ON PATRIARCHY, BLACK FEMINISM, AND RADICAL VOICE
‘Why these dudes done gone to talkin’ and writin’ that feminist mess?’ ‘Guess maybe they sayin’ what we been needin’ but didn’t hear enough. And we didn’t write.’
-Black Man to Black Man in a Barber Shop
Patriarchy: A system of male domination that is widespread but historically specific and can vary over time and context. Originally, this term was used to describe societies characterized by ‘the rule of the father….’ The term has now come to refer to the overall systemic character of oppressive and exploitative relations affecting women.
The systemic effects of U.S. patriarchy, or male dominance, in Black lives have been publicly and privately argued for generations. Spanning both the late 19th and early 20th centuries, Black scholars like Anna Julia Cooper articulated Black feminist opposition to the oppressions of race and gender (“sex”) and class. The Sojourners for Freedom and Justice elaborated Cooper’s Black intersectional agency between the successful Bolshevik Revolution and WWII; centering Black working-class women within their evolving theory of “triple oppressions.” Following WWII, Black radical women joined critiques of racialized and patriarchal capitalism with their internationalist networking for Black and Third World liberation struggles (See Kimberly Springer’s and Barbara Ransby’s works).
In turn, Ella Baker and Fran Beale would help to nurture a new generation of Black feminist practice and theory during the 1970s, 1980s, and beyond. Today, around the United States, the intergenerational strivings of Black feminists are once again being expressed in the movement-building activities of #BlackLivesMatter.  In every one of these historical periods, Black women have been obliged to affirm their lives despite being made “others” by the race/gender/class/sex dynamics of U.S. society. Despite decades of persistent activity, however, the intergenerational efforts of Black feminist women, like Black lives generally, still don’t seem to matter much.
In recent public conversations aimed at the reclamation and rebuilding of Black Liberation, political activists and writers seem to be largely committed to retrieving only those political ideas and projects in which the systemic effects of patriarchy have been ignored and underestimated. In this Freedom Paper, we want to consider several recurring ideas and analytical approaches at the heart of recent discussions. We hasten to emphasize that we welcome these recent discussions. Indeed, they are essential, inasmuch as they indicate the irrepressible initiative of Black people to clearly assess the conditions that daily shape and threaten Black lives. Yet even as we welcome efforts to provide radical accounts of oppression and resistance, we are concerned about the ways in which some ongoing narratives are reproducing analytical and theoretical understandings that simplify, obscure, denigrate, and/or delegitimize lived experiences that are complex and frequently marginalized. Such recurring accounts are wrong because they marginalize and deny Black experiences that can still teach us much about the human rights violations of Blacks as an oppressed social group. These narratives are also misleading because they tend to reproduce narrow, cut-and-dried analyses of experience that cannot contribute to inclusive, democratic, and transformative strategies for change. Even naming such accounts as “misleading” and “wrong” is inadequate to tell the hurtful actions and dire consequences—both personally and organizationally—to which they can contribute over time in Black lives. WHY DON’T BLACK LIVES MATTER? In a recent blog discussion entitled “An Unbroken Line: New Afrikan Resistance from 1619 to the Present,” well-respected activist and educator Kali Akuno opens his account by asserting the necessity for Blacks to oppose “white supremacy, capitalism, and imperialism.” Yet, in identifying white supremacy, capitalism, and imperialism as the most analytically significant systems of U.S. oppression, Akuno fails to mention the system of patriarchy—a system that Black feminists have been critiquing for the past four decades. A recent Philadelphia conference aimed at “Reclaiming Our Radical Black Tradition” engaged a marvelously diverse group of participants and panelists in revisiting radical ideas and political projects that Blacks have used in previous historical periods. Sadly, however, in several weekend panels invited speakers narrowly framed contemporary conditions within frameworks underscoring the significance of systemic race and class factors, while remaining largely muted regarding the importance of gender and sexuality, systemically, for understanding how race and class are actually experienced—and resisted—in these neoliberal times. A number of participants even protested that the conference did not fully represent the radical nature of the Black tradition. Prior to the conference, another well-respected and veteran activist-writer, Glen Ford, had shared his hopes with former Black Panther Eddie Conway  regarding the prospective contribution(s) of the conference toward the building of a new, mass-based, and transformative political movement in the United States. Ford spoke hopefully about both (1) the urgency of a Black and radical component that can help shape the building of a new and transformative movement; and (2) the recognition, by all the conference organizers, that no effective movement can be built without radical understanding. However, Ford’s hopeful comments indicated nothing about the need for a radical shift in thinking about how race and class experiences are also shaped by gender and sexuality. This would represent a seismic shift that would enable more inclusive analyses, more transformative behaviors, and more democratic mass organizing. This is one of the very shifts for which #BlackLivesMatter activists have been agitating! Following the Philadelphia conference, a flurry of posts—including one by conference organizers—have criticized young participants at the conference. Criticisms have generally focused on the “unacceptable” disruptions caused by some participants; their apparent preferences for “ideologies of intersectionality rather than socialism;” and their apparent confusion regarding the ways in which Black lives are affected by race and class, as well sexuality and gender. Time and prudence do not allow for a point-by-point discussion of every single nuance of every one of these posts and discussions. In subsequent Freedom Papers discussions, we will address ongoing questions and issues of debate. What seems most useful, here, is a broader discussion of certain themes that seem common to current critiques by a number of veteran activists. STILL ‘MISSING THE BEAT’: CAN’T SEE IT? CAN’T FIGHT IT! In a 1992 Black Scholar essay treating class and gender in Black lives, Deborah K. King critically named the pervasive problem that, for many, “the experiences of black men have become both definitive and representative of all African Americans.” King’s observation remains tragically relevant to previously mentioned discussions about why Black lives do not matter in current U.S. conditions. Taken together, these recent discussions approach the need for radical assessments of Black life with a male-centeredness that renders Black feminist assessments almost unintelligible. By focusing our attention on the dominations of race, class, and nation (which are typically evoked when we speak of white supremacy, capitalism, and imperialism), writers completely ignore the fact that over 40 years ago, The Combahee River Collective (CRC) summarized their experiences—and those of Black people generally—by acknowledging that “the liberation of all oppressed peoples necessitates the destruction of the political-economic systems of capitalism and imperialism as well as patriarchy.” Writers who define only white supremacy (or structural racism), capitalism, and imperialism as analytically significant are ignoring the intergenerational efforts of Black women to illuminate the particular ways in which their experiences of these systems have been shaped. Black feminists since the CRC have continued to build upon the work of similar feminist groups up until the present efforts of the feminists who began #BlackLivesMatter. Current calls to struggle that overlook Black feminist analyses and interventions not only minimize what Black women have said about their own lives; they also contribute unwittingly to reinforcing and reproducing the effects of oppression in the lives of both Black females and Black males. This brings us to a second problem. In failing to acknowledge the political practices, analyses, and theories advanced by Black women, current writers undermine Black abilities to understand and radically oppose the complexities of oppressions. One of the most critical insights of Black women in the CRC was their recognition that multiple systems of domination have been simultaneous and interlocking. In other words, Black lives have not experienced these forms of oppression in piecemeal or additive fashion;  we have experienced them at the same time, within the same social spaces, and in complex interplays that affect how we experience them. In other words, as peoples of African descent have been confronted by white supremacy, their racializing experiences have been shaped by the imperatives of profit and patriarchy. Similarly, the advancement of capitalist domination has been racialized as well as impacted by prerogatives of men who have been mainly (though not exclusively) “white.” Male-centered institutions (e.g., the military, most U.S. “Christian” churches, and the heteronormative “nuclear” family) have been developed according to the needs and imperatives of capital and white supremacy. Increasingly developing their understanding of these interlocking oppressive conditions, Black feminists (and their women-of-color and Anglo allies) have repeatedly worked toward unified opposition (of oppressed peoples) against all forms of oppression. Yet as activists have continually refused to consider and integrate the intergenerational efforts of Black feminists, efforts to build and strengthen Black Liberation have often been analytically flawed, behaviorally dysfunctional, politically fragmented, ideologically complicit (with oppressions), and organizationally undemocratic and underdeveloped. A third problem that we encounter in current discussions is the failure of activists to provide understandings of lived experiences that have been customarily silenced by commonplace theories and analyses of “race” and “class.” Even if activists reject the assessments of some Black women and men about how their lives have been racialized and classed and gendered and sexualized, these activists will inevitably have to account for these experiences in order to effectively join with Blacks—who self-affirm as lesbian, bisexual, gay, transgender, and/or queer—in organizing new stages of transformative social movements. WHAT IS “RADICAL VOICE”? Current calls to radical consciousness force us to reconsider the question of “what is radical voice today?” As we consider, and participate in, these discussions on Black lives and Black resistance, we are obliged to remember that radical voice has too often been viewed as a question of who is allowed to speak. Patriarchal impacts of Black experiences of racial-capitalism have often resulted in Black policing of behaviors that have not been deemed normal and normative. As Deborah K. King has noted, Black acceptance of the notions that Black (heterosexual) male experiences have been definitive and representative has all too often minimized the experience and agency of Black persons deemed “deviant” or “not-black-enough.” If Black people are now seeking radical understandings, we must rethink what we mean by radical. Perhaps radical voices are not simply those voices that affirm the ideas and political projects that have opposed particular forms of domination, but those that also have directed us “to go to the root,” by questioning everything in U.S. society. In There Is a River, Dr. Vincent Harding provides an insightful example of how Black people during different historical periods have come to an understanding of the meaning of “radical.” Summarizing the radicalism of Blacks in the years leading up to the U.S. Civil War, Harding notes the following:
[I]t was not the call to armed insurrection which was the hallmark of antebellum black radicalism, but a careful, sober capacity to see the entire American government, and the institutions and population which it represented, as the basic foe of any serious black struggle, whatever its form might take. It was America, not simply slaveholders, which needed to be transformed, and above all the government and its institutions.
Here we can readily see that in defining “radical” we must not only consider who is enabled and allowed to speak. We must also question what is being said and whether (or not) it opposes or accommodates oppression. WE NEED TO KNOW WHAT CELIE KNEW Before her much too early death, a brilliant Black feminist scholar, Barbara Christian, crafted a stirring essay entitled “What Celie Knows That You Should Know.” Rehearsing a pivotal conversation in Alice Walker’s The Color Purple, Christian underscores Celie’s womanist recognition of the oppressive forces by which Mister seems unreflectively bound, and she affirms her will to exist and resist, oppressions notwithstanding. Unlike Alice Walker and Barbara Christian, Celie had fewer opportunities for formal education. Yet she knew about the forces that denied Black female and male humanity. The daily denials of the truths Celie and many other Black women have known is not merely a trivial footnote on why Black lives don’t really matter. The denial is itself a lie, a lie crafted in the minds of oppressors and spawned in the beleaguered minds of the oppressed. But Celie learned, and so can we. Those of us who continue to deny the importance of what Black feminists have learned--and tried to teach--have not intentionally become enemies of Black people. But we have assumed that liberation is simpler than it will be. When we gloss over the mistakes and missteps of the past and present, we can offer no accurate, reliable, or trustworthy assessments of how we have resisted and survived. We therefore dismiss unacknowledged victories. We set ourselves up as well-meaning guides, but we remain unreliable witnesses to available lessons we have failed to learn. In this storm surge of unending grief and angst, when outrage tosses us between vengeance and madness, Blacks can afford neither misremembering nor misdirection. We need to retrieve potent efforts that have been repeatedly silenced. We must retrieve them, learning lessons we have been denied and knowing that not only those efforts, but the silences as well, have shaped our contemporary courses of action and inaction. At the rate we are learning, (to tell one bitter truth) Black Liberation may not be achieved as soon as we have hoped. Yet we can still quicken its coming if we cease to think and act as if we have claimed no easy victories and (re)told no lies.