By Mary Alice Miller
Many Black “leaders” decry the lack of massive support when calls go out for community action. They wonder why outrage is not spontaneous and ubiquitous. Black leaders actually vocalize their wonder when the masses go about their business as if nothing is going on.
What most Black leaders miss are these facts: the leaders are Black men, the issues revolve around Black males, those expected to engage in community action are Black women, and issues related to the well-being of Black women and children are ignored.
Under normal circumstances, male leadership stands for the well-being of the entire community- men, women and children. In the Black community, male leadership are generally concerned only with themselves, and other males. The well-being of women and children, in the community and the home, do not seem to be of paramount concern. The low rates of stable marriages among Blacks, and the doubling of Black children in single-parent families (from 35% in the 1960’s to 70% at the beginning of the 21st century) are two examples of the absence of “operational unity” in the Black community.
During the Civil Rights Movement, with Black men in leadership roles, Black women and children were the backbone. Rosa Parks’ courageous defiance was the spark of the Montgomery Bus Boycott. Black children were at the center of integrating Little Rock High School. Black male leadership strategically used Black children as fodder for water cannons, dogs and filling jail cells during Civil Rights marches. What did Black women and children get for their efforts? Dismissed.
Years of sustained action culminated with the August 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom which led to the enactment of the Civil Rights Act in 1964 and the National Voting Rights Act in 1965. The March on Washington was organized by A. Phillip Randolph (international president of the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters), Whitney Young (president of the National Urban League), Roy Wilkins (president of the NAACP), James Farmer (president of the Congress of Racial Equality), John Lewis (president of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee), Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King (president of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference) and Bayard Rustin (organizer of the first Freedom Rides).
Black women played the central role in a wide variety of Civil Rights organizations and actions, including Daisy Bates (president of Little Rock NAACP who recruited the Little Rock 9), Pauli Murray (lawyer and feminist who had staged the first sit-in at a Washington restaurant during World War II), Dorothy Height (president of the National Council of Negro Women), Diane Nash (student leader and organizer of the Freedom Riders in the South), Jo Ann Robinson (college teacher who worked with a group of middle-class Black women to organize the Montgomery Bus Boycott), Ella Baker (acting director of King’s Southern Christian Leadership Conference, advisor for Black college students who formed the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee) and Rosa Parks (long time activist and catalyst for the Montgomery Bus Boycott). Despite the sacrifices of these and other Black women, the organizers of the March on Washington refused to let even one Black woman speak.
Black women thought the Civil Rights Movement included our well-being, in spite of Black men marching with large placards tied to their torsos declaring in huge black lettering, “I AM A MAN.” Black women thought we were included when we got arrested at protest marches side by side with Black men. It was our children who were strategically used as human targets for water hoses. But when Stokely Carmichael (who appropriated the term “Black Power_” from Adam Clayton Powell, Jr.) was asked the role of the Black woman in the movement, he slipped up and honestly (from his point of view) retorted, “On her back.”
Popular culture was sometimes not much better. A classic Parliament Funkadelic line: “Stupid Jill forgot her pill, and now they have a son,” as if Jack, who had no concern for the well-being of Jill or his son, was not responsible for the situation he created. Blaxploitation movies glorified “pimpin” and being a “playa” at the expense of Black women, nurtured children and stable families. Gangsta rap is no better when it tells the world Black women ain’t nothin’ but hos, not wives.
Last season’s Survivor: Cook Island graphically illustrated how casually Black female opinion is dismissed. The 16 participants were divided into 4 teams- Black, white, Asian and Latino. The Black team members, Sekou, Nathan, Sephanie and Sundra were asked to make a decision. Without thinking, Sekou grabbed Nathan’s shoulder, stepped forward and conferred for a decision. Left out of the team process, Stephanie and Sundra looked at Sekou like he was stupid. Later, it was no surprise that Sekou was voted out. Sekou’s analysis of the vote was that the team made a mistake by voting him, their leader, out. It never occurred to Sekou that a true leader takes into account the gifts and opinions all team members bring, including Black women.
In spite of this and other increasingly public and private indignities, our love for Black men has kept hope alive.
For decades, Black women have been the backbone of community action. Interestingly, when many of these same women (who are members of any number of community groups) ask for development of community action around issues related to the well-being of Black women and children, they are told they are being “divisive”. Many Black women, not wanting to be “divisive”, have dropped their inquiries and calls for action. This has been going on for years.
Who are really the “divisive” ones? When Black male leadership chooses “Black issues”, why are they (with few exceptions) limited to support for Black male challenges with the criminal justice system? Could it be that addressing the well-being of Black women and children would require Black men to look at and amend their selfish male privilege instead of myopically focusing on white racism? The greatest risk to the well-being of Black women and children is not racism or police brutality. The greatest risk to the well-being of Black women and children is the behavior and attitudes of Black men. Consider, for example, the large numbers of Black children on welfare and the family and community instability attendant with Black women begging for food stamps to feed Black men’s children as if it is a glamorous lifestyle. Why has no Black male leader called for a rally at the welfare center demanding that Black men get their children off welfare? Why has no Black male leader held a march in support of children who feel threatened when they are sexually harassed while walking to school?
There are a few glimmers of hope. Tamika Mallory has led the National Action Network’s Decency Initiative in challenging denigrating lyrics in Hip-Hop. Girls For Gender Equity, under the leadership of JoAnn Smith, gives young teens tools to deal with street sexual harassment. Kevin Powell has been hosting monthly men’s meetings after his successful Black and Male in America conference. Byron Hurt produced Beyond Beats and Rhymes, a documentary look at misogyny in popular Black music. Taharka Robinson recently organized a march against domestic violence.
In the meantime, Black women need to speak up, even at the risk of being called “divisive” by “divisive” male leadership. The survival of the Black community is at stake.
By Mary Alice Miller