Black. Male. Feminist?

My sister, grandmother and me, circa 1983.

Over at The Root, Byron Hurt has a candid piece about how watching the fraught interaction between his parents as a kid helped plant the seeds for his adult embrace of feminism:

Feminist writings about patriarchy, racism, capitalism and structural sexism resonated with me because I had witnessed firsthand the kind of male dominance they challenged. I saw it as a child in my home and perpetuated it as an adult. Their analysis of male culture and male behavior helped me put my father’s patriarchy into a much larger social context, and also helped me understand myself better.

You’ll have to forgive me for how jumbled/discursive/TMI this is going to read, but this has agitated a lot of stuff I’ve been thinking about and was frankly saving for a much neater Mother’s Day post.

My own, very flawed feminism is also rooted in my childhood, albeit in circumstances very different from Hurt’s. His father’s presence was inescapable. Mine was imperceptible.

And I wasn’t an outlier: there just weren’t a lot of fathers doing the quotidian work of parenting in my South Philadelphia neighborhood, as if all the adult black men had agreed to go into hiding. And so the teachers; the parents who yelled at us to come inside when it got dark, and who organized the church trips, camps and block parties, were almost always black women. My grandmother scooped me up from soccer practice. My mom taught me the rules of football and tied my ties. My aunt helped me with my long division. Her daughter taught me how to shoot free throws. When something broke, one of these women fixed it.

None of these were feminist acts in and of themselves, and those women would never have identified as feminists, but they were (and remain) giants to me. And I was living in a world, albeit not the one they probably would have preferred, in which the traditional gender roles were queered. My world was largely populated by black women who were fantastically smarter and more competent than I was. That didn’t forestall my fantastically awkward attempts to slide into some ill-fitting molds of masculinity, and I still bought into all those gendered hierarchies even though they were especially abstract for me. But all of this hobbled my capacity to see the eventual assumption of gender roles as foregone or necessary conclusions, and stoked a lingering skepticism of the supposed truths on which they rested.

The theory — Patricia Hill Collins, Judith Butler, etc. — would all come later, in college.  But the ground was already fertile.  Ta-Nehisi Coates wrote about the roving packs of young dudes in B-more who dumped on other young dudes, with no real pretext. So it was where I grew up, where those cats felt less like my contemporaries and more like a capricious force of nature. (I’ve said before that the reason folks at my high school tried hard not to get detention wasn’t because they were well-behaved kids, but because detention meant walking the five North Philly blocks to the subway on your lonesome.) You learned to  look over your shoulder, to take the long way to wherever you were going. And if you got caught out there — and most of us did, at some point — that was your fault. You were slipping, actin’ like it can’t happen.

I remember my mom cautioned both my twin sister and me as teenagers to be on point, but there was a different shading to the warnings she gave my sister. They were: Don’t leave your drink unattended. Make sure your girls know where you are. My sister, it was assumed, was going to have someone say some slick shit to her, to hop in her personal space, to put their hands on her as she passed. The company of a friend wasn’t going to stop it. Nothing was. She was going to bear the responsibility for these transgressions when they inevitably happened. Others would have said my sister wasn’t cautious enough, or asked her what she was wearing, or why she was where she was. The response would always be to ascertain what she did wrong, how she should have known better, how she got caught slipping.

Our experiences were subtly, profoundly different, but they were mundane, and their ordinariness belied their injustice. To grow up like this meant developing a certain resignation about the specter of violence, and often — perversely — feeling personally responsible when something ugly happened. But I didn’t have a way to think about these things until I learned about feminism. The first time I heard the term “sexual terrorism,” then,  I finally had a name to something I’d always fundamentally known. The great irony was that I was having these realizations and entertaining these conversations for the first time on a suburban college campus where I actually felt completely safe.

But this wider berth still didn’t extend to my female friends. One summer while I was on campus, a friend of mine called me after she went to a bar with her sorority sisters and woke up the next day in a bare bed in an empty dorm room with no idea how she got there. What followed next — the police report, the rape kit, the feeling that her friends abandoned her, and their accusations that she should have been more careful about her drinking — was all horrifying, and I knew I’d never even have to consider or live through anything like it. This world was happening all around me in plain sight, and I was incapable of  perceiving it even as I was undoubtedly abetting it.

There were plenty of other moments. It took years before one of my dearest friends, my ace, could tell me he was gay. I found out accidentally through a mutual female friend. There was a long stretch — several years — when he and I didn’t talk about it, when I knew and he didn’t know I knew. As tight as he and I were, I was a heterosexual dude, and he had ample reason to worry about my rejecting him. When he finally told me, it was anticlimactic and we were both relieved. I jokingly chided him for not telling me sooner. But I thought about all the arguments we had about hip-hop and politics and basketball and women  — safe dude shit — and how we’d forged a deep, real supportive friendship in which he was still precluded from telling me about how he felt about the people he dated and loved; he’d helped me tread water during some pretty rough times and yet I didn’t feel comfortable telling him that I loved him for it. Because he was a dude. Clearly, we were doing this all wrong.

Although I do it, I still don’t feel totally comfortable calling myself a feminist, both because it has the feel of appropriation and because I am a deeply imperfect vessel. I am routinely very, very dumb about this shit as a  heterosexual dude — with all the tunnel vision and privilege that attends that location. The relationship those realities have to my blackness is a muddled one; sometimes they’re independent, sometimes they act in concert. But if growing up black and poor and male provided an unlikely bridge to anti-sexist thinking, so has feminism complicated the way I think about blackness and class. The way I perform masculinity is wrapped in the way I understand blackness, and vice versa. Their parameters are constantly evolving in my head, which means constantly reconsidering the way I orient myself to the world. This is rarely comfortable stuff. But it shouldn’t be.



Gene "G.D." Demby is the founder and editor of PostBourgie. In his day job, he blogs and reports on race and ethnicity for NPR's Code Switch team.
  • This post is obviously on point. I think what’s so hard is that it’s not enough to get yourself to a point where you want to care about how privilege plays out beyond your own day-to-day; you have to be willing to just hush and listen and catch some Ls in conversations that are hard on/a challenge to your perspective and relative position. Some folks can endeavor this more easily than others, but we all have egos.

  • beautiful! at least you are open, which is something a lot of people are not.

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  • I’m Black. I’m male. And I am a Feminist.

    Good to know that I am not alone.

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  • LJ

    Great piece, very moving. Thank you so much for writing this.

    Oh and you and your sister were such little cutie-pies!!!!!!

  • magus12

    As an older, white feminist, I cannot tell you how much I appreciate and identify with your article, particularly when you acknowledge your own imperfections and ignorance. There have been times when I have asked stunningly ignorant questions of black women only to realize later that I have really stepped in it and the black woman in question was either too polite or gobsmacked to to let me know that what I had said was a sore issue (I’m thinking of my latest gaffe when I asked whether the woman was wearing a wig). I had no idea that while I was coming from a commiserating point of view, this was an issue for her – that somehow we’ve moved into an era when a black woman must have a hair style that is “professional”. Geez, since when is the variety of black hairstyles not “professional” and who made that rule? Only later would I find out from other sources online how I had embarrassed her or made her uncomfortable. I am a committed ally but imperfect and ignorant. But what is so encouraging to me from your post is that we just might all come together and establish that the default setting for humanity is our humanity. Thank you.

  • April

    Excellent post. I personally don’t identify with the term “feminist,” because for me, it’s fraught with racist and anti-religious baggage. But you make the excellent point that all of our various descriptors (black, female, straight, working-class) inform each other, and almost all of us are in various ways privileged and unprivileged.

  • This is a beautiful piece. Thank you.

  • G.D. — Thank you so much. I have been longing for some more somebodies to say that black ‘experience’ is fertile soil for growing feminist (and, necessarily, queer-friendly) consciousness and behaviors. I’m tired of black people being dumped on as all too enthralled to religion and traditional gender roles to get it. Or wrongly presumed to have some automatic sympathy with any oppressed people on the planet. Your post shows that a desire for equality and social transformation must be worked at and for and that’s what makes this an inspiring piece to me.

    If it’s not too rude, I’d like to link to my ongoing series about black homophobia:

    • thanks for this link and for the kind words!

  • Hi. Nice to find you all.

    I liked Hurt’s piece and yours about feminist men: how you came to be and what you’re still learning. Feminism should really be called “Humanism” because it is a philosophy founded on treating people equally as humans, but “humanism” was already taken. For me, it’s always been about social justice and having access to as much opportunity as I want to take.

    Also, I just watched _Norma Rae_ last night for the first time and was just blown away. Talk about the intersection of so many politics: cultural, racial, sexual, and class. Excellent feminist film that’s not just about getting rights for women.

  • Steve

    I’m all late. But I appreciate this. That’s all .. LOL

  • MH8D

    This was a great read – and that’s coming from a guy who has absolutely no interest in feminism. It’s interesting to learn how different people decide to relate to similar circumstances.

    I, too was raised where most men had privilege without responsibility, while the women were taking on most of the responsibility without much privilege in return.

    I took a different lesson from it, though. I’ve never given much (positive) thought to the idea of rearranging the social order to eliminate patriarchy. Instead, I wanted to become the right kind of man – the kind that a lady can depend on and doesn’t need to fear. Patriarchal male privilege comes with responsibilities to the females: provide, protect, AND respect… When men neglect their duties or prey on women, I tend to see that as a failure of manhood on the part of certain individuals, not an indictment of patriarchy.

  • MH8D–

    Feminism is such a tricky word, with so many different programs coming under its banner. You *might* consider doing some more investigating of different kinds of feminism.

    Very little feminism of recent vintage (and even less black feminist and womanist thought) suggests that men should not be “responsible.” Nor do I think most feminists would be against provision, protection, and respect, as you put it.

    The problem, in my mind, comes in when those things are expected to run only in one direction and men, by virtue of providing them, become the sole decision-makers. The interdependence of human life can fall away–male vulnerability and female strength are both denied under a patriarchal banner. Since both power and fragility are human traits, those of us who oppose patriarchy oppose it for distorting our basic humanity in the name of adherence to gender oppositions.

    An excellent example of the kind of feminism that I ascribe to–one that challenges patriarchal rule by holding out an ideal of both sexes developing their full potential–is bell hooks’ excellent The Will to Change. You might enjoy reading it, as she puts aside what you may have deemed a ‘man-hating’ version of feminism while trying to imagine what feminism can do to enhance men’s lives.

  • ladybuddha

    you’re so beautiful. thank you!

  • blackink

    Just needed to mention here – for posterity – that this piece was gorgeous.

    I felt it all in my chest.

    Kudos, homie.

    • thank you, homie.

  • good post, G.
    def making me think some.

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  • Wow. I just stumbled upon your blog today. Your insight here is incredible. Working through all of this shit can be exhausting. I’m a white woman who grew up with a poor single mother, and I can totally relate with trying to understand how some of my privilege informs my understanding of theories about oppression and overcoming it. I’ll be back to read more.

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