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THE BLACK WOMEN who've been called bitches and dykes for their outspokenness or political views can relax; Michele Wallace will be taking the heat for all of them for some time to come. Michele Wallace is the 26-year-old author of a provocative essay, Black Macho & the Myth of the Superwoman, which exposes some of the maggots beneath the rock of popular conceptions of the civil rights and black power movements, and of black relationships in general.
Noting the lack of attention social observers have traditionally paid to the historical dynamics of black men's and women's relationships with each other. Wallace describes black efforts toward self-determination, from slavery onward, in terms of the sexual politics of each epoch. Because of white racism and their own shortsightedness, says Wallace, blacks early defined their struggle in terms of white American values, neuroses, and, most dangerously, perceptions of blacks. Blacks have then applied these inaccurate, contemptuous images to each other, with calamitous results.
The black woman has become a social and intellectual suicide; the black man, unintrospective and oppressive."
Tracing the history of the black power movement alone still requires an extraordinarily delicate hand: those who lived it can't see it rationally, outsiders did not understand it, and those who were young at the time have already romanticized it. One suspects that guilt over our present state of apathy prevents usually critical observers from disparaging a time when people were involved," and committed" to their blackness in a way we can scarcely envision now. Yet, bad decisions may have been made, and crucial perspectives may have been overlooked. Wallace is clearly determined that such decisions and perspectives be acknowledged.
Her first step has been to demythologize the images of Black Macho manhood and super-womanhood. Black Macho starts with the identification of the black male as a helpless cripple, who stands idly by while his woman totes laundry and cleans kitchens to feed his children; she gets raped or seduced by the white man, and generally perverts the normal family structure to encourage her dominance. Gradually his rage grows, he longs to assert his control over himself, his woman and his race; finally, he explodes. But when he does it is in terms of spontaneous and largely ineffect ive outbursts of rage that were directed inward and hurt the ghetto dweller most." Why? Because it was not equality that was being pursued but a kind of superiority--black manhood, black macho--which would combine the ghetto cunning, cool, and unrestrained authority.
BUT THE TRUE enjoyment of Black Macho requires one crucial element, and it is this phenomenon which angers the author most: in the hurly-burly of the 60's, when redefinition and reevaluation was one's only purpose, when the black bourgeoisie became honorary Ashantis, when every man was a prince and every woman Nefertiti, it finally dawned on someone that the black woman was at the root of black people's problems. And that usurping her was the key to solving them.
Somewhere, it seems everywhere, it was decided that because of slavery, racism, whatever, black women had become castrating machines who lived to put their man down while they strove only to pull themselves up. At the same time, the black woman, less of a women in that she is less feminine' and helpless...is really more of a woman in that she is the embodiment of Mother Earth, the quintessential mother with infinite sexual, life-giving, and nurturing reserves. In other words, she is a superwoman."
Why no one ever noticed the contradictions of the two sides of the myth--why a woman who is Mother Earth would willfully castrate her sons, and why a pillar of strength would allow herself to be an instrument of degradation--is the subject of another 200-page treatise. Suffice it to say that the image has remained unquestioned even, as Wallace points out, by the occasional black woman writer or sociologist. Not only is the image inaccurate, according to the author, it is lethal.
Black women have been and remain the most economically vulnerable group, and have benefitted least from Great Society evangelism which focused mainly on expanding opportunities for black men. The assumption was that increasing benefits for the black man's opportunities would somehow trickle over to the black woman, but no provision for or assurance of this was ever legislated. Black women have remained in lower level clerical and domestic jobs, and have continued to need more education than any other group to maintain even substandard employment rates.
The assumption, maintained by black and white men and, women alike, that the black woman somehow has too much and needs to be held down to allow her man to catch up, has probably accounted for unimaginable numbers of wasted talent, creativity, and lives. What is worse, the victims themselves have been active participants in their own oppression.
FOR CONFIRMATION of her thesis, Wallace turns to a variety of historical and literary sources and to autobiography. In an ambitious survey of literature pertaining to slavery, urban sociology, and criticism, she rejects one theory after another on the roles and behavior of black men and women. Slavery was dehumanizing to everyone involved, not just men, and if one wants to note that slave men were never accorded the respect of full adulthood it is just as important to note that neither were women. To be sure, racism suppressed the aspirations and attainments of men, but racism, as well as sexism, had the same effect on women. And liberation, self-actualization and power certainly belong to the body of rights long overdue to women as well as men.
In these passages, unfortunately, the polemical quality comes through more clearly than the analysis. Her treatments of such diverse authors as Norman Mailer, Eldridge Cleaver, Toni Morrison, Ntozake Shange, and James Baldwin make sense from the point of view of her thesis, but are not always clear in their own right. Her discussions of Daniel Patrick Moynihan's and Eugene Genovese's portrayals of black sociology are vivid but sometimes confusingly located in the text, and her autobiographical comments, while giving life to the argument, do not always flow happily into the generalizations she attempts to make.
Nevertheless, Wallace's point is clear. In the evolution of black political leadership, liberation has become inextricably tied to male superiority, specifically black male superiority over white men, and women both black and white. Gender-linked, rather than economically- or issue-motivated politics, not only creates sophistical ideologies--it encourages inadequate planning, illogical strategies, and a self-indulgent, unrealistic perception of political cause and effect. When the black man went as far as the adoration of his own genitals could carry him, his revolution stopped. A big Afro, a rifle, and a penis in good working order were not enough to lick the white man's world after all.
Wallace believes that black women must adopt a feminist perspective to begin the long process of finding their own voice, a task which they have long neglected. She has found her feminist voice, and I, and probably most other educated women, mine. But what of the women who presumably need it the most? How are the invisible and entrapped to find their way out of the dual oppression this country has allowed them to suffer? In bringing light to these types of questions, Black Macho & the Myth of the Superwoman raises a challenge to women and men of both races who recognizes the cumulative repercussions of any kind of oppression, whoever the oppressed. It is a challenge which no thinking person can allow to go unanswered.
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