawing on a deep and varied archive of materials—early sexological texts, fugitive slave narratives, Afro-modernist literature, sensationalist journalism, Hollywood films—Snorton attends to how slavery and the production of racialized gender provided the foundations for an understanding of gender as mutable.
Black trans and queer history has been erased along with the silencing or backgrounding of cis Black women’s history, and as trans rights begin to come to the forefront I hope to see more documentaries and textbooks featuring them. Understanding that we live in a [white] male-dominated society, we should understand race-gender-class hierarchies. All of these issues are Black issues. Even in the present day Black political/activist communities, Black men are still overwhelmingly seen as the leaders or as the primary victims of racism and are seen as the arbiters of proper Black man- and womanhood.
We see this a lot in the prison abolitionist movement and overall in the Civil Rights movement. It has been proven that when cis(het) men dominate the narrative, others and remain unseen, unheard. Although Black women’s and queer struggles are more visible than ever before, we receive a lot more pushback, abuse and doubt than Black male leaders and progressives.
This Black History Month, and really every month, my goal is to decenter cis(het) Black men in favor of uplifting queer Black folks, Black women, and other marginalized or unheard groups within the Black community.
This post is in partnership with WearYourVoice Mag.
*Suprihmbé is a proheaux womanist thot scholar who wants to promote freedom, is Morrison political, and likes cats. Her personal website is thotscholar.com and you can support her work on Patreon.
Get The Latest
Signup for the AFROPUNK newsletter