A Loving Observation: On Making Beloved Community, Gender, & Race

Earlier this month, Sandra Bland was stopped in Texas by a police officer, slammed to the ground, threatened, and was later found dead in police custody – supposedly by suicide, having hung herself officers claimed, with a plastic trash bag. Bland was an academic traveling from Chicago to Texas to begin a new job. For many reasons, not least of which has been a persistent assault on the well being and lives of Black people in America, I have reached (if not exceeded) my tolerance for witnessing Black pain, death, and bodily harm – and its easy circulation through the media and internet.

Sandra Bland’s story holds particular sway for me, because I too am a Black female academic  – who frequently travels alone.

Over the years, when I’ve learned of the abuse, deaths, and murders of Black bodies – particularly Black male bodies, I have made a concerted effort to reach out to let the Black men in my life know: you are beloved, you are respected, you are cared about, you are of value, you are strong, I am sorry this is happening. Text messages. Random calls to check in. Emails – en masse or one-on-one. Because I think it matters to tell people you care. I think it matters to tell people who are regularly and violently marginalized that they are loved and have your support. And because I think beloved community is a practice of care and consideration that is linked to ways of thinking about justice and equity. And because, I care about the men in my life immensely.

When Sandra Bland was killed – or Rekia Boyd, Ralkina Jones, Kindra Chapman, or the murders in Charleston I heard from womyn after womyn, checking in, reminding me of the importance of radical self care, checking in on my travel schedule – as I was slated to be in Texas and many knew how anxious I felt.

Yet, not one of the many wonderful men in my life reached out to ask, if I as a Black womyn, who is an academic – small, dark brown, and often traveling alone – was okay. 

I am powerfully struck by the silence. Because I know many extraordinary men.

This has me thinking about what creating and sustaining beloved community means and is – and how gender and race impact how we are socialized to share responsibility for showing care and building beloved community.

I am keenly aware of all that we do to negotiate the daily grind of living. That we are overwhelmed and overtaxed and that often means that small moments or niceties are beyond what we have the capacity to do.  And yet, I’d like to make a few loving observations, which I share in the spirit of love and care, rather than shaming or castigation. Beloved community is a loving community that holds itself tenderly accountable.

1. It is often assumed that womyn will and should maintain the emotional balance of relationships and care-taking, particularly in the Black community. So, when Black womyn do care-work or we go out of our way to show care in this tech-driven society, there is little value often attached to that care-work and emotional labor.

2. That knowing how wonderful the men in my life are, it occurred to me that part of the socialization of malehood – for many but of course not all men, is being taught that the responsibility for care is their responsibility; and that being saddled with such care, particularly of “womyn’s emotions” is a burden.

It occurred to me that rather than anything being intentional (as in, the men in my life didn’t value me), the silence was representative of a society which does not expect men to be emotionally present, articulate, accountable, connected, or caring (sexual liaisons aside). It isn’t personal, but I think it may simply have not occurred to most of the truly lovely men I know, to reach out to check in with an encouraging word, text, or note. To practice beloved community with a womyn who was not a mother, family member, or sexual partner; to take up care in the ways that so many Black womyn are implored to do – and sometimes chastised roundly if we don’t.

It also occurs to me that we are all exhausted by the constant stream of Black death. We simply do not have the energy.

As I spoke with other Black womyn, I heard the same refrain. They’d heard from their womyn friends, but no male had broached the subject. There was utter echoing silence around gender, race, and sexuality.

I wonder then if that means that unless we are sexually involved with, wifed up by, the mother of, the sister (sometimes), or the daughter of a particular man, that men are often not asked to carry the same interest in our well being and safety in the ways that Black womyn are trained to collectively fear for and protect Black men – at nearly all costs to ourselves.

3. Beloved community – the maintenance and practice of lovingly connecting and caring with the community you build and identify for yourself is part of how many Black folks have survived. And largely, Black womyn have been expected to and have operated as the core of that beloved community.

4. We are at a point in history and in our lives where there is so very much to overwhelm us – and connect us. So, do we feel connected? And to whom? How? And why? Is a constantly updated FB status the measure of beloved community and connection?And what counts as beloved community in each of our own lives? Are we keeping in mind that isolation – from our feelings, ourselves, or each other – is part of the tax that racism (and homophobia and sexism) extract? That men are often trapped by a gendered veil of silence that denies them the space to speak authentically of pain, sadness, or crushing rage.

5. That part of male privilege as a social structure akin to white privilege, is that men are not expected – as white people are often not expected – to understand how gender as a social structure operates, how they benefit from that privilege, and how that can impact one’s daily life – and capacity for compassionate emotional response. The same male privilege that gives some men privilege works as a hierarchy – so men of color are seen as threats and devalued, gay men, transmen, and particularly gay men of color are excluded, threatened, and subjected to violence.

Audre Lorde said, that when Black womyn are free, we will all be free. She’s providing an awe inspiring vision: that if those figured as the least among us are respected, honored, loved and protected, then we can all be free. That Black people and people of color, if we are truly serious – and if you are truly serious – about not supporting racism and white supremacy (homophobia or sexism), must address how male privilege operates in your own life. I.E., the next time you hear someone deny Bill Cosby is a rapist, you say, “now, wait a minute…” Or defending R. Kelley. Or calling out the local “thot,” or calling a womyn you know a “b*tch,” when she is in fact, being an adult – you use your voice. To do less is to collude. To be complicit.

We must be clear that racism, sexism, homophobia, transphobia, ableism, and classism are linked. They exist in what Patricia Hill Collins has described as a matrix of oppressions. Think of a web – pieces interlinked, tugging at one another, putting tensions on one or two finely rendered strings of silk, as a ravenous spider weaves itself closer to its prey. And we are far too late in the day, for Black communities, and Black men in particular, not to begin urgently and earnestly discussing how gender is connected to other forms of oppression.

But truly, there’s a more simple reason for which I write. Ultimately to say, stay and be safe. That you are loved, that you are cared for. And that I need you to be present in  and accountable for creating beloved community. I need and want you to be part of the beloved community I claim.

So. Check-in with a womyn in your life – one whom you are not sleeping with/trying to sleep with/have slept with in the last 72 hours to ask simply: “You Ok, Sis.” Check-in with the person(s) you are intimate with about their emotional well being. Be willing to do emotional care-work in friendships and relationships – and especially in your relationships with other men, even if there are raised eyebrows. Be willing to accept that as a man you have access to male (and some to male cis and hetero) privilege and be willing to educate and examine yourself about it – so that you can better love or respect the person(s) you are sleeping with; the daughters you have or will one day love, the sons you will raise, the young brotha to whom you will give the hope of being beyond 30 with a degree and not locked up; the sister who fusses at you, but loves you deeply and fiercely; or the mother about whom you have complicated feelings, but ultimately no doubt that you are her baby. Simply, do the work of being present. Of communicating care. Of being radical enough to express love. For after all, that was the goal of slavery: to alienate us from the capacity to build and maintain present, loving, accountable communities.  Instead, let’s celebrate a fully connected and present survival of our whole selves.

What would it mean if Black men were unapologetically calling themselves feminists or womanists? For after all, as Chimamanda Adichie explained in her rousing TED Talk “We Should All Be Feminists,” – because to be a feminist is to be a person who believes in the social, political, and economic equality of the sexes. Quite simple. Ask yourself, what does it mean for me to create beloved community? Where and what is my emotional work?

It was hard to write this. I did not want to shame, but I could no longer be silent.

With abundant love.

Resources

Understanding Male Privilege: http://amptoons.com/blog/the-male-privilege-checklist/

Understanding Black Male Privilege: http://www.deanza.edu/faculty/lewisjulie/The%20Black%20Male%20Privilege%20Checklist.pdf

According to Jewel Woods, “Given the devastating history of racism in this country, it is understandable that getting black men to identify with the concept of male privilege isn’t easy! For many black men, the phrase “black male privilege” seems like an oxymoron — three words that simply do not go together. While it is understandable that black men are hesitant or reluctant to examine the concept of male privilege, the African American community will never be able to overcome the serious issues that we face if we as black men do not confront our role in promoting and sustaining male supremacist attitudes and actions.”

Woods includes the following as examples of Black male privilege:

  • I will be taken more seriously as a political leader than black women.
  • Despite the substantial role that black women played in the Civil Rights Movement and Black Power Movement, currently there is no black female that is considered a “race leader”
  • I can live my life without ever having read black feminist authors, or knowing about black women’s history, or black women’s issues.
  • I can be a part of a black liberation organization like the Black Panther Party where an “out” rapist Eldridge Cleaver can assume leadership position.
  • I have the ability to define black women’s beauty by European standards in terms of skin tone, hair, and body size. In comparison, black women rarely define me by European standards of beauty in terms of skin tone, hair, or body size.
  • My looks will not be the central standard by which my worth is valued by members of the opposite sex.
  • I have the privilege to define black women as having “an attitude” without referencing the range of attitudes that black women have.
  • I have the privilege of defining black women’s attitudes without defining my attitudes as a black man
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