The Black Woman and the Women's Movement, 1979

From Michele Wallace. Black Macho and the Myth of the Superwoman. New York: Dial Press, 1979. 171-177.

      The black woman never really dealt with the primary issues of the Black Movement. She stopped straightening her hair. She stopped using lighteners and brighteners. She forced herself to be submissive and passive. She preached to her children about the glories of the black man. But then, suddenly, the Black Movement was over. Now she has begun to straighten her hair again, to follow the latest fashions in Vogue and Mademmoiselle, to rouge her cheeks furiously, and to speak, not infrequently, of what a disappointment the black man has been. She has little contact with other black women, and if she does, it is not of a deep sort. The discussion is generally of clothes, makeup, furniture, and men. Privately she does whatever she can to stay out of that surplus of black women (one million) who will never find mates. And if she doesn't find a man, she might just decide to have a baby anyway. . . .

      While I don't believe that anything like a majority of black women are going in for this, it is worth finding out why so many black women have, why so many are saying, "Well, if I don't marry by the time I am thirty, I'll have a baby anyway."

      It certainly can't be for love of children. I am inclined to believe it is because the black woman has no legitimate way of coming together with other black women, no means of self-affirmation-in other words, no women's movement, and therefore no collective ideology. Career and success are still the social and emotional disadvantages to her that they were to white women in the fifties. There is little in the black community to reinforce a young black woman who does not have a man or a child and who wishes to pursue a career. She is still considered against nature. It is extremely difficult to assert oneself when there remains some question of one's basic identity.

      The Women's Movement redefined womanhood for white women in a manner that allowed them to work, to be manless, but still women. White women replaced some of their traditional activities with new ones--consciousness raising, feminist meetings and demonstrations, the Women's Political Caucus, campaigns for Bella Abzug and other feminist politicians, antidiscrimination suits against employers, and the pursuit of an entirely new range of careers. And some white women dragged their men right along with them, not to mention a good many black men.

      But the black woman, who had pooh-poohed the Women's Movement, was left with only one activity that was not considered suspect: motherhood. A baby could counteract the damaging effect a career might have upon her feminine image. A baby could even be a substitute for a man. A baby clarified a woman's course for at least the next five years. No need for her to bother with difficult decisions about whether or not she ought to pursue promotion or return to school for an advanced degree, both of which might attract even more hostility from black men. Her life had been simplified. Instead of confronting the problems that are presently repressing the black family, instead of battling with her fear of success, she could pursue her individual course which would allow her to make a provisional peace with herself. Never mind the bad odds under which her baby entered the world. In her less than serious moments she could even imagine that there was something liberated about what she had done. . . .

      I think that the black woman thinks of her history and her condition as a wound which makes her different and therefore special and therefore exempt from human responsibility. The impartial observer may look at her and see a beautiful, healthy, glowing, vigorous woman but none of that matters. What matters is what she feels inside. And what she feels inside is powerless; she feels powerless to do anything about her condition or anyone else's. Her solution is to simply not participate, or to participate on her own very limited basis.

      Yes, it is very important that we never forget the tragedy of our history or how racist white people have been or how the black man has let us down. But all of that must be set in its proper perspective. It belongs to the past and we must belong to the future. The future is something we can control. . . .

      Lately I've noticed the appearance of a number of black women's organizations and conferences. The middle-class black woman in particular is beginning to address herself to feminist issues. But everything I've seen so far has been an imitation of what white feminists have done before. I now hear students refer casually to a Black Women's Movement. But I haven't seen black women make any meaningful attempt to differentiate between their problems and the problems of white women, and most important, there seems to be no awareness of how black women have been duped by the Myth of the Superwoman. Some black women have come together because they can't find husbands. Some are angry with their boyfriends. The lesbians are looking for a public forum for their sexual preference. Others notice that if one follows on the footsteps of the white feminists, a lucrative position or promotion may come up before long.

      These women have trouble agreeing on things. Their organizations break up quickly and yet more keep forming. Every now and then someone still mentions that white women are going to rip them off if they join the Women's Movement--that is, white women will use their support to make gains and then not share with the black women. Unfortunately, this is probably true. It would be true of any movement that black woman joined in her present condition, that is, without some clear understanding of her priorities. The black woman needs an analysis. She belongs to the only group in this country which had not asserted its identity.

      Early in 1978 there was a series of articles in The New York Times on the changes in the black community since 1968. It covered the Civil Rights Movement, the Black Movement, the economic and social situation for blacks today. Never once did it mention the contribution black women made to the Civil Rights Movement. The article spoke of three Americas: one white, one middle-class black, one poor black. No particular notice was given to the fact that poor black America consists largely of black women and children. It was as if these women and children did not exist.

      The history of the period has been written and will continue to be written without us. The imperative is clear. Either we will make history or remain the victims of it.

Houghton Mifflin Company