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A Light to See By: A Credibly Rough Response to Wanda Coleman's "Striving to Be a Man: Gender-Altering Forces in Post-Feminist America"

By Tisa Bryant

January 1, 2011

After reading Wanda Coleman's essay, "Striving to Be a Man," in Feminaissance, my initial response was, "Samo, samo." Then I felt like I had to "do" something about my response, otherwise, what could I say? What could be said? The main point of Wanda Coleman's essay is that in forty years, nothing of her life on earth as a professional writer, mother, worker, woman, has fundamentally changed because of feminism; in fact, her reception as a valuable and viable human being in a world of white power, especially that wielded by self-proclaimed feminists, is worse now that she's an older Black woman than when she was a young one. 

Yet I want, I need to see some other truth, to peek into the twenty-year interstices between Ms. Coleman and myself. Perhaps that's the still-lingering arrogance of youth. Somehow my generation must be different, that we've done something with our cultural inheritance of civil rights and all kinds of feminism, so that when I am Ms. Coleman's age, it will be impossible to say that my life has not fundamentally been changed by feminism. Such an outcome depends on my doggedly seeing myself as different from Ms. Coleman, not the same: the depths of our common denominators as black women writers who will age, will have to be overlooked. I'll have to stick to surfaces and wear the mask of change. It's a rebellious, daughterly impulse, in this feminist genealogy, to tell Mama that she's wrong, that things have changed, everything is different now. It is just plain denial, really, because I agreed with Ms. Coleman immediately, and something else, responsibility, rage, that she is right. (Did some woman do for me what she would not do for someone else like Ms Coleman? Why?)

Wanda Coleman's essay chronicles the failure of feminism to change Black women's lives, and that failure occurred in my lifetime, from my birth to this present moment. I once wrote a line about younger generations "riding the whip of the ones up front," I can see where I'm headed because I can see the generations in front of me, still navigating around or maybe managing to retire (and live well, with healthcare and food) from inequitable pay for equal work, inequitable access to jobs, advancement, tenure, adventures of the intellect, of the spirit, for equal capability. Black women in the Academy who live past age sixty-five a rarity, eaten up by various cancers. Progress. Of course, I could make lists of Black women in prominent positions in our society, with a focus on those who are not writers, actresses or singers, but that list would be less evidence of feminism's success in changing Black women's lives than it would be conclusive evidence of American exceptionalism. Let the right one in…but make sure it's only one. Don't bring no friends. In 2011, Black women are still living in a time of "firsts," followed by a lifetime of isolation in being "the only." We are spread out all over the country, not among friends or allies, should we succeed in fields where few Black women have gone before. Quota approaches to hiring make it impossible for there to be more than one Black woman in any prominent aspect of a field at any one time. One at a time is the rule, which means one per generation, if that. It's hard to have a sense of critical mass, of mutual cooperation, shared goals for equality. We are always starting over. I talked to a friend, Patricia Spears Jones, about the difficulties I was having, am still having, writing and thinking through this piece. She directed me back to the future, in the form of Adrienne Rich's "Disloyal to Civilization: Feminism, Racism and Gynophobia," which begins with a series of quotes from various women on the question of women, race and gender.

"As a lesbian/feminist, my nerves and my flesh as well as my intellect tell me that the connections between and among women are the most feared, the most problematic, and the most potentially transforming force on the planet. I conceive this paper as one strand in a meditation and colloquy among black and white feminists, an intercourse just beginning, and charged with a history that touches our nerve ends even though we are mostly ignorant of it."

Adrienne Rich, "Disloyal to Civilization: Feminism, Racism and Gynophobia"

Re-reading Adrienne Rich's essay made me want to gather other voices around me, hear them in concert, bridging the gap of twenty odd years between myself and the women in front of me, gearing up to pass the torch.

"In her opinion, prerogative was not the unique preserve of men. She adopted certain male behaviours, without bothering about whether they were suitable for a woman. She neither disdained nor rejected what she could learn from them."

France Théoret, Laurence

"I've read reviews of [Michelle Wallace's] Black Macho and [Ntozake] Shange's For Colored Girls, heard each and both discussed on campuses, in prisons, in beauty parlors, in the food co-op, at conferences, on buses, you name it. I've heard one or both called "dirty feminists" and heard feminism equated with ball-busting anger, with mental derangement, with treason. I've also heard equally passionate discussion of each or both together that have led to intense inquiries into the dynamics of sexism, misogyny and gynophobia, and the theory and practice of systematically or individually underdeveloping women based on the premise that women are inferior, are not worthy of equity and respect, are dangerous. I've been part of discussions about either or both that have led many sisters and brothers to the conclusion that it is not enough to take a stand against sexism; we must push each other to take a stand for feminism, for systematically and individually encouraging and equipping our women to develop power in all realms.

Of course, if Faint Heart can reduce Shange and Wallace—I hate lumping them together; I see so little resemblance—to a stereotype—evil ole black bitches—why then Faint Heart is exempt from having to deal with the alarm one's sounding, with the complexity one's depicting, with the challenge, the demand to change. Faint Heart attempts to stereotype for the same reason any other faint hearts stereotype—it relieves one from the burden of thinking, of wrestling with the vibrancy of real, live women, real live observers, who have put their fingers on real, live problems. The anger, dismay, disappointment, or just sheer bewilderment that many women experience as a way of life in regard to the man-woman setup is something we're all going to have to get used to airing. Women are not going to shut up. We care too much, I think, about the development of our selves and our brothers, fathers, lovers, sons, to negotiate a bogus peace."

Toni Cade Bambara, Black Women Writers at Work

"In my view, feminist power is not the kind of power that can be achieved for oneself alone but also for the greater good and freedom of all.

Get on with this. Don't make the same mistake some women of my generation so often made, namely, confusing television appearances or publishing contracts with real power, then fighting amongst yourselves for that tiny bit of public attention. What matters is that you gain more and more control of the institutions that serve us all so poorly.

Heroism is our only feminist alternative."

Phyllis Chesler, Letter to a Young Feminist

"If I were writing Ar'n't I a Woman? today I would still use that discredited speech as theoretical grounding, but I would also use the significant body of new work on difference and black female consciousness. In 1985 the empirical record made it relatively easy to discern the difference between male and female slavery and black and white women. Conceptualizing the difference was considerably more difficult. What did it mean for black women to share some identity and disability of both black men and white women and yet be very different from both? Today, a stronger light shines on my subject. I would never write that the ‘slave woman's condition was just an extreme case of what women as a group experienced in America." I would not say that "the powerlessness and exploitation of black women was an extreme form of what wall women experienced because of racism, although just as pervasive as sexism, was more virulent." Nor would I argue that "the contour, if not the content" of the lives of all American women was "paradoxically similar."

Deborah Gray White, Ar'n't I a Woman?

"Many individual white women found in the women's movement a liberatory solution to personal dilemmas. Having directly benefited from the movement, they are less inclined to criticize it or to engage in rigorous examination of its structure than those who feel it has not had a revolutionary impact on their lives or the lives of masses of women in our society. Nonwhite women who feel affirmed within the current structure of feminist movement (even though they may form autonomous groups), seem to also feel that their definitions of the party line, whether on the issue of black feminism or on other issues, is the only legitimate discourse. Rather than encourage a diversity of voices, critical dialogue, and controversy, they, like some white women, seek to stifle dissent."

bell hooks, "Black Women: Shaping Feminist Theory"

"Afro-Americans, having survived by word of mouth—and made of that process a high art—remain at the mercy of literature and writing; often, these have betrayed us. I loved history as a child, until some clear-eyed young Negro pointed out, quite rightly, that there was no place in the American past I could go and be free. I now know that slavery eliminated neither heroism nor love; it provided occasions for their expressions."

Sherley A. Williams, Dessa Rose

"Dear White Queers and Feminists:

The next time you feel an urge to vomit 1990s nostalgia all over the place as if everyone feels or felt equally in tune with being a punk or whatever, can we have a little consent check in? Some of us were wearing neon, listening to jazz and feeling hella alienated by your total lack of race analysis. ...Then. And. Now."

Naima Lowe, Facebook

"It is as though the social movements that helped shape my youth took place in an isolation booth with only a limited volume of the discourse reaching the society beyond," Ms. Coleman says. The Civil Rights movement, then, was only for Black people, dark people, in the United States, and appropriated by white gays and lesbians, whose solidarity movement split, in part, over the question of solidarity with Black Power movements. Gay white men were out for self, and lesbians, well…let's just say that a fissure won't stop cracking until it meets a barrier greater than itself. Recently, a queer writer regarded as quite radical talked of young non-white feminists outside the US. "They were listening to Sleater-Kinney (or whatever). I couldn't believe they were just getting to the Second Wave." Wow. Lots of white lesbians take "anti-racist" as a given of lesbian identity without actually doing the work, like the general white feminist population. Lesbians who are truly committed to anti-racism are a minority in my world. Meanwhile, white people, straight people, in "the society beyond," could and do just sit the whole thing out vis-à-vis getting in the way. Resistance. Resentment. Tolerance. Denial. Or, for people of color, striving for oppressor status. Writer Robin Coste Lewis says, "If you don't have a memory, you don't have a community." All that is "forgotten," i.e., elided, omitted, denied, resisted, ignored, avoided or abandoned of the struggle for full citizenship in this country, distances bodies from other bodies, leaving one in a rugged, individual darkness, in which one perpetuates that which one is also prey to. Communities made from forgetting are false and dangerous to themselves and everyone else. Each time a white woman calls herself a feminist and "forgets" that white women are not the only women in the world, feminism fails. Each time a white woman hurts or offends a woman of color and is called to task, and, instead of dealing with the situation, the white woman begins to cry, inspiring everyone to run to her aid and conveniently forget about the source of the situation, the white woman's offense and the of-color woman's pain, feminism fails. Each time acknowledgement of this failure is accompanied by guilt, feminism's hope of success becomes all the more distant.

This "forgetting" extends as much to pedagogy as it does to feminism, and serves to connect the two. Sherley Anne Williams wrote about literacy as a betrayal of black people, more briefly, but with much the same intensity as Wanda Coleman's essay on feminism's lack of impact on black women's lives. Literacy, like feminism, was supposed to close the gap between black people and the white power structure, was to be a means to access to services, to economic agency, was supposed to be a giant step toward equality and quality of life, and a means to eradicating racism, miraculously, with nary a change to curriculum, pedagogy, text books for all. But who gets read, taught, by whom, when? Tokenism is still all the rage, tokenism and fetishistic approaches to women writers of color. Name the same one all the time. The same one. Invite her everywhere. Let her stand in for everyone, and don't look beyond her until she is either wore out, dead, or both. Why bother reading those whom she reads, exploring the foundation she stands on, the terrain she's explored. Just take her, not her context. Just take her, not her friends, not her men, her women, her young, her old, her ancestors. Don't bother reading or speaking the names of all them people. That's just too much work, too much knowledge to hold.

Or maybe I'm just projecting feminism onto all these people who are just regular women (because feminists are special), who aren't claiming feminism at all. Maybe I just think they are, or that they should be feminists. They're simply claiming jobs and power, and not tripping on issues of gender uplift. And here it is: white women inclined to help at all help each other, and non-white women do the same. There is a place where these circles intersect, and I am grateful for them, and the critical inventiveness that results. And yet, Ms. Coleman calls out the areas of persistent ageism and abandoned affective labor, like the dearth of older women represented in film and television, and the boom industry of assisted living complexes and nursing homes, overpopulated by aging women. Is this what "post-feminist" looks like?

Wanda Coleman speaks of gender-altering forces. What are these? Soundwaves from a mother's mouth. A brother's mouth. A lover's mouth. Whispers from the continuum. Arn't I a woman? Sojourner Truth worked as hard and as long, better even, than a man, was proud of the fact, and repeated the question, "Arn't I a woman," so that the reality of both her capability and her womanhood were never separated, so that her personhood could come first. So as not to be considered a goat or an ape or a mule, but a human being, a mother, an orator and activist, somebody's someone, loved. Wanda Coleman evokes Sojourner Truth, righteously, fittingly, to illustrate, quick and deft, the continuum from which her life (my life, your life) emerges and plays out in this "post" landscape of unfinished business. Reconstruction. Equal rights. Civil and human rights. Yet Coleman, in answering Sojourner Truth's rhetorical question, answers , "No—in this situation, sex preference aside—I am striving to be (as capable as) a man."

Ms. Coleman doesn't say, "striving to be (seen as capable as) a man." So this is not about perceptions but about harnessing the forces that alter perceptions into incontrovertible facts. Black women's gender has been historically altered by force, and continues to be so. The ball-breaking head of household, the mouthy take-no-mess sister, the wanton public-funds-mooching breeder, the neutered (but take-no-mess) mammy. Whose fertility must be controlled. Whose children must be taken. Who can't keep a man. Whose tennis game is bestial. Whose biceps must be hidden. Whose shows of strength is a threat to anyone anywhere. Who is too loud, too angry, too tall, too dark-skinned, too strident, too confrontational. Who must be broken. Paid less. Hundreds of years of gender-altering forces; this litany is equal opportunity. You can have it. It's yours. But who would want this "womanhood"? So we change behavior, tactics, ideologies. We've already been trained in misogyny, racism, classism, homophobia. Put it to work, at school, in the office, on the street. Get that manpower. And yet. Your capabilities are not on par, even if they are on par. What is striven for demonizes. All the Women Are White, All the Men Are Black, but Some of Us Are Brave. The title itself is prescient, writing on the wall, circa 1982 and informed by every prior decade, of how warped by racism and sexism the feminist movement already was, and how entrenched this condition would become.

The value of women. The livable life of joy and possibility, of risk and success, for women. Gender-altering forces gain strength from the frustrations of striving. Gender altering forces intensify when all the mirrors are taken away. Pretending to be different, to be changed, to be other. Or really feeling it. Illusion or reality?

And so it must be said, that while I empathize with Wanda Coleman, and can see that feminism has failed to serve her and countless others because feminism continually fails to make it across the gulf of racism, ageism (wave by wave) and classism, I am a feminist, and I feel my efforts behalf of women, as editor, publisher, teacher, friend and ally, are appreciated and often returned in-kind. It's gratifying, but I know it to be an endgame. If feminism only works within select circles of reciprocity, then it's not working at all, unless we can accept it being traded like a commodity. This isn't what feminism in a true democracy looks like. Is it?

TISA BRYANT'S books include Unexplained Presence (Leon Works, 2007), a collection of hybrid essays on black presences in film, literature and visual art; the cross-referenced journal of narrative possibility, The Encyclopedia Project, War Diaries, an anthology on black gay men's desire and survival, published in 2010 by AIDS Project Los Angeles, co-edited with Ernest Hardy. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in the journals 1913, Mandorla, Animal Shelter, and has been featured in the solo exhibits of visual artists Laylah Ali, Jaime Cortez, Wura-Natasha Ogunji, and filmmaker/installation artist Cauleen Smith. She teaches fiction, hybrid forms and ethnic innovative literature at the California Institute of the Arts.