The Comparative Suffering of “Black Girls’ Zero-Sum Struggle” and “My Brother’s Keeper”

obama brothers keeper

I didn’t have the pleasure of watching President Obama make the big reveal about the My Brother’s Keeper initiative that he’s launching from the White House.  I say that because I’ll never forget the impact of watching a live press conference on my lunch break last year and seeing Obama go off script about Trayvon Martin and hearing the words “Trayvon Martin could have been my son; he could have been me” coming from a president who was staring down not even looking into the cameras no doubt trying to maintain presidential composure.  The day he announced My Brother’s Keeper he had boys and young men of color standing behind him and watching the young man with cornrows speak at the White House was monumental.  Never in our country have we had someone speak about this issue who had the social and racial capital behind him.

However, like most political issues that dare touch one of the many third rails of politics, race, many of us can see it doomed from the start.  Now I don’t want to issue a premature autopsy on the My Brother’s Keeper initiative, but while Obama may have the social capital to pull it off, he certainly lacks the political capital trying to wrangle a Congress that can’t even pass a farm bill and a budget just because they’re bogged down in their own political quagmires.

But here’s the challenge, addressing the growth and development of black boys is not a simple issue.  Andre Perry wrote an article “America’s Problem with Black Boys” as a response to the multi-layered problems facing black men of color in this country.  In his response, he clearly dove head first into the nuances that surround this topic.  In fact, it’s a mine field of nuances in a society that increasingly favors generalizations and craves and devours simple messaging and black-and-white concepts.  Discussing this topic as surrounding the “plight of black boys” or the “struggle of boys and young men of color” is totally different from saying “addressing the growth and development….”  Nuances.  It’s at this point that the nuances can get misread, mistyped and misunderstood by both the sender and receiver of the message.  It’s also at this point where I’m taking the blogging privilege of respectfully disagreeing with some of the more nuanced points that Brittney Cooper made in her Salon article “Black girls’ zero-sum struggle: Why we lose when black boys dominate the discourse.

I am grieved by some of the tone that Cooper takes in her response to My Brother’s Keeper.  While I myself am ambivalent about the initiative, we’re clearly ambivalent for vastly different reasons.  I think she misses some of the political significance of Obama actually saying and attempting to do something about trying to shift societal norms around how blackness is perceived.  Unfortunately the deaths of Trayvon Martin and Jordan Davis occurred giving him the platform to make this clarion call.  What is fundamentally wrong with acknowledging and doing work that supports and uplifts black men?

For me, to do work and support initiatives and to lobby for policy changes that is specifically geared to black and brown males does not make one a supporter of heteronormative patriarchy.  To do it solely without regard for women does.  Obama isn’t advocating one at the expense of the other.  Cooper appears to adopt the tone of “What about us?” that engages in comparative suffering and for me, that is where the real zero-sum struggle exists.

I’ll never forget sitting on the organ at this Baptist church I played for in the Ninth Ward in the Florida area and the pastor, relatively young, got up during pastoral announcements and said that the church was starting a purity class for the young girls and he proceeded to go forth in typical Baptist fashion spouting Baptist doctrine on holy living and clearly supporting abstinence until marriage.  And that was it.  For me, it wasn’t so much the shock that they were having a purity class in 2012, but that there was no young male equivalent–and he couldn’t act like there were no young boys in the church.  It was a neighborhood church full of families and families with kids.  So to take that example, it seems as though I would be regarded and seen as a misogynist because as a man I asked the question “What about us?” in regards to the male pastor not supporting some type of male responsibility program.

Beyond the problems of using personal responsibility and philanthropy as models to solve a deeply systemic set of social problems, the failure to imagine the struggles of men and women of color as linked together is perhaps the most short-sighted aspect of the My Brother’s Keeper initiative.

Well, the program wasn’t designed for young black women.  Period, point blank.

For me it seems as though Cooper on the one hand is advocating the synergistic work of black women and black men together, then on the other advocating black women over that of black men.

For there is no saving black and brown men without the labor and love of black and brown women. Yet surely, we have come far enough to imagine liberation strategies that don’t require men of color to tread over “this bridge call our backs.” While we, women of color, are doing the heavy lifting to keep our communities functional and intact, the question remains, “Who will lift us?” Who will fight for us? [emphasis added]

When Cooper says “For there is no saving black and brown men without the labor and love of black and brown women,” the inverse is equally as true.  But this to me encapsulates the dual tone she’s putting forth, one I agree with and the other I whole-heartedly disagree with.  My disagreement seems as though she’s advocating that we fight for black women, and then suddenly all will be well, and as a black man I shouldn’t have the permission to ask the same question: what about us?

The “women of color are doing the heavy lifting to keep our communities functional and intact” is a piece of conventional wisdom that has slipped into the narrative as a put-down toward black men.  While as a sociological work progressed and his-story finally got revamped to include women, the matriarchs of the families over the years were certainly a forgotten story and noting their participation something that is necessary and needed in the telling of the African American story.  But it’s equally unfair to remove black men from the story.  This small manipulation of the narrative changes the tone of the argument and places the onus of the suffering on black women, and therefore justifies this tacit assertion that if anyone is going to be saved it should be black girls before black boys–and I want to know why!

Granted this is an article on Salon and not a fully fleshed out article in a journal or an essay for a book compilation, but I’d be very interested in Cooper’s logic surrounding the what seems to be reverse hegemony.  There seems to be a latent argument that rather than black men dominating the discourse it should be black women–and to ask “what about [black men] us” would be to engage in patriarchy.  Why is that?  If one’s extant maleness and masculinity disqualifies them from the conversation alone, what type of black feminist hegemony is one really advocating?

As a country, we have a problem understanding blackness (both female and male) when it comes to sexuality, notions of masculinism and feminism, and just basic gender understandings: what makes you a woman and what makes you a man–through the lens of blackness.  Not only have white American’s general perceptions of blacks been distorted to the point of at times unrecognizable, we ourselves have struggled with what do we look like and who do we choose to be.  Even worse, black women have had the unfortunate position of at times having to choose between their gender and their race when it comes to their identity; the horcruxes of their soul at times have been scattered about the countryside as a testament to what being black and being a woman in America really means.  Nevertheless, black men are not the enemy of black women: we are your best allies in the struggle.  But, if a total disavowal of male patriarchy is an immutable pre-requisite working together, then this dyadic tension will become an exercise in perpetual motion, eternally going back and forth.

This is where the comparative suffering results in the zero-sum gain for both black men and black women.  If we have no problem lobbing bombs at the other side, or even in Cooper’s case where it seems at times she’s advocating against a black male initiative only to replace it with one for black girls, then what have we really gained?  Maybe it’s my own myopic disagreement that the only way to save black boys is to save black girls.  Or maybe it’s my questioning of the source that Cooper quoted from African American Policy Forum that in a decade less than $1 million was given in private dollars to fund initiatives for black girls when organizations such as Black Girls Rock, Inc., National Council of Negro Women, National Coalition of 100 Black Women and the black sororities of National Pan-Hellenic Council have sponsored dozens of initiatives nationally and locally to support black women–and I’m sure over the course of a decade donations and philanthropic monies have totaled over $1 million combined.  What have we gained when we spout these statistics and do nothing to more than acknowledge the problem as we see it and offer no meaningful solutions?  I don’t want to throw the baby out with the bath water because Cooper is correct in asking where are the White House initiatives for young black girls of color.  The disparities along racial lines versus that of their white counterparts is hard to ignore, but I get off board if Cooper is advocating for black girls over that of black boys.

Male privilege is real, I operate in it when it’s to my advantage at times and probably do so in other ways that are subconscious to both me and maybe even others in the room.  However, as I’ve gotten older, I have been more and more aware of it and at least give disclaimers sometimes when I speak or write acknowledging that I am coming from a place of male privilege.  But I’m not giving it up totally.  I don’t plan to–unless it’s understood that we’re in this together.  If it’s always going to be a fight, I’m going to keep my secret weapon of privilege and use it when I feel it’s tactically necessary.

But if you must fight, fight me because I wronged you and you’re interested in reconciliation.  If you must fight, fight because you have a better solution, one that brings all to the level table to sit down and talk things out.  If you must fight, fight because you want to see better for the whole community not at the expense of anyone.

A black woman is good enough–and so is a black man.

Keep it uppity and keep it truthfully radical, JLL

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13 responses to “The Comparative Suffering of “Black Girls’ Zero-Sum Struggle” and “My Brother’s Keeper”

  1. “But, if a total disavowal of male patriarchy is an immutable pre-requisite working together, then this dyadic tension will become an exercise in perpetual motion, eternally going back and forth.” Now this is the line, I find most interesting. What exactly is Joshua trying to say here? Because to me it sounds a lot like, if you broads don’t toe the line, we males will take our balls, as it were, and go home.

  2. there was a simple replacing of Cooper’s words with erroneous opinions about things she never said. A black man not willing to disavow patriarchy is not a black man interested in the well being of black women.

  3. ::for the record, I’m a Black Male:: I think you’ve completely misread Dr. Cooper’s post. She never said she wanted to replace the focus on Black/Brown men with a focus on Black/Brown women. The reality is this: every large, national movement focused on Black and Brown people tend to focus on men when gender is raised. This has been going on for decades. We cannot afford to continue repeating the same approaches to social justice/change. We have to be able to walk and chew gum at the same time.

    Also the fact that you could in good conscious write this, leaves me dumbfounded: “However, as I’ve gotten older, I have been more and more aware of it and at least give disclaimers sometimes when I speak or write acknowledging that I am coming from a place of male privilege. But I’m not giving it up totally. I don’t plan to–unless it’s understood that we’re in this together. If it’s always going to be a fight, I’m going to keep my secret weapon of privilege and use it when I feel it’s tactically necessary.” Are you really OK with “keeping” your undeserved privilege? Really?

      • I never said the Black Feminist discourse is anti-male. I said there is a combative, anti-male ideology that is beginning to dominate the discourse of Black Feminists. I get that from the conversations and writings of a Black women who have stated that they Feminists.

      • Ok, that’s fair. But again, I guess I’m asking where are you reading this information? If you followed Brittany Cooper’s work (which I’m not sure if you have or not) I believe it is clear she does not promote an anti-male ideology. But maybe you can point to other work by Dr. Cooper or other Black Feminists. Also, wouldn’t you say it’s anti-female to say you won’t relinquish your male privilege? Would we feel comfortable with White people saying they have no interest in relinquishing their White privilege?

      • Again I’m getting this from conversations I’ve had with Black Feminists, which is very relevant and important because although the discourse is mainly directed and held by a number of public voices and those with publication resources, it is ingested by the women that read or listen and these are the women men encounter every day. That is why I wouldn’t say the discourse itself is anti-male but there is an ideology (maybe foreign from the original or founding concepts) that is basically anti-male. I don’t follow Cooper’s work but I did read through some of her writings and I’m not saying she is promoting an anti-male ideology because I don’t think it’s intentional but specifically the piece I was speaking about showed some anti-make sentiments. She stated she was immediately ambivalent about the President’s program and after further thought decides that it is a threat to Black women’s progress and/or struggle. You don’t find those thoughts problematic and indicative of some resentment against Black men? On what planet does one program that focuses on Black and Latino men cause Black women to “lose critical ground”? It’s a preposterous statement. It’s like saying Christians are oppressed by the presence of Islamic mosques. It’s an anti- kind of sentiment that places Black men and Black women in opposition to one another as if there is only room for one disenfranchised group to make progress.

        I would say it’s anti-female for a White man to say he won’t relinquish his male privilege. Who said that, though? Because I certainly didn’t.

  4. Such a relevant and important addition to this problematic discussion that tears at the fabric of the relationship between Black men and Black women.

    “But if you must fight, fight me because I wronged you and you’re interested in reconciliation. If you must fight, fight because you have a better solution, one that brings all to the level table to sit down and talk things out. If you must fight, fight because you want to see better for the whole community not at the expense of anyone.

    A black woman is good enough–and so is a black man.”

    Powerful. RESPECT.

  5. “A rising tide lifts all boats.”

    But there are those in the Black Feminist Movement that wants the tide to lift their boat first; then, after a signal from them, to slowly lift the Brother’s boat–but not at a level equal to theirs.

  6. Great blog you have here.. It’s difficult to find excellent writing like yours nowadays.
    I truly appreciate people like you! Take care!!

  7. Very Important piece that challenges the dogma of Black male supremacy simply by addressing the racial, economic, and sexual disparities they suffer. Think about this seriously…if patriarchy is male superiority in economics, politics, social capital, wealth, etc, and Black men and boys are a target for government programs to help them graduate high school (we are not talking about funding entrepreneurial enterprises, or college matriculation, or employment), then how can Black men be patriarchal if they in fact do not have access to the economic, political, etc. power of “white men.” See the work by Black feminists continue to insist that any preferring of Black men and boys is oppressive, yet they have no explanations for the gaps in achievement, the long life spans, the research by social psychologists that in fact argue that Black women are trusted and valued more than Black men.

    For Black feminism this is an apriori truth, and all evidence sociological, historical, or otherwise will be manipulated to fit this story. It is simply not the case that Black girls are failing to matriculate high school like Black boys. This is not to say there are not racial disparities that effect Black girls, but at a very real material level, Black boys are disproportionately suffering. To suggest we shouldn’t help them because they are boys/men is moral deplorable. Similar to Paul Butler’s piece on Black male exceptionalism…we would never accept that we shouldn’t help women because they are white, or shouldn’t help Black women because they are bourgeois (given their education/class advantage/white collar labor compared to Black men)…we wouldn’t accept this at all…yet we let bloggers and the like condemn any attempt for Black men and boys to rise because of these Black feminist tropes.

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