Black Pathology is Anti-Woman

27 Mar

I have always had a complicated relationship to Miles Davis. On the other hand, he was a brilliant musician and bandleader from whom I learned much about a kind of deep quiet and confidence that allows silence to the point of terseness. I suspect many of us read things into sounds and in the taut economy of his phrasing and in the ways he would let his tone crack either on purpose or because he declined to avoid those difficult notes, I heard a vulnerability that could be embraced.

On the other hand, he beat women. He relates the story of slapping Cicely Tyson during an argument. The biopic version of artists would connect the two, and explain his domestic violence through the vulnerability I thought I heard. I’m not sure that’s the most helpful or accurate reading, or that the two need to be connected. Our artists need not be good people, though we want them to be. Their lives and minds are messy, inconsistent, and occasionally awful, just like ours. We have to be careful what we valorize and what we value, because we have to be mindful of what we let influence us and how.

I was reminded of Miles’s pitiful record by Pearl Cleage’s essay, “Mad at Miles,” which resonated with other contemporary conversations around Lil Wayne, Rick Ross, and R. Kelly, none of whom I am willing to listen to. I can only imagine that for a woman listening to them, and so many other contemporary rap and R&B artists, the question is even more stark. There are no mainstream artists who lyrically or literally abuse black men. Some things are obnoxious to me as a black person, but rarely am I made to feel my maleness. When I think of him I also think of Cicely Tyson, a gifted artist in her own right, independent of him. It’s a small thing, not nearly enough. But it remembers her, and that she’s not a prop in his story.

Miles was important in another way: he was bad, he was universally acclaimed as cool (and still is), and he was dark. Until very recently, there have been almost no dark skinned people to emerge as crossover stars. It is hard to imagine Barack Obama being as dark (or as black) as Miles and achieving the success and visibility he has. I think that’s important because with Miles being universally acclaimed as cool, more people are likely to be exposed to him. His image is more likely to be on postage stamps, in schools; we are more likely to happen upon his face somewhere and feel that people who look like him are welcome. It’s easy to take that for granted, but it can be very important. Discovering Miles and jazz was very important for me in that regard.

But he abused women.

I have written in this space about the ways an ideology of antiblackness underpins many existing policies and informs definitions of the thug as constitutively non-citizen. Not far beneath the surface of that antiblackness is an even less well concealed contempt for women. When Hadiya Pendleton, the teenaged honor student who performed at Barack Obama’s inauguration was shot and killed, black women and men pressured Obama to speak on black vulnerability, to announce some plan, or just to acknowledge what was happening. He came and talked about the importance of the involvement of black men in the lives of their children, the need for them to serve as role models.

It’s not a bad sentiment, as far as it goes. But it falls well short of what people called for, just as his newest “my brother’s keeper,” as I understand it, is agnostic about the causes of black immiseration, focusing instead on a supposedly autonomous “culture.” Others have discussed the limitations of this particular version of bipartisan black pathology that neglects or downplays persistent structural factors. Rather than telling us to beat the odds, as Jelani Cobb notes, he could have made it clear that, as president, he wanted to try to even the odds. More than a picture, such a statement from the president of the United States would be a clear signal that black people belong here.

But even worse is the unstated: if the children need men in their lives, then the failure belongs to black women. This is a recurrent theme in such uplift talk, never directly stated. Indeed, the women are often praised for the efforts that fall short. Coupled with a steady diet of reality tv that shows black women always at each other’s throats (thank you to Gaye Theresa Johnson for pointing that out last night), it’s not hard to see why black women are valued so little in this society before we get into the deeper history.

Whose picture will we hang in the school to show little black girls this is their place? Whose beautiful dark skin will be the epitome of style and cool, even as we teach children how to admire without idolizing? How do we uncouple cool from abuse against women (this cuts across racial lines–in almost every era, if a man was upheld as cool, he was also an abuser, a lothario, or a rapist)?

And we need to figure this out. Black women are under assault in this country every bit as much as–and in some domains, like the domestic front, more than–black men, but it’s worse because their abuse and precariousness has been so normalized that it’s difficult to see. Black women allege sexual assault against black men and men, especially black men, quickly come forward to counter-accuse them of being gold diggers, having ulterior motives, having made poor decisions, of putting themselves in the path of a rapist as if that person had no will or responsibility.

People oppose Stand Your Ground in Florida, but how many men have raised their voices in support of Marissa Alexander, sent to prison for firing a warning shot at her abusive husband and separated from her children, one of whom was a newborn? How many have spoken up about Renisha McBride who, like Jonathan Ferrell, was shot dead for seeking help in the wrong neighborhood? Where will the voices come from in defense of Shanesha Taylor, a homeless woman jailed for leaving her children in her car while she interviewed for a job?

If you asked why she didn’t make some other choices with her children you’re assuming that she had other choices. If you’re asking why she didn’t make other choices and not asking why she was homeless, you’re thinking she’s just another n*gger. I don’t use that word lightly. I’m thinking of Richard Iton who notes that the n*igger is the other to the citizen, the other to the civilized subject, the non-incorporable other that modernity needs in order to set the bounds of normalcy, and desert.

Remember how we laughed when Chris Rock said he loved black people and hated n*ggers? Remember how you nodded and grinned that books are kryptonite to n*ggers? How you assured yourself that you weren’t them, but maybe something lingered behind like a bad taste that really he was talking about you? Remember when Bill Cosby and others lambasted black parents for not teaching their children how to act (that is, how not to be n*ggers) and blamed them for their children’s poor outcomes? Remember when Obama told black parents not to feed their children Popeye’s chicken for breakfast before saying that men needed to be more involved? Whom did you think he was talking to if not black women since the men are absent?

That kind of conservatism has always had at least a mild note of desperation to me, an acknowledgment that no matter how much we believe in progress justice continues not to be color-blind. But it’s its own form of blindness. When black men are murdered or imprisoned (and we know mass incarceration is an epidemic among black women, too), do we also consider the extra burden on the families and communities they are taken from, including their wives, girlfriends, mothers, daughters? It’s not helpful to frame crises that affect whole communities simply in terms of men or women.

There are many crises in this country that includes mass incarceration, increased economic disparities, the casualization of labor, and a host of other issues. And I think Iton and other thinkers are right: racial disparities within these crises reflect a general aversion to the n*gger, the “non-working” (are there jobs?) “inner city men,” in short, a fundamental antiblackness around which the sign of the citizen has been constructed. I won’t pretend to have the answers, but we have to recognize that where there’s a crisis, women are catching the worst of it. If antiblackness governs our concepts of citizenship then misogyny governs our concepts of the exercise of citizenship. So when we speak of crises of black men we need to mention and be mindful of crises for black women, which include shouldering the blame for the crises.

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