The Black male/Black
female struggle has been, and continues to be, the focus of countless
debates, discussions, newspaper and magazine articles, books,
television talk shows, convention symposiums, etc. And without a doubt
there are just as many opinions on what is wrong with Black male/Black
females relationships as there are individuals with solutions to the
In this paper I will
attempt to examine the impact of external factors, such as the legacy
of slavery, segregation, integration and institutionalized racism, as
well as the internal factors, such as self-hatred, depression, and low
self-esteem have had, and are having on Black/male Black female
relationships. I will also discuss the problems inherent in Black
male/Black female relationships when Black masculinity and femininity
are defined by Euro-centric standards. Nothing is ever as simple as it
seems, and the same holds true for the Black male/Black female
relationship. Lastly, I will offer some solutions that I hope will be
beneficial in helping us gain a better understanding of the overall
complexity of Black male/Black female relationships in America.
For many African
Americans dealing with the history of slavery is very difficult to say
the least. For some it is easier to deny the pain than to acknowledge
the suffering that our foremothers and fathers had to endure. Because
of this, there are lingering anxieties in the hearts and minds of
Black people that few will ever fully examine or make conscious. Na'im
Akbar refers to this condition as the psychological chains of slavery.
Dr. Gwendolyn Goldbsy
Grant, the author of the book The Best Kind of Loving (1995), calls it
the auction-block syndrome.
The auction block was
the place where our ancestors were judged and sold with no thought to
their human dignity or feelings. It is extremely painful to think
about the indignities they suffered. Yet their experiences are part of
what some experts describe as genetic memory and consequently affect
the psyche of all African-Americans. I believe, however, that our
history cannot and should not be discounted if we are going to fully
understand why we, as African American men and women, behave the way
we do. In order to begin the healing process we need to know where the
pain is coming from.
To do this we must take
a step back in time and critically examine how Black men, women and
children were treated by White America during slavery and the century
following the emancipation if we expect to find answers to the today’s
problems. The reality is that in spite of the educational, economic,
and social gains that Blacks have made, America still operates as an
oppressive system that has been, and continues to be, responsible for
keeping a large number of African Americans trapped in the lowest
strata of American economic, political and social life. I believe
there is a direct correlation between our ability and inability to
problem solve and our common experience of being Black in America. In
other words the oppressed is not entirely responsible for his or her
According to Dr. Grant,
the Black family prior to 1960 was known for its strength, endurance,
and stability. The survival of Black Americans in the midst of extreme
cruelty and cultural deprivation has actually been attributed to a
strong, stable and supportive Black family. Relationships between
Black men and Black women during this time were tightly bonded on the
basis of experience and mutual respect. She states that the
relationships were genuine partnerships. Black men and Black women
modeled manhood and womanhood as an equal working unit, not on who was
the major breadwinner.
Elsie B. Washington in
her book Uncivil War the Struggle Between Black Men and Women (1996),
gives an overview of the Black male/Black female relationship
beginning with slavery. She chronicles the obstacles that Black men
and women faced during emancipation, through reconstruction, through
the great migration, through the roaring twenties and the Great
Depression and up to the Civil Rights Movement.
Dr. Andrew Billingsley
confirms Grant’s assessment of the Black family in his book Climbing
Jacob’s Ladder (1992). He writes
hundred-year period between the end of slavery and the aftermath of
World War II, the structure of African American family life was
characterized by a remarkable degree of stability. Specifically, the
core of the traditional African-American family system has been the
nuclear family composed of husband and wife and their own children.
Divorce was rare and couples stayed together till the death of a
spouse. Children lived with their parents until maturity, then started
their own families. As late as 1960 when uneducated Black men could
still hold good-paying blue-collar jobs in the industrial sector,
married couples headed 78 percent of all Black families with children.
By 1970 only 64 percent of African American families with children
were headed by married couples. This declined steadily to a minority
of 48 percent by 1980; and to 39 percent by 1990 and the trend is
likely to continue into the future."
Dr. Billingsley says
that beginning in 1980, for the first time in history, female-headed
families with children outnumber married-couple families with
children. What is important to note here is that Dr. Billingsley is
speaking of ALL families! This is the first time since slavery that a
majority of Black children are living in single-parent families.
Dr. Billingsley is an
optimist and his works on the Black family centers around its
flexibility and adaptability instead of its pathology. He underscores
that marriage is only one of several basis for family formation and
endurance. Black men and women have been avoiding or abandoning
marriage in record number during recent years, and this trend speaks
more to a shift in the marriage relation than in the family structure
itself. This trend simply means that a number of alternative family
structures have arisen in post-industrial America that are more suited
to the diversity of the African-American family structure.
Unlike Dr. Billingsley,
Washington sees the great migration as the turning point for the
change in the Black family extended structure. She states that it was
during this time that parents and children moved away from
grandparents, aunts and uncles who not only provided support as part
of the extended family network but also served as unpaid child
caretakers and mediators of marital disputes and disagreements. It’s
important to note that White sociologists initially labeled the
extended family structure as dysfunctional. According to Washington,
not only did White sociologists view the extended family structure as
a foreign concept but it was also contrary to the individualistic,
Euro-centric viewpoint which stresses every man and every family for
closely at the Civil Rights Movement when Black men and Black women
marched and protested side by side with fair-minded Whites to end
racism. She suggests that some areas of conflict between Black men and
Black women were compounded by the structure of the civil rights
organizations. For example, many of the organizations were closely
allied to, and modeled after, Black churches where men were the
leaders. In most churches the pastors and important officers were men
while women were assigned to manage auxiliary and support areas. White
men had the vast majority of leadership roles in the larger society,
so it seemed that to be "equal" Black men had to be the
leaders of Black organizations. Or as Washington points out, Black men
and women believed that to be integrated with Whites, they needed to
behave the same as Whites. For the most part, Black women in the
movement were ready for Black men to take the lead and stand up to the
system in a forceful non-violent way and Black men did just that.
indicates that a lot of the Black men in the Civil Rights and Black
Power movements considered women as the rewards for the soldiers or
warriors who were on the front lines. Not only were women relegated to
lesser roles of importance but also it was generally believed that
women would serve the movement best in roles of sexual and domestic
support. An oft-repeated quotation that was attributed to Stokely
Carmichael is that "the best position for women (in the struggle)
During the 1960s and
1970s both Black men and Black women dated inter-racially. This
created another problem for Black male/Black female relationships.
Black men justified their attraction to White women as an act of
revenge against White men for raping Black women during slavery. Some
Black women counter-reacted and responded to the advances of White men
who were in the movement. It was during this time of Black and White
togetherness that many people had their first encounter with someone
of a different race.
also became the great un-equalizer between Black males and Black
females. Almost invariably in any number of Black families with male
and female siblings, one or more of the females will obtain college
educations. Why is this? Unlike their sisters, boys are encouraged to
be willful and involved in sports and other "manly"
pursuits, or to work part time. Girls on the other hand, according to
Washington, are taught to be disciplined, to study hard and to help
out at home. This difference in educational attainment for Black males
and Black females has a historical base.
Black parents knew that
their sons could obtain blue-collar occupations and earn enough to
support themselves and their families. But, more often, their
daughters, whose major avenue for employment was domestic work, were
sent to college. As a consequence, Black parents encouraged their
daughters to be good students because college was the only way for
them to avoid "Miss Ann’s kitchen." Their sons, on the
other hand, who could earn "good" money in factories and
foundries, often dropped out of school early to get a job. This
historical adaptation to post-war conditions has evolved into
disparate expectations for the education of Black boys and girls.
anticipation of success along with the larger society’s ever-present
apprehensiveness about Black males, have combined to ensure that Black
boys do not receive the attention or encouragement in school that they
should. In the last several years Black social scientists and others
have begun to describe how Black boys are discriminated against in the
primary grades. Those black boys for whom academic attainment is
discouraged, both at the school and in the community, rarely go on to
higher education. Consequently, many Black men have been unable to
take advantage of the same educational grants and opportunities that
Black women obtained.
The 1970s saw openings
for Blacks in white-collar positions in corporate White America that
previously had not existed. Additionally, the Women’s Liberation
Movement created a push to open doors for women in business. Employers
could fulfill both gender and racial quotas by hiring a Black female.
Black men also suspected that Black women were preferred to them
because White employers perceived Black women to be less threatening
than Black men.
And although few Black
women joined the ranks of the demonstrating women’s liberationists,
many did agree with the call for equality with men. The issue of
sexism and male domination raised by White feminists struck a
responsive chord in Black women causing them to look at their own
history with Black men. The truth was that sexism was and always had
been a part of their relationships.
bell hook, writes in
her book Yearning (1990)
". . . until Black
men can face the reality that sexism empowers them despite the impact
of racism in their lives. . . . Historically the language used to
describe the way Black men are victimized within the American racist
society has been sexualized. When words like castrations,
emasculation, impotency are commonly used terms to describe the nature
of Black male suffering, a discursive practice is established that
links Black male liberation with gaining the right to participate full
with patriarchy. Embedded in the assumption is the idea that Black
women who are not willing to assist Black men in their efforts to
become patriarchs are the "enemy". . . Until Black women and
men begin to seriously confront sexism in the Black communities, as
well as within Black individuals who live in predominantly White
settings, we will continue to witness mounting tensions and ongoing
divisiveness between the two groups. Masculinity as it is conceived
with patriarchy is life-threatening to Black men."
By tradition and
circumstance Black men occupied the dominant role in most Black
families and organizations, and Black women had largely accepted this.
However, the financial independence that came with education and
better paying jobs made Black women less willing to put up with
sexism, or any other type of abuse, from Black men. Black women also
had more control over their lives with the advent of easier methods of
birth control and legalized abortion, which they took advantage of,
often over the protests of Black men. However, Black men did not see
themselves as oppressors of their women but rather they saw themselves
as the victims of White America. Black women who make more money than
Black men are often said to have an "attitude," and it is
"attitude" that makes Black women less desirable as marriage
partners. Other women, sympathetic to the Black man’s plight, agree
that his life is more difficult. The issue of who has it easier or
tougher has now become a point of contention between Black men and
Dr. David Ellwood in
his book Poor Support (1988) states that there is accumulating
evidence to support that part of the problem with Black male Black
female relationships is the lack of jobs for young black men.
According to Children’s Defense Fund director Marian Wright Edelman,
in the late 1980s there were 12 million more White men in the labor
force than White women. At the same time, the average number of Black
women employed exceeded the average number of Black men who also had
jobs. By the late 1980s high-paying blue-collar jobs had all but
disappeared due to the epidemic of plant closing. According to David
Driver, author of the book Defending the Left (1992), approximately
500,000 U.S. jobs were exported to Mexico.
By 1990, 32 percent of
Black men in their prime productive years aged 20 to 44 were without
work. In 1930 a full 80 percent of all Black men were employed. By
1983 the number of employed Black men had dwindled to 56 percent.
Surveys indicate that
many Black men say that a woman with more education and/or a higher
salary, education, does not intimidate them. Money, however continues
to be a sore point between Black men and Black women. Some Black men
say that is not so much the money or the degree, but the attitude of
superiority that these Black women bring to the relationship.
sociologist Hank Allen writes in his book The Black Family "that
perhaps the most difficult obstacle Black families face is not moral,
economic, political or organizational but physiological-culture."
Black psychologists Derek and Darlene Powell Hopson, in their book,
Friends, Lovers and Soulmates (1994), suggest that Black have
internalized the irrational messages of racism, and they feel a sense
of worthlessness and powerlessness that creates low self esteem,
depression and self-defeating behavior.
In an essay that
appeared in Lenora Fulani’s book The Psychopathology of Everyday
Racism and Sexism (1988), Judy Simmons writes
". . . We (Black)
women have had a high degree of responsibility, decision-making power
and self-reliance in the family and social matters; however, I think
many of us have neither sought nor enjoyed our independence. We wanted
and expected to be part of the romantic nuclear family despite all the
evidence we have had for generations that this is a slim possibility.
So we’ve tended to feel cheated and mistreated by men and life.
Since we do not realistically prepare ourselves for the
responsibilities that remain after our dependent-mating dreams die, we
are usually under the gun financially and psychologically,
overwhelmed, overburdened and feeling powerless."
Dr. Cornel West,
professor of religion at Harvard, agrees with the Hopsons that a
profound sense of psychological depression, sense of personal
worthlessness and social despair have befallen African Americans. He
is quoted in Washington’s book as saying, "The frightening
result is a numbing detachment from others and a self-destructive
disposition toward the world." He goes on to say:"life
without meaning, hope and love breeds a cold-hearted, mean-spirited
outlook that destroys the individual and others."
Washington agrees that
much of the negative behavior exhibited in Black male/Black female
relationships fits what Dr. West’s characterization of
"cold-hearted" and "mean spirited." Adultery and
abandonment of one’s spouse and children, she writes, are indeed
cold hearted, selfish and cruel. Physical and mental abusiveness is
indeed mean-spirited behavior. The same can be said of African
Americans who make sweeping negative statements such as "Black
men ain’t shit" or "Black women are bitches and hoes
(whores) with attitude."
Black women are always
listening to people (usually men) telling them they have an
"attitude" problem." Individually and as a group, Black
women have been called bitchy, bossy, and evil.
editor-in-chief Susan Taylor says that Black women are not bitchy,
bossy or evil. She believes that Black women are just plain tired.
"Tired of man troubles and money troubles and work troubles.
Tired of having people play games with our heads, our bodies, and our
feelings. Tired of feeling anxious, and tired of being worried. Tired
of working so hard and being blamed for so much of what goes wrong.
Tired of feeling powerless, and tired of being disappointed, and tired
of being called too strong."
And what about Black
Richard Majors’ book
Cool Pose (1992) that he co-authored with Janet Mancini Billison says
it all. Historically, racism and discrimination have inflicted a
variety of harsh injustices on African-American males in the United
States. Being male and Black has meant being psychologically castrated
and rendered impotent in the economic, political, and social arenas
that White men have historically dominated. Black men learned long ago
that the classic American virtues of thrift, perseverance, and hard
work did not give them the same tangible rewards that Whites received.
Often Black men are the last ones hired and the first ones fired.
Yet Black men have
defined their manhood in terms familiar to White men breadwinner,
provider, procreator and protector. Unfortunately, unlike White men,
Black men have not had consistent access to the same means to fulfill
their dreams of masculinity and success. Many have become frustrated,
angry, embittered, alienated, and impatient. For some Black males, the
two most common responses to blocked opportunities are rigidity and
aggression. In American society some Black men demonstrate their
masculinity through violence, toughness and the symbolic control over
professor of psychology Nancy Boyd Franklin believes that African
American men and women are greatly impacted by distorted and negative
images of themselves. She believes that what keeps Black men and Black
women apart have more to do with external forces and our own
internalization of negative, victimizing messages. Through literature,
the printed and electronic media, America has historically demeaned
Black intelligence, morals and physical attributes. In place of
reality, White America, or what Dr. West calls "white supremacist
ideology" has presented negative, stereotypical images of African
Americans and Black culture. The consistent lack of positive Black
images is psychologically devastating to African American. The
demythologizing of Black sexuality is crucial for Black America. So
much of Black self-hatred and self-contempt has to do with the refusal
of many Black Americans to love their own Black bodies according to
Dr. West. And if a Black men and women has contempt for themselves
because they are Black, how can they love and cherish each other?
Black men need to
understand that attitude is perceived as a message to the world that
say, "I can take care of myself." All attitudes are not
always negative. Positive attitude, or "truth telling,"
comes out of real strength. It is an example of how Black women have
managed to use their righteous and justifiable anger to empower
themselves through all these hard years. Positive attitude helps us
get what we need and deserve. Attitude becomes negative and
self-defeating when it ends up hurting ourselves or those we love. It
is negative when it creates a defensive posture that we put around
ourselves, like a wall, to keep from feeling any more pain or loss.
Attitude is a way of concealing vulnerability. When a Black female
shows a lot of negative attitude, there is always an underlying
reason. Usually, she is overwhelmingly hurt and disappointed by
everything that has happened to her and everything that she has seen.
Often her self-esteem has taken such a beating that she feels nothing
Should African American
men and women continue to define their manhood and womanhood by
mainstream standards or should they redefine for themselves what it
means to be a Black man and Black woman in America? William July
suggests in his book Understanding the Tin Man (1999) that the
redefinition for African American men should begin with a recreation
of their image in their own minds, making a conscious separation from
negative stereotypes of African American men.
This redefinition of
manhood for African American, according to July, lies in the Black man’s
ability to connect to a greater spiritual power outside of himself.
Washington echoes July’s sentiment. She states that traditional
African society is imbued with a reverence for the spiritual and that
African American spirituality has been the saving grace in the United
States. California psychotherapist, Dr. Derethia Du Val strongly
advised that Africa Americans turn to the Black community for their
own definitions of Black man and Black womanhood.
Many African Americans,
says Du Val, are confused as to "how to be Black people in this
world and it’s affecting how we communicate with each other."
In centuries past "Africans revered the image of the woman
symbolically and physically. Women were an integral part of the
development of the community." Now, she laments, "we’re
looking to someone else’s value system to show us how to relate to
each other and it doesn’t fit our reality. Many young women look to
the White value system for role definition," Dr. Du Val adds,
"so consequently, they have lost the strategies that their mother
had in terms of seeing a vast number of available men in the Black
In conclusion, it is
obvious that many external and internal factors affect Black
male/Black females relationships. Many of the external factors are
beyond our power to control, yet there are some things we can control.
We can change how we relate to each other. We can love and support
each other. We can stop hurting and downgrading each other. We can
change how we define ourselves. We can place more emphasis on our
spiritual development. We are not worthless. We are not void of
emotion. We are not un-loveable. When we suffer from depression
counseling is available. We need to know our history. When we know our
history we will not be so quick to judge each other or ourselves for
our shortcomings. Knowing our history will allow us to celebrate the
determination Black men and Black women have demonstrated in the past,
and continue to demonstrate in spite of horrendous odds against us.
Knowing our history will help us build better and stronger Black
male/Black female relationships.