Gender Talk

In the African-American studies book Gender Talk, Dr. Johnnetta Cole and Dr. Beverly Guy-Sheftall argue that, in the 21st century, issues of sexism must be addressed along with issues of racism in the African American community in order for the community to fully succeed.

Dr. Cole is the President of Bennett College in Greensboro, North Carolina. She is President emerita of Spelman College and Professor Emerita of Anthropology, Women’s Studies, and African American Studies at Emory University. A nationally known African American feminist-intellectual, she is the author of several books, including Conversations: Straight Talk with America’s Sister President.

Beverly Guy-Sheftallis the Anna Julia Cooper Professor of Women’s Studies and English, and the Director of the Women’s Research and Resource Center at Spelman College. She is the editor of Words of Fire: An Anthology of African American Feminist Thought and co-editor (With Rudolph Byrd) of Traps: African American Men on Gender and Sexuality among many other publications.

They examine the historical conflict between race and gender issues in the Black community, the impact of feminism, the role of the Black Church, attitudes about sexuality, and popular culture such as hip-hop. The authors boldly assert that, without attention to these matters, there can be no long-lasting solution to many of the community’s race problems. They point to the impact of sexism on the oppression of Black women, including male dominance within Black communities.

Drawing upon a vast array of personal testimonies, both from previously published autobiographies and from interviews gathered specifically as part of the research for the book, Gender Talk provides a history of Black feminist struggles and debates up until now. This is necessary because Black audiences, male and female, have been unwilling to be persuaded by feminist arguments on the grounds that our experiences as victims of racism absolve Blacks from the willing participation in the sins of the patriarchy.

Cole and Guy-Sheftall have managed to deflect that issue, effectively drawing Black men and women into a honest discussion about how gender inequality affects the entire African-American community. Gender Talk discusses with passion, the process by which Black communities have arrived at its current situation, in which 54 percent of Black children live in single-parent, largely female-headed and less prosperous households, 68 percent of African-American children are born to unmarried mothers and 47 percent of the prison population and 29 percent of those who are confined to mental hospitals are Black. Several Black men emerge from prisons HIV infected and “on the down low” (having secretive sex with other men), passing the disease on to unsuspecting Black women and Black gay men.

The book is constructed of wonderfully argued chapters on the ways some of the more commercial forms of hip-hop culture participate in the misogynist brain-washing of its youth and the difficulties of living as a gay man or lesbian in a largely intolerant Black community. It also talks about the longstanding problem of violence against women within Black communities, the Back church’s role in supporting homophobia, and the Black power movement’s opposition to Black feminist movement.

The chapter entitled No Respect: Gender Politics and Hip-Hop, discusses how mental damage is being done to young African-American males and females because of misogynic lyrics of rap music. There has been a war brewing between Black men and women that started in the sixties and is still going on in the new millennium. The misogynic atmosphere of hip-hop has not helped tension that exists between Black men and women, particularly amongst the youth.

Over the past fifteen years, hip-hop has become more misogynistic and disrespectful of Black girls and women than other popular music genre and it is sad because hip-hop is an African-American creation. The casual references to sex and other forms of violence and the soft-porn visuals and messages of many rap music videos has been seared into the consciousness of young Black boys and girls and that is why I have seen boys as young as ten years old, referring to girls and women as nothing-assed whores and young girls referring to themselves as bitches.

The chapter entitled Black, Lesbian, and Gay: Speaking the Unspeakable is moving, with testimony from such important cultural figures as the poets Audre Lorde, Joseph Beam, and novelist Samuel Delany. Cole and Guy-Sheftall explore the history of African and African-American homosexuality, starting with anthropologist Ife Amadiume’s study, Male Daughters, Female Husbands: Gender and Sex in an African Society (1987).

Amadiume showed that homosexual relationships existed in Africa before colonization. Woman-to-woman marriages were not uncommon in some pre-colonial African kinship systems. Cole and Guy-Sheftall discusses how in many African cultures, same-sex intimacy was equal with heterosexuality. In America, sexual relations between slaves in the 17th century in New York were more complex than previously imagined. New evidence suggests that both consensual and forced sex took place between male slaves, as well as the rape of black boys by white masters.

They also discuss the down low brothers, Black men who are homosexual but pretend to be heterosexual and Black women who keep secret from the world that they are married to black gay men, even when these men put them and their unborn children at risk for HIV. Professors Cole and Guy-Sheftall feel that as long as the church, which historically has been the backbone of the African-American community, is intolerant of any other form of sexuality except heterosexual, Blacks will continue to be in denial and AIDS will continue ravishing families.

The most personally disturbing material to me in the book concerns Black America’s insensitivity to the issue of violence against Black women. The African-American community rallied around Mike Tyson and R. Kelly, both of these men were charged with sex crimes. The victims in both cases were blamed and defiled for trying to a bring a Black man down. The professors ask the question, “What makes Black men think they can be born and raised in a culture that has profound contempt for all women and place the Black woman at the bottom, and escape unaffected?” Too often, Black men seek to fit themselves into tired White patriarchal modes of behavior that is destructive to the entire community. You cannot rape, beat or humiliate someone into submission. Sooner or later, they will strike back.

For research on this book, in the summer and fall of 1999, Cole and Sheftall conducted series of four to six hour interviews with prominent black intellectuals and activists, asking them questions about what they saw as the most pressing issues of gender in the black community. Among those participating were Manning Marable, director of the Institute for Research in African American Studies at Columbia University, Calvin Butts, minister of New York’s Abyssinian Baptist Church, Rudolph Byrd, director of African American Studies at Emory University, and Elaine Brown, former chair of the Black Panther Party.

They also conducted a weekend long talk session at the Ford Foundation on November 19, 1999, with participants Dazon Dixon Diallo, president of Sister Love, Inc., the first and largest women’s AIDS organization in the Southeast, James Early, writer and director of cultural heritage policy at the Smithsonian, Calvin Hernton, professor emeritus at Oberlin College, sociologist bell hooks, and Haki Madhubuti, founder and publisher of Third World Press.

In particular, the chapter, Having Their Say: Conversations with Sisters and Brothers, draws heavily upon this material gathered directly from interview and multilogue participants, producing a range of narratives describing what it was like to grow up in a Black family ruled by patriarchy. Many pay tribute to the ways in which their parents resisted and taught their children that men and women were equal.

For instance, Ruby Sales, a former civil rights activist who grew up in the South, describes her father as “atypical” in that he would “hang out clothes, wash, iron, cook, and on Saturday he would say to my mother, ‘Mrs. Sales you’ll have breakfast in bed today and I’ll do everything.’ My mother didn’t cook dinner for us; my dad was the cook in our family so therefore all my brothers do the same thing. My father braided our hair and my divorced brother braids his daughter’s hair.”

However, some of the best testimonies were from “ordinary” African-American women. The Black women you see everyday on trains going to work or to college. Audree Irons, an administrative assistant at Spelman College, talks about the strong women in her family who always kept going in spite of any adversities that might come their way. “Men leave, we keep going. We don’t miss a beat. Like later for them. That’s basically the attitude my mother and grandmother had. It was like we’ll throw them out like garbage and we’ll just keep on going; they assumed the role of both male and female if necessary.”

I could really relate to that passage in the book. So many of my friends are in emotionally and physically abusive relationships and they cannot find the courage within themselves to stand alone. They really believe that it better to be abused than be alone and that is totally insane. These women have not yet realized that sometimes in order to become stronger, a woman needs to stand alone and take care of herself.

Black Panther member, Elaine Brown describes the way Black Panther men thought of female participants as “smart bitches” who needed to be silenced. “A woman in the Black Power movement was considered, at best irrelevant. A woman asserting herself was a pariah. Angela Davis was run out the Black Panther Party because she refused to bow down to the men in the group. A woman attempting the role of leadership was making an alliance with the ‘counter-revolutionary, man-hating, lesbian, feminist white bitches.’ It was a violation of some Black Power principle that was left undefined.” Reading that totally amazed me; how could the Black Panther Party be so stupid as to throw out one of the most intelligent and articulate individuals to come out of the Civil Rights Movement just because she had the guts to stand up for herself?

That same mentality still exists among some Black men today. If a Black woman is strong and assertive, she is categorized as an “Angry Bitch” who does not know her place. She is not suppose to articulate her thoughts in anyway because it not important. As long as that type of mentality exists in the African-American community, there can never be unity. It takes a village to raise a child and if the village is at war with each other, what happens to the children?

The one review that I found for this book was by Denise Simon, a contributor for Black Issues, a magazine geared towards African Americans. She felt that Gender Talk was more of a overview of sexism than an analysis. I did not agree with this review because the authors gave clear, concise reasons why conversations about gender are critical to African Americans. This book was an excellent analysis of sexism amongst Blacks and perhaps she was negative because the truth hurts sometimes.

If anything is wrong with this book, there is little discussion about Black women who keep sexism alive. I know too many sisters who have no problem labeling another women a slut or whore in order to make themselves look good in the eyes of some man. We as African-American women have to stick together in order to raise our children, since some of us are doing alone. We cannot allow pettiness and competition over men destroy our community.

Even with this flaw, Gender Talk It is a wonderful book. It is entirely successful in its intended goal, which is to make it easy for even a bona fide fool to comprehend the urgency of gender issues. The issue of gender very much affects the African-American community, and this book manages to explore every aspect.

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