In her book, Private Lives, Proper Relations: Regulating Black Intimacy, Candice M. Jenkins writes extensively about “the salvific wish,” — “a desire to protect African American culture and persons against pathologizing stereotypes of sexuality and domesticity… a concern with heteronormative propriety that has dominated the black cultural imaginary and representations of black middle-class life in the twentieth century.” We see this play out all the time. Consider how often the Huxtables are invoked as templates of an idealized black family, or how Obama’s election kicked off a wave of commentary about how the First Family might prompt more people to marry the parents of their children.
The No Wedding No Womb event, in which dozens of bloggers wrote essays lamenting the high number of black children born out of wedlock, is just the latest example of such. Because there are so many different writers involved, it’s hard to really summarize all of the nuance. But the official website is heavy on assertion — there are lots of suggestions that x has led directly to y as if those things are self-evidently true — a lot of which sounds unsettlingly like David Banner‘s notorious quip that positive societal change was predicated on black women closing their legs.
There are reasons besides the push’s barely masked antifeminism to be ambivalent about this whole endeavor. The movement has the stunty feel of holding funerals for “nigger” or stomping on hip-hop CDs (‘member those?) with explicit lyrics; it’s taken a tricky issue and reduced it to a bunch of folks being showily indignant. As with those media events, the organizers seem to believe that they’re forcing folks to have important but uncomfortable discussions about some pressing social issue. (Let’s leave aside for a moment the fact that these things always spark soul-crushingly stupid discussions.) As Monica said on the podcast a few weeks ago, “culture” is a complex system of responses to a certain environment, of which personal choice is only a part. You can’t really change broad social trends by appealing to people’s feelings; you have to actually change the conditions that inform the calculus by which people make the decisions they make. It’s annoying to have to even say this, but keeping black men out of jail or bringing up high school graduation rates or whatever might actually require more complex solutions than getting enough people to wag their fingers really, really hard.
One last point before I return to blogging silence. We should lament that these conversations are always framed as conversations about “black issues.” Every trend that disproportionately affects black folks in the aggregate does not affect all black folks everywhere, nor does it play out in the lives of all the affected black folks in the same ways. I’m not interested in being the arbiter of who gets to weigh in on which conversations, but it’s worth remembering that growing up in a two-parent, middle class Seattle home doesn’t mean that a person’s Negritude grants some special insight about the forces that shape the lives of folks who live in the projects of East New York.
Note: The organizer of the NWNW event ran this entire post on her website without my permission. When confronted about the reproduction (via Twitter, since I could not find another way to get in touch with her), she responded that this post contained the NWNW logo, and that by using it here I was effectively doing the same thing. She didn’t see the difference between a logo meant for dissemination throughout the blogosphere and wholesale reproduction of someone else’s work. She has since modified the post on her site, although she has also deleted her part of the Twitter exchange.