Today is the birthday of the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. (MLK). If not assassinated on April 4, 1968 he would be 85.
Since 2009, I’ve written a piece, either on my blog or for a publication, about MLK and his legacy. I’d planned to do the same this year. I thought about writing a piece connecting Houston, Stevie Wonder, Gil Scott Heron, and the petitioning to make his b-day a national holiday. Then earlier this week, I thought about writing a piece on the irony of the critiques from the King heirs and others towards the young people who are using his image to promote their parties. Irony because I would argue that the history of King’s legacy is a history of appropriating his life and activism to fit our own corporate, political, and personal needs, but little of living his type of activism or his call for a World House (See his last text Where Do We Go From Here: Chaos or Community (1967).
My goal to write about MLK was sidetracked yesterday after I watched a segment of Huff Post Live that disturbed me to the core. The segment was titled “Does WorldStarHipHop Normalize Black Stereotypes?” hosted by Marc Lamont Hill, featuring Dr. Brittney Cooper, Amanda Seales,Che Smith (bka Rhymefest), Dr. Shayne Lee, and Mandon Lovett.
I am still grappling with each panelist’s theoretical perspective on whether or not WorldStarHipHop reifies black stereotypes and or serves as a modern“Battle Royal” (See Chapter 1 of Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison), but I was more taken aback by the display of sexism from two of the male panelists.I call it sexism because I saw them downplay the theoretical and personal perspectives of Amanda and Dr. Cooper, dismiss Dr. Cooper as an “angry black woman,” and refuse to stand up for black women—all ways in which we men folk attempt to dominate, control, and silence women. (Watch the segment yourself and make your own conclusion)
Why sexism? Because just like racism, the attempt to dismiss a woman’s lived experience with violence and oppression or her theoretical perspective on it is an act of control and violence in itself. I saw this in the segment and the subsequent twitter conversation.When men try to silence a woman or tell a woman to calm down when she gets angry that is operating out of sexism because its an attempt to control how she responds and its an attempt to silence her (particularly if her voice goes above a sweet and passive tone). Lastly, when black men can call out violence against our people, but refuse to talk about the ways in which violence affects men and women differently, that is sexism.
I guess I am disturbed because as one who tries to live out the gospel of MLK, I understand that his oft opinioned assertion—“Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere”—goes beyond racial justice, but also applies to justice for women and men, GLBTQI identified persons, disabled persons, religious and non-religious persons, and the haves and the have nots.
But even King, the messianic figure that we have made him to be, operated out of sexism in his personal life through womanizing, blaming a woman for her husband’s cheating, and muting the voice of women in the movement.
I am a black man who checks for the “f” word and its politics, not because its convenient for me to do so at this point in my life or because it will offer me some type of sexual pleasure, but because the more that I come to understand and critique systems of power I must make sure that I am not reinforcing those systems (white supremacy, patriarchy, capitalism) by excluding women, seeking to overpower them, seeking to control them, or silence them. I can’t critique the possessive investment in whiteness and not critique the possessive investment in patriarchy. It is possible for me to stand up against injustices directed towards the bodies of black men, and also do the same for black women, its not either or for me, its both.Therefore, I believe that it is possible for black women and black men to critique WorldStarHipHop for the ways in which it might reinforce or spectacularize violence against black bodies-male and female—while respecting the different ways that each racialized gender experiences violence.
So, while I am in the midst of investigating black masculinity and black male sexuality for a larger project on mass incarceration, in my free time I also try to understand feminist theory, particularly black feminist politics because it is not only useful for historicizing black life in the late 20thcentury, but also important for me to live a life of love (agape, eros, phillia, storge)and justice.
I don’t want to ever become well adjusted to the bullshit of patriarchy; hence, I am proud to be maladjusted. Not only do I hate patriarchy used by men, but I also hate when it is used by women to make claims that a man is not a real man if he does not live up to the norms of patriarchy.I don’t claimtoget it right all the time, I am fallible and I’m work in progress, but I know sexism when I see it.
I guess I am even more sensitive to this because I had a mother who tried to whip (read: beat) the “bad nigger” and aggression out of me. She raised me to not be like my daddy, which was later extended to don’t be like any dude that she knew or that I knew. While I have real issues with that mode of parenting, I understand the contexts that made her want to parent in such a way why she and I work out the rest in therapy.She raised me with a high respect for women. It was hard for me to respect her romantic partners, because despite her issues with men and her failures, I saw the dude’s issues with power—the way they acted towards my mother when they felt powerless.
As I watched her relationship conflicts I promised myself that I would never handle conflict in the way that I saw her and dude(s) do so. But then I grew up and began to have my own relationship problems rooted in my unchecked mama issues and unchecked power issues I found myself responding in similar ways when faced with powerlessness. Although I did not hit, my arguing was violent and my posture towards conflict with my woman was“I wish you would just shut the fuck up cause what you are saying don’t matter because you don’t matter beyond my pleasure.” At the time I did not know that I was operating out of patriarchy.I wasn’t trying to love, I wanted to be loved in a way that my mother did not and I wanted to dominate. Through some good ass therapy (marriage and personal), great mentors, and learning more about love and justice I’ve come to live a different way and love in a healthy way.
I had an aunt who defied every attempt from a man to have power over her. She eschewed marriage because she did not want a man telling her what to do. I saw her and two other aunts raise my cousins with little to no help from men. She was strong. She did not take any shit. She questioned patriarchy, not because she had an academic understanding of it, but because she saw the ways in which her mother and other women were victimized by it. I watched, listened, and took notes.
I also have some great mentors who eschew sexism in their personal lives (as husbands and fathers) and in their professional and political lives.
I grew up in a faith community that is about love and social justice, more than paying lip service to the ideas, but actually living them out in the hiring, preaching, worshipping, and service to the “least of these.” I grew up with two women pastors, one my youth pastor the other a co-pastor with equal duties and responsibilities as her male counterpart.
For these and other reasons I try to model love and respect for black women and advocate for their right to not only be heard, but to exist on their own terms and do with their bodies what they want to do.But my feminism goes further than that, I try my best to stand up for black women and stand up against the sexism and violence directed towards them, not only because so many have stood up for me and black men in general, but because its just right.
We don’t lose anything by acknowledging that black women got it bad out here, by standing up for black women, by loving black women without seeking to dominate them, by allowing them to do what they want to do with their hair and bodies, etc. Whatever personal issues that we have with women or with our own sense of powerlessness as a result of not living up to masculinity as defined by patriarchy, needs to be checked and healed (maybe through some counseling) because we are in this together trying to live black in this “white man’s world” and dismantle it at the same time.