Histories of gender and slavery focus overwhelming on women, as if gender and women are coextensive and men have no gender. This observation points to a problem with the conceptualization of sex and gender across academic disciplines. For if there is a structural neglect of manhood in studies of gender, and if womanhood is misunderstood to be synonymous with gender itself, then this approach signifies an extension rather than an analysis of gender ideology, which traditionally inscribes women as being gendered and men as being generic and beyond gender.
Greg Thomas—The Sexual Demon of Colonial Power—2007
Last week, Black America’s heart was broken and their hopes and expectations of fairness, justice, and equality shattered. The murderer of a young Black boy was freed. George Zimmerman gets to live his life an acquitted killer, and Trayvon Martin, his family, and other Black men and boys will forever be impacted by the reality that any confrontation with white men and/or women can mean death. Black men and boys remain invisible to conversations about gendered violence and death. Their existence and suffering is replaced by negation, or replaced with only the problematization of any scholarship that seeks to address their peculiar racial existence as being marginalizing to the their Black female counterpart. In short, any work seeking to speak to, and for Black male oppression is attacked for not being sufficiently feminist, and as such, worthy of dismissal and censor.
Being Black and Male is not a Privilege—It’s a Death Sentence
Within minutes of the verdict, Black feminists from across the web began posting and comparing the life of Trayvon Martin to that of Black women killed or incarcerated within the last year. On facebook, Black feminist postings about Rekia Boyd, Marissa Alexander, and Aiyanna Stanley-Jones, were on statuses and shared prolifically. Reiterating Jamila Aisha Brown’s piece, “If Trayvon Martin had been a woman…” these feminist posters/bloggers saw themselves making a point about the difference in the attention Black men’s and boy’s deaths receive next to these Black women’s lives. However, when one actually reads Ms. Brown’s piece one can only be amazed by how causality and history are vacated for ideology. Brown’s piece is written as a response to a Marc Lamont Hill’s interview where he was asked “How would things be different if Trayvon was a young Black girl? Hill responded “[Zimmerman] would have been convicted, because we have this history of seeing Black male bodies as dangerous and threatening and always worthy of lethal force.” Hill makes an observation many Black men and women across the country actually agree with, namely that Black men and boys are by and large the victims of state sponsored murder and violence and white vigilantism. This is not to deny Black women as victims, but to acknowledge the dangers of being Black and male in the United States. A point recently supported by Melissa Harris Perry’s admission that America is so dangerous for Black men that she wishes her sons away, a burden only alleviated somewhat by “the relief I [she] felt at my [her] 20-week ultrasound when they told me [her] it was a girl.”
Unfortunately, the sentiments that express fear, anger, and hopelessness are lost on Brown and many of her readers. Despite the outrage of the Black community, the powerlessness endured by the parents of young Black men and boys, and the fear of death Black men/boys suffer, Brown seems to conclude these emotions are simply inconsequential to the larger identity politics needing to be advanced. For Ms. Brown, any and all experiences of violence against Black women are examples that they could in fact have been Trayvon Martin. She begins her argument with a brief point that Black women have been lynched, a fact that has not gone unnoticed by historians or even anti-lynchers back in the 19th century given the cataloguing of Black women’s and girl’s names and alleged offenses in both Ida B.Wells-Barnett’s Red Record (1895) and John Edward Bruce’s A Blood Red Record (1901). In Brown’s view, however, these women’s lives have been erased and go to prove that if “Trayvon Martin were a young Black woman, we would not even know her name.”
On the face of it, this seems silly. All violence is not the same, so to suggest that Black women who have been focused on less regarding lynching, or police-state-sponsored violence means that an unarmed teenage girl who was shot by a white man on the claim of self-defense would not been known to Black America is non-sequitar. Ida B. Wells-Barnett was clear that lynching was justified against the manhood of the race and used as a weapon to discourage Black economic independence. Contrary to the popular account of Well’s anti-lynching activism as revelatory, Ida B. Wells-Barnett understood the unique vulnerability of Black men, because at one time she supported the lynching of Black men as justifiable. As she confesses in Crusade for Justice “…I had accepted the idea meant to be conveyed—that although lynching was irregular and contrary to law and order, unreasoning anger over the terrible crime of rape led to the lynching; that perhaps the brute deserved death anyhow and the mob was justified in taking his life.” After the death of her friend Thomas Moss, she began to understand that lynching was a punishment driven by the desire to murder Black men. When the white lynch mob declared to Ida B. Wells-Barnett that her “sex would not save her,” if she returned to Memphis, it reaffirmed the masculine ontology at the bottom of lynching. It was Wells-Barnett’s debasement to the status of Black maleness that threatened her life and erased her sex. Despite the historical evidence that give ample support for the view that anti-Black death (lynching, police state violence, and public executions) are directed primarily at Black men, Black feminists cannot conceptualize a reality in which Black maleness is a gendered vulnerability that warrants being the center of any account of American racism.
Brown claims that the deaths of Rekia Boyd, Deanna Cook, Aiyana Stanley Jones, and Tarika Wilson, despite being protested, taken up by the NAACP in their respective cites, and warranting lawsuits, are ignored because of “Black male privilege,” or the idea that “the victimization of young women is subsumed into a general well of black pain that is largely defined by the struggles of African-American men.” Are they not ignored by the asymmetrical power relationship between impoverished Black communities and the police state, or the general apathy for Black life? By asserting the existence of “a Black male privilege” that somehow remains unaffected by the exponential deaths, imprisonment, unemployment, and poverty of Black men and Black boys—conditions that deserve particular attention, these authors make acknowledging Black male privilege axiomatic, and indisputable. In short, these feminists claim that regardless of the death historically associated with being a Black man, these Black men enjoy the political privilege of being male, and of being recognized even in death over Black women, some of whom are still living and breathing. Rather than being a serious analysis of how Black men concretely have privilege (education, wealth, mortality, health), this contention is about the ideological politics of academic recognition confined to blogs more than an empirical study offering insight into the tragedies that actually impact the Black community. In the death of Trayvon Martin, Black male privilege attempts to demonize a community that has lost Black fathers, sons, and husbands alongside mothers, daughters and wives for not holding a particular brand of feminist politics. These Black feminists pretend that despite the tragedy of losing a 17 year old Black boy, a child, they are ultimately the arbiters of what his life should mean for the Black community, or what his life would mean if the Black community was not blinded by the ignorance of their hetero-patriarchal pathology.
While the Black left, and Black independent news outlets have concerned themselves with the death of Black men and women, as well as Black boys and girls, Black feminists have not made the death of Black women killed by state violence, police brutality, racial profiling, or anti-Blackness their central agenda, unless of course those women were killed or brutalized at the hands of Black men, which makes their suffering fit nicely with their predetermined (Duluth) account of domestic violence. Voxunion presented evidence of Black men and women dying hourly, Redding News Review covered the death of Rekia Boyd, and Aiyana Stanley Jones, as well as the arrest of Marissa Alexander; I constantly commented on these deaths as topics of conversation on my own radio segment, and Black Agenda Report has reported the deaths of Black women and children alongside their Black male counterparts. But given the gender ideology in the university, these Black feminists feel more than comfortable using the death of these women and children to point out why the death of Trayvon Martin should not be valued as much as it is because he is a Black boy.
Black Males are Victims of Racism and Sexism
It’s sickening that these individuals are now claiming they get to decide how Martin’s death should be valued, but say nothing against the specific white supremacists and institutions that devalued Black life in the first place. The central question posed by Piers Morgan in asking what would happen “If Trayvon Martin was a Black girl,” is whether or not a white vigilante could have claimed he feared for his life and used self-defense as a justification for killing her. Many commentators simply think Zimmerman would have been arrested for killing a Black woman, and the opposing feminist commentaries have offered no reason for this not to be the case. So, in an attempt to “one-up” Black male death, these commentaries pose endless hypotheticals that ask the audience to imagine the Black female victim being raped and sexually assaulted rather than simply being murdered in cold blood. Mind you, these hypotheticals are being embraced as fact, something that would necessarily happen to the Black female victim, despite Rachel Jeantel telling the American audience that she actually told Trayvon Martin that Zimmerman could have been a rapist. This sexualized aspect of racist violence is completely ignored when talking about Black men and boys. Eric Glover and Terrence Rankin were murdered to fulfill the necrophilia fetish of three white teens, and as expected not one “feminist” analysis on the particular gendered vulnerability of these Black men. But this fear, the fear a young boy may have of being raped, is ignored, because as Greg Thomas explains, “for feminism, gender means for females only,” and as such, only females can fear, be assaulted by, be victims of, rape.
Why are these Black feminists not attacking the comparison between white men’s, women’s, and children’s lives next to the death of these Black women? Why are the deaths of Black men and boys the only comparable examples? Why are they not attacking their figureheads like Beverly Guy Sheftall for publically announcing the agendas of Black feminism in popular venues like the Root, but excluding Black death? Why are these Black feminists not writing about these women in their journals and blogs as analyses of anti-Black death and suffering rather than the reaction to the death of a Black boy? Why is it when a Black community mourns, the feminist response is to divest the meaning the symbolism a Black male life has taken on—a life embraced by Black men, women, and children alike, a life taken from Black families across the world, and a life that continues to represent the fear of growing up a Black boy who wonders if he shall live to become a man? Does this fear of death not warrant political organization around Black male issues and erasures?
In this case, Black Feminism isn’t any better than the white supremacist who denies the political possibilities held by Black manhood. Black manhood is not a pathology; a sickness to be cured by either death or by feminism. Angela Davis is clear in Women, Race &Class that Black men didn’t have male privilege during slavery, because it endangered the slave system, nor did they have it during the civil rights movement despite Michelle Wallace’s contention given the myth of the Black male rapist. Feminists are using this tragic incident to bring further attention to their political agendas. J.N. Salter’s article, “Am I A Race Traitor? Trayvon Martin, Gender Talk and Invisible Black Women” argues that Black women are expected to put their race before their gender and ignore the issues that black women have within our communities,” but this is not an issue for the black community, this is an issue for the Black feminist community who demands that the deaths of the Black women and girls they have handpicked garner the same attention recently afforded to Trayvon Martin. Haydia Pendleton was killed in January, and her death, the death of a 15 year old Black girl sparked, national attention, so much so that the First Lady Michelle Obama attended her funeral, but this did not create the attention to Black women’s death by Black feminists that Trayvon Martin’s death did. Salter argues that “Black women are expected to put their race before their gender, to choose between their dual identities (“black” or “woman”) at the expense of their full humanity,” but this is untrue since many Black women from Ida B. Wells-Barnett to mothers like Sybrina Fulton have resolved this issue. This is a Black feminist issue that pretends being Black and being a woman should not be criticized, despite the fact that the identity politics lurking behind their idea of womanhood is about their political alliances with, and the benefits they receive from their relationships with white women. Our focus should not be on whether the Black person was/is a woman or a man it should be on protecting our communities from violence. It just so happens that in this case, the case of white vigilantism, Black men and boys deserve much of our attention.
Of the 300+ Black people killed in 2012 by extra-legal violence, how many names do we know? Every year, hundreds of Blacks are killed by police, most of them men, we don’t know who all of them are, and they don’t all get marches; some names are never uttered. Black children, little boys and girls, are killed and no one cries, mourns, or marches for them. A white vigilante kills an unarmed teen and suddenly the fear and sorrow felt by the death of a young Black boy is transformed into “the only death Black people care about.” Whereas Black feminism has no problem turning the pain and torture of a community—its families—into a metric measuring Black death and rationing this dehumanizing spectacle into the “meaningful” deaths of Black women, and then everyone else; the Black community, the dead Black men, “we,” as their voices should. Ideology (political, moral, or otherwise) is not the barometer of truth.
The indifference to the death of Black men and women from the near silence of this Black feminist academic cadre on issues like state violence, anti-Black death, and murder for their preferred discourses of recognition, be it phrased as: intersectionality, love, or education, is self-inflicted. Stop talking to white women and white people for academic recognition and write about the (Black) deaths of the people you claim should be at the center of consciousness. These posts that continue to react to the importance the Black community has attached to Trayvon Martin’s death, instead of suggesting any analysis of the conditions that gave rise to it, demonstrates the negating drive of Black feminist identity politics against Black men/boys, rather than concrete analysis of Black people’s vulnerability to sexual violence and murder—and how that acknowledgement helps the Black community. These posts show that vitiating Black masculinity is academically profitable, not that the death of a Black boy is tragic.
~ This post was written by guest blogger Dr. Tommy J. Curry, Associate Professor of Philosophy,Affiliated Professor of Africana Studies, Texas A&M University and his wife, Mrs. Gwenetta D. Curry