AFAM 162: African American History: From Emancipation to the Present (2010)

Lecture 21

 - The Politics of Gender and Culture (continued)


With Martin Luther King’s assassination, the collapse of SNCC, and the self-destruction of the Black Panthers, one would think that all promise had faded in regards to the possibility of black political and social advancement. But in this lecture, Professor Holloway examines moments of hope for black political organization, including Carl Stokes’s 1967 mayoral victory in Cleveland, the formation of the Congressional Black Caucus in 1969, and the 1972 National Black Political Convention in Gary, Indiana. Yet for all of the coalition building taking place, deeper problems revolved around gender. In this lecture, Professor Holloway focuses specifically on the difficulties that black women encountered as they confronted a racist and sexist political system, exemplified by Daniel Patrick Moynihan’s concern over women-headed households in black America. When Shirley Chisholm declared her candidacy for the presidency, and when women on the ground, like Johnnie Tillman, fought for welfare rights or tried to join the modern feminist movement, they faced their “double jeopardy,” that is a second-class status rooted in both racial and gender oppression. Although the early 1970s certainly was not the first time black women began to speak up about their oppression, Professor Holloway reveals that they finally began to be heard, and they formed groups, like the National Black Feminist Organization and the Combahee River Collective, to try to change the national conversation.

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African American History: From Emancipation to the Present (2010)

AFAM 162 - Lecture 21 - The Politics of Gender and Culture (continued)

Chapter 1. A Very Modern Articulation of a New Black Feminism [00:00:00]

Professor Jonathan Holloway:  I just realized a moment ago in looking at my notes that I was caught up in the rapture of this beautiful spring day and left, for the second time in as many weeks, a key set of documents in my office. That’s okay. I’ll manage one way or the other. So there’s a moment when I go silent for about a minute, I’m reading that in my head, that, that part I left in my office. I want to begin with a very brief quote by an individual who takes up some important space towards the, towards the end of the lecture. This is by former U.S. representative Shirley Chisholm, and she says, “The emotional, sexual, and psychological stereotyping of female begins when the doctor says ‘It’s a girl.’” “The emotional, sexual, and psychological stereotyping of female begins when the doctor says ‘It’s a girl.’” 

Now throughout the course, in an underlying sort of way, every now and again, we’ve been talking about, in a variety of different ways, gender dynamics in the American scene, whether it’s the strange intermarriage–interesting choice of words–of race and, and sex and gender, when it comes to the figure of the black male rapist, or the black male brute, and white womanhood, vaunted womanhood. And certainly we’ve been hearing from our primary sources especially, a range of different women writers and thinkers and activists. Today I want to spend a lot of the lecture focusing on, on this particular moment in the early 1970s where you have a very modern articulation of a new black feminism.

So as you’ve been hearing from me in the last several lectures, it almost sounds like a drumbeat, I realize, that this is a complicated area. There’s a lot of strife, there’s a lot of confusion. Well, the fact simply is that it, that it is, and as this lecture’s covering essentially the mid-1960s up to the mid-1970s, as we get into the 1970s, there’s, there’s no radical change in the idea of social complication. It’s a period of profound unrest in the U.S. The economic up–euphoria of the 1960s–something I didn’t mention: the economy’s booming. I mean, this is part of the, the angry–the anger you hear in Gil Scott-Heron, in his spoken word performance, Whitey on the Moon. It’s like, we’re spending all this money sending–I mean it’s expensive to pers–put a person on the moon, as it turns out. Yet in black America, we’re not seeing any of this, this kind of benefit. So the sixties are a period of incredible economic prosperity for many parts of the United States. For many black urban dwellers, though, it’s something quite different.

When you get into the 1970s, though, the economic euphoria vanishes, and a new fiscal reality sets in that, that, that forces economists to think, to rethink old working models. You know things are supposed to act in a certain way. My goodness, they’re not acting in a certain way. And they actually coined a phrase, a term for the new economic problems of the mid- and the late-1970s. That phrase is stagflation. In a stagnant economy, according to the models, means that you’re not going to have inflation. In fact, you might have deflation. But you had a stagnant economy and inflation, and it’s something that just hadn’t happened before and it sort of defied a lot of the–of, of logic, but, you know, this is what happens when new logic models are proposed.

So fiscally, the country’s heading into a wreck. It’s also a period of psychological trauma as far as the mythological, mythological purity of America was concerned, the atrocities of war, and there’s always atrocities, but now they’re being brought home for the first time via the media’s close involvement in the war, with the war in Vietnam. I mean, you have cameras, what we now–what we would now call them?, embedded, you know, journalists. You had cameras in the field, you–video and film, and the images are coming back on the nightly news, something that we don’t see any more, frankly. That, that has been shut down. And it’s been shut down because it was very effective at spreading dismay or anxiety, what the heck we are doing over in Vietnam. Why do our young me keep coming home in body bags? 

So with a heightened media presence, means you can’t hide the fact that America’s overwhelming military power found itself almost irrelevant in the face of North Vietnamese determination. The war is not going well, as you get into the late sixties and into the early seventies. You have a sitting president in the late sixites, LBJ, who declines to run for a second term in office. A shocking moment. You know, he took over when JFK was assassinated, won a first election, then had a chance to run for a second, and said no. The Republican Party, under Nixon, takes control with a pledge to the South, I mentioned in a previous lecture, with Strom Thurmond, that is going to ignore the civil rights gains of the preceding decade. Nixon runs on a law and order campaign.

Actually, a few of you came to Kathleen Cleaver’s presentation last night, and she said something that’s really quite striking, and I’ve heard it from many different people. And you’ll, you’ll hear it from me in a different way I suppose later on in this course in the time that remains, is that you look for those people like Kathleen Cleaver who were adults during Nixon’s era. This is like, you know, the country can’t get any worse as far as presidential leadership. But you look back at–[Student sneezes] Bless you–at the, at, at the Republican party politics under, under Nixon, and the country has shifted very far to the right, the arbitrary right, in terms of being much more conservative politically, that from the standpoint of many different political projects, Nixon is sounding really quite progressive in many areas compared to–you know, it doesn’t matter who’s in the office, Republican or Democrat. Clinton was a conservative Republican and Obama’s a moderate–excuse me. What did I say?–conservative Democrat and, and Obama’s a moderate Democrat, and Nixon on many issues, they had–they were on the same page, where Nixon was a little bit more liberal. It’s, it’s a weird kind of thing to say, but this is the record.

In any event, Nixon’s now in office, running under a law and order campaign, having gotten into office under, running, running underneath a law and order campaign. But he’s not in office that long when the country’s growing skepticism about its elected officials intensifies, once it learns about the break-in, break-ins at the Watergate, and the extent to which the cover ups were orchestrated by the White House, by Nixon himself. It’s actually funny. This is around–I was born in 1967, and I remember watching live TV and thinking–well, I thought Nixon was the guy on the, on the dime. I didn’t realize it was a different President, but the guy that looked like the guy on the dime, I knew he was in trouble. I didn’t know what he did, and it was too much for my small brain to accommodate at the time, but my first political memory is of the impeachment hearings, dealing with, with Richard Nixon. People were fixated on the TV, what is the Congress going to do?  So growing out of this moment, we’re talking here the early 1970s, the economy begins to tank, the military is humiliated, the political process becomes tainted at the highest levels and the country’s, in a sense, is lost.

Now many African Americans felt for a very long time that the country’s innocence has, had been lost long before the 1970s. Black women in particular had an acute sense of disdain at the country’s pronouncements about equality before the law and then the promise of the Civil Rights Movement. Black women suffer from what they called double jeopardy, being black and being female. Citizenship twice denied. For too long, freedom was equated with, in as far as the African American community is concerned, is equated with black manhood and the freedom of blacks, with the redemption of black masculinity. If we can help our brothers, then we’ll all be free. Elaine Brown becomes the leader of the Black Panther Party in the early 1970s, once the founding leadership is either jailed, kicked out, or in exile.

Elaine Brown recalled an organizational meeting when she and other women were forced to wait to eat until the men were served food for which they all had contributed. The eth–ethos of the time was that, quote, this is Elaine Brown speaking here, “Sisters do not challenge brothers. Sisters stood behind their black men, supported their men, and respected them.”  So even in an vanguard organization like the Black Panthers, a group that called for political and economic reorientation in American life and values, good old fashioned sexism is alive and well. Sexism of course is nothing new to the American scene. What was new was a rising articulation of modern feminism that is built upon the emotional power of the Civil Rights Movement. I imagine you’ve heard it many times before that you look at the great changes in women’s politics, Chicano, Lat–Latino politics, Asian America politics, LGBTQ politics, they’re growing out of the organizational skills really mastered by civil rights activists, women’s, women’s movement being the most, the earliest sort of, quote, other movement, building upon models of the Civil Rights Movement with great success.

Chapter 2. The Negro Family: The Case for National Action [00:10:00]

In 1963, Betty Friedan published The Feminine Mystique. It became a tremendously important book, and it was essentially about how to get white, middle-class women out of the home and into the workplace. Without diminishing the importance of the book, it’s, it’s a landmark book. For black women, the book seemed, from sort of an argumentative standpoint, largely irrelevant, because black women had always been out of the home, in someone else’s home actually, often as domestics. But they didn’t have the leisure and the opportunity to be at home in a way that white middle-class women did. It’s from an economic standpoint. So The Feminine Mys–Mystique is one of the first volleys of what will become sort of modern feminist movement, and right at the very beginning, black women are wondering, “Well where–How does this book apply to my experience?” 

A couple of years later in 1965, black women and their sense of being ignored by major currents in American society are turned on its head in a weird way when they find themselves with the spotlight turned on them. Black women used to being ignored, and now the spotlight’s on them, only this time they’re not being blamed–only this time they’re being blamed, excuse me, for black America’s failures. At that moment, Daniel Patrick Moynihan, future senator, then part of the Department of Labor, published a report called The Negro Family: The Case for National Action. The report had charted black life in the United States. It spoke about the economic, political, and social deprivations that grew out of slavery and explored how being a disadvantaged minority affected the black family structure. Today, it’s a tremendously important report, and it sets welfare policy standards for the next generation.

I want to reduce the report to its simplest and most controversial essence. Although Moynihan lamented it, he said he felt that, he felt that there was nothing, nothing else to do but conclude that blacks were caught in a, quote, “tangle of pathology.”  It’s an important phrase. This tangle, moreover, was a result of women-headed households in black America. To illustrate this logic, I’m going to quote from the text, and I want you to listen here for the very clear investment in the norm of patriarchy here. Moynihan writes:

“That the Negro American has survived at all is extraordinary–a lesser people might simply have died out, as indeed others have. That the Negro community has not only survived, but in this political generation has entered national affairs as a moderate, humane, and constructive national force is the highest testament to the healing powers of the democratic ideal and the creative vitality of the negro people. But it may not be supposed that the Negro American community has not paid a fearful price for the incredible mistreatment to which it has been subjected over the past three centuries. In essence, the Negro community has been forced into a matriarchal structure which, because it is so out of line with the rest of the American society, seriously retards the progress of the group as a whole, and imposes a crushing burden on the Negro male and, in consequence, on a great many Negro women as well.

There is, presumably, no special place–no, excuse me, no special reason why a society in which males are dominant in family relationships is to be preferred to a matriarchal arrangement. However, it is clearly a disadvantage for a minority group to be operating on one principle, while the great majority of the population, and the one with the most advantages to begin with, is operating on another. This is the present situation of the Negro. Ours is a society which presumes male leadership in private and public affairs. The arrangements of society facilitate such leadership and reward it. A subculture, such as that of the Negro American, in which this is not–in which this is not the pattern, is placed at a distinct disadvantage. Here an earlier word of caution is–should, should be repeated. There is much evidence that a considerable amount–There is much evidence that a considerable number of Negro families have managed to break out of the tangle of pathology and to establish themselves as stable, effective units, living according to patterns of American society in general.”

This is one excerpt from a much larger study, of course, and this is coming from an old fashioned Democrat, an old–a, a great liberal in the American tradition, lamenting the destruction of the black family, pointing to the fact that its matriarchal structure, the women-headed households, is the real reason behind, behind blacks’ inability to have successful family units, because it’s so out of line with the national norm of male-headed households. You know, it’s great that blacks are so–have such strong backbones, they’ve been able to survive so much degradation, but we’ve got to find a way to solve this problem. It is a call for national action, which is the subtitle, The Case for National Action, the subtitle of the report. We need to solve the problem of the structure of the black family.

Black Americans are outraged by the report and its claim of an almost organic dysfunctionalism. This is not an anger that sought to deny the very obvious reality of poverty in the black community. No one could deny that. And also this anger is not a direct manifestation of the failure of Johnson’s Great Society, and King’s civil rights strategies to address abiding problems of poverty. People recognize the efforts that are being made in these regards. The anger is really a result of being considered a problem that America, and especially white America, had to solve. I mean think of this moment. This is the moment we’re talking about. Moynihan’s report comes out in sixty-five. Stokely Carmichael is talking about Black Power in sixty-six, and while Stokely Carmichael and, and his fellow travelers are a minority within black America, they’re still getting a lot of attention, far more attention than their actual numbers would suggest.

And to suggest–to hear then from an important figure in the federal government, saying, you know, “White Americans really have to solve this problem for black Americans. We need to find a solution,” and sort of saying, you know, “It’s really too bad, we’ve also been part of the problem, but we really can’t address that issue. Let’s try to fix this black family,” just outraged black, black Americans. So according to Moynihan, blacks are a problem that white America had to resolve. Now you may or may not be surprised, as I’ve talked in this course about connections to events decades earlier and the way in which things don’t change at times. You may not be surprised that W. E. B. Du Bois, having just passed away two years earlier, said as much the same thing in 1903, when he offered the following words in his landmark book, The Souls of Black Folk. And Du Bois said,

“Between me and the other world there is an ever unasked question: unasked by some through feelings of delicacy; by others through the difficulty of rightly framing it. All, nevertheless, flutter around it. They approach me in a half-hesitant sort of way, eye me curiously or compassionately, and then, instead of saying directly, ‘How does it feel to be a problem?’ they say, ‘I know an excellent colored man in my town;’ or, ‘Do not these southern outrages make you–make your blood boil?’ At these I smile, or am interested, or reduce the boiling to a simmer, as the occasion may require. To the real question, ‘How does it feel to be a problem?’ I answer seldom a word.”

This is a different age, 1965. This is a different age than Du Bois’s in 1903. And instead of silence, black women begin to be heard on these kinds of issues that Moynihan’s raising. Now please note, I’m not saying they begin to speak up. They’re beginning to be heard. In the wake of the Moynihan report, groups across the country, individuals and groups, galvanize into action. There’s a huge amount of scholarship published in the wake of the Moynihan report, in response to the Moynihan report, dealing with the sociology of the black family and, sort of, so-called black sociology.

Chapter 3. Johnnie Tillman: “Welfare is a Woman’s Issue” [00:18:59]

But on the activist front, people are outraged by sort of the blinders on Daniel Patrick Moynihan’s opinions or thoughts or analyses, start forming groups of their own, and one of the key players in this process was a woman named Johnnie Tillman, a black woman, who had been on welfare herself, who helped organize the National Welfare Organization, the NWRO.

Tillman becomes one of the galvanizing figures of the NWRO, and really one of its spokespersons. Tillman defined poverty as the defining element in the lives of black women. Through her leadership at the NWRO, she pursued a practical agenda that called for decent wages, access to education and job training, medical care for women children, and children’s daycare. They want decent wages, access to education and job training, medical care for women and children, and children’s daycare. And the NR–excuse me, the NWRO also called for an end to abusive and degrading practices of welfare case workers who would, for example, show up at a welfare recipient’s home at midnight, looking for evidence of other means of support. And most often, quote, other means of support, meant that an adult male was present. It was built into the structure of welfare policy of this era that suggestion–you see in Moynihan’s ideology–that the norm should be patriarchal-headed family structure. That if there was a man around, it became much harder for a person on welfare to be able to claim that welfare.

Tillman made her dissatisfaction known in public rallies across the country. The title of one of her more frequent talks was, was Welfare is a Woman’s Issue. It’s a piece that ran in–that would eventually run in Gloria Steinem’s breakout publication Ms.¸ published in 1972. I want to read an excerpt from that essay, a version of which she gave at many different rallies across the country. Welfare is a Woman’s Issue, by Johnnie Tillman.

“I’m a woman. I’m a black woman. I’m a poor woman. I’m a fat woman. I’m a middle-aged woman. And I’m on welfare. In this country, if you’re any one of those things, you count less as a human being. If you’re all those things, you don’t count at all, except as a statistic. I am forty-five years old. I have raised six children. There are millions of statistics like me, some on welfare, some not. And some really poor, who don’t even know they’re entitled to welfare. Not all of them in black–are black, not all–not at all. In fact, the majority, about two-thirds of all poor families in the country, are white.

Welfare’s like a traffic accident. It can happen to anybody, but especially it happens to women. And that’s why welfare is a women’s issue. For a lot of middle-class women in this country, women’s liberation is a matter of concern. For women on welfare, it’s a matter of survival. Survival. That’s why we had to go on welfare, and that’s why we can’t get off welfare now, not us women. Not until we do something about liberating poor women, women in this country, because up until now, we’ve been raised to expect to work all our lives for nothing, because we are the worst educated, the least skilled, and the lowest paid people there are; because we have to be almost totally responsible for our children; because we are regarded by everybody as dependents. That’s why we are on welfare, and that’s why we stay on it.

Welfare is the most prejudiced institution in this country, even more than marriage, when it–which it tries to imitate. Let me explain that a little. Ninety-nine percent of welfare families are headed by women. There is no man around. In half the states there can’t be a man around because AFDC (Aid to Families With Dependent Children) says if there is an “able-bodied” man around, then you can’t be on welfare. If the kids are going to eat, and the man can’t get a job, then he’s got to go. Welfare is like a super-sexist marriage. You trade in a man for the man. But you can’t divorce him if he treats you bad. He can divorce you, of course, cut you off anytime he wants. But in that case, he keeps the kids, not you. The man runs everything. In ordinary marriage, sex is supposed to be for your husband. On AFDC, you’re not supposed to have any sex at all. You give up control of your own body. It’s a condition of aid. You may even have to agree to get your tubes tied so you can never have more children just to avoid being cut off welfare.

The man, the welfare system, controls your money. He tells you what to buy, what not to buy, where to buy it, and how much things cost. If things, rent, for instance, really cost more than he says they do, it’s just too bad for you. He’s always right. That’s why Governor Ronald Reagan can get away with slandering welfare recipients, calling them, quote, “lazy parasites,” “pigs at the trough,” and such. We’ve been trained to believe that the only reason people are on welfare is because there’s nothing wrong with their character. Sorry, I read that wrong. We’ve been trained to believe that the only reason people are on welfare is because there’s something wrong with their character. If people have motivation, if people only want to work, they can, and they will be able to support themselves and their kids in decency.

The truth is a job doesn’t necessarily mean an adequate income. There are some ten million jobs that now pay less than the minimum wage, and if you’re a woman, you’ve got the best chance of getting one. Why would a forty-five-year-old woman work all day in a laundry ironing shirts at ninety-some cents an hour? Because she knows that there’s some place lower she could be. She could be on welfare. Society needs women on welfare as examples to let every woman, factory workers and housewife workers alike, know what will happen if she lets up. If she’s laid off, if she tries to go it alone without a man–I read that wrong as well. Society needs women on welfare as examples to let every woman, factory workers and housewife workers alike, know what will happen if she lets up, if, if she’s laid off, if she tries to go it alone without a man. So these ladies stay on their feet or on their knees all their lives instead of asking why they’re only getting ninety-some cents an hour, instead of daring to fight and complain.”

Tillman carries this drumbeat with her to public rallies but also to private meetings. When, in 1968, she meets with Martin Luther King about welfare issues, she grows increasingly frustrated with King’s interruptions and, in her view, evasions. She goes to King thinking, you know, “Here’s a man who’s really pledging himself to poverty reform or economic reform, addressing poverty,” and then realizes that she’s running into a stone wall in many ways. And finally Tillman says to King, “You know, Dr. King, if you don’t know anything about these questions, you should say you don’t know, and then we can go on with the meeting.”  King was, like everybody is–and it’s a meaningless phrase–a man of his time, but his own notion of patriarchal order was certainly well in place.

Now Tillman and other NWRO activists linked welfare rights to civil rights, explaining that being on welfare was a necessity borne of the economic system, not of women’s moral failings. So as where Moynihan and the, the Moy–the so-called Moynihan report is talking about structures of degradation and such, it is being driven by a moral assessment of women’s role in the black family. And the NWRO takes out that moral assessment and looks at the structures of economic exploitation and lack of education and such.

Chapter 4. Milestones in the World of Politics [00:27:46]

Now the NWRO represents one type of political thrust of the nine–late 1960s and early 1970s. It’s important that we not lose sight of this grassroots rallies and activism, calling for structural changes when it comes to welfare, but it’s also important to make note of a few different milestones in the world of politics. This is the detour that leads us to Shirley Chisholm.

Now I spoke earlier about the fact when the Civil Rights Act became law, that there’s this moment of great excitement, but very quickly, people understood it didn’t address voting issues, and this was the real next, this was the next frontier. You’ll also remember that when I talked about the Voting Rights Act becoming law, of course there were riots a few days later in Los Angeles, but looking ahead a few years, towards the end of the sixites, I said you would see a radical change in the numbers of voters. The Voting Rights Act, for all of its flaws of implementation and enforcement, did bear witness to a radical shift in the number of blacks who were now able to get access to the ballot box. And you start seeing that change, or you start seeing a change based on the number of blacks who were voting. 1967 was a landmark moment in terms of voting behaviors and it’s actually only tangential–tangentially related, related to the Voting Rights Act, actually. The story unfolds in Cleveland.

Carl Stokes, a black man, is elected mayor of the city. He’d been a local figure for some time and member of the police force, very prominent certainly. He’s not the first black mayor ever, but he’s the first black mayor–first black elected mayor of a major city. Now what’s critically important to think about in Stokes’s case is that blacks are actually the minority of the population in Cleveland. [Student sneezes]  Bless you. Stokes becomes really the first successful coalition politician at that level in the country’s history. He runs on a strong law and order campaign that appealed to a real segment of the population, conservative and liberal, certainly. You know, leans on his past record as a police officer. He appeals to the black community simply because here’s a black man who’s going to stand up and, and the assumption is he’s going to speak for us, on our behalf. But he really pulls in liberal whites as well, and through a complicated sort of dance, forms a coalition, white and black voters, becomes the mayor.

His campaign is watched very closely, and it becomes a model for other black morality campaigns across the country. You start seeing black mayors popping out. Gary, Indiana, just around the bend, in Los Angeles, California, soon enough. You start seeing the beginnings of the era of the black mayor, in our urban landscape. And as the voting rights–the, the voting numbers start to skyrocket for African Americans, you start seeing blacks elected to offices in, in regions of the country they had not ever been elected, largely in the Southeast. Two years after Carl Stokes is elected the mayor of Cleveland, you actually have, as a result of an increasing number of blacks going to Congress, a new group formed called the Congressional Black Caucus, still alive and very well today.

The Congressional Black Caucus, the CBC is formed. And essentially now we have a critical mass, still on the small side, but a critical mass, of black elected officials, House representatives, and then one in the Senate at that time, who are going to come together on agendas that we think we share–on which we share common ground. Will they always be race agendas?  Ah, you know, I guess that’s the presumption, but there could be common ground on other issues. It will form like a political action group. That’s essentially what the caucus is. So you have a rising number of people who are in–holding positions of power in formal elected offices, and you have the continuation of grassroots activism on the ground.

In 1972, and as the snowball’s rolling down the mountain, a number of activists and elected officials get together, saying, you know,  “We’ve got a real moment of opportunity here. We’re calling for change.”  There are groups like the NWRO, not just–that’s not an all-black group; I should have made that clear, it’s a multiracial group. But you have this group on the ground, other groups like that on the ground, small political action groups in, in cities across the country. You have black militants, certainly. You have still the black leaders of churches. That’s been there for a long time. But now you have these black mayors and these black elected officials and, and House representatives. Here’s a moment where we need to take advantage of, of our collective experience as African Americans, come together and try to forge a new voice, a new black political voice. So they call for a convention. The National Black Political Convention is held in 1972 in Gary, Indiana.

It’s a meeting of black radicals, nationalists, and mainstream politicians, and it has the convention theme of unity without uniformity. And this is now where I spend a couple of minutes reading excerpts from the, from the platform and from Amiri Baraka, a radical black poet, from his poem called It’s Nation Time, that is rather an aggressive assertion of black militancy and black nationalism. And I’ll read these two excerpts, trust me on this, where you have, you know, this, this–and, and Baraka’s one of the organizers of this, of this meeting. He had this very ardent black militant voice, you know, with a poem laced with shotguns, and racial epithets, and, and, and challenges to religious orthodoxies that “it’s nation time, it’s nation time,” is really, you know, what this–he’s calling for in the poem. And you have the host of the convention, like Gary Hatcher, mayor of–it’s not Gary Hatcher–the Mayor Hatcher of Gary, Indiana, Richard Hatcher, saying, “Look, we’ve got to find a way to bridge the differences,” because he’s not going to stand on a platform of–and I’m paraphrasing from Baraka’s phone–poem, “Niggers get your guns.”  He’s not going to stand on that platform. We don’t want to lose this opportunity–this organizing opportunity, and emphasizes, “We need to have unity and understand we cannot be uniform,” harking back to the organizing theme of the conference.

Chapter 5. Shirley Chisholm Declares her Candidacy for President [00:35:32]

Now the National Black Political Convention, what does it leave us with?  It leaves with no clear message. Think back to the National Negro Congress, some forty–thirty-five, thirty-six years earlier, same kind of situation where the coalition of different kinds of black voices come together, with an unclear result. But now these people are elected into office. The National Black Political Convention exposes the diversity of political opinions within black America. It does that. And a group grows out of it, the National Black Political Assembly. And some thought that the National Black Political Assembly–essentially like the Congressional Black Caucus, but now operating at all levels of political organization in society, grassroots up to the House of Representatives–some thought that this was an incredible, going to be an incredible, incredible vehicle to create real change. And one of the people who thought it was going to create change was Shirley Chisholm, representative from Brooklyn, and the first woman to represent New York state in the U.S. Congress.

Chisholm has just declared her candidacy for the presidency of the United States and looked to the activists involved in the Gary convention, the National Black Political Convention, looked to the activists at the convention for their support. Chisholm’s growing out of the tradition now of someone like Carl Stokes. She’s a real coalition politician. She was–this was rad–this was controversial at the time, she was a very public member of the National Organization for Women, a group that black feminists thought was just for white women, something I’ll get to a little bit later on as I close out the lecture. So Shirley Chisholm has a whole bunch of support, it seems, from people like Gloria Steinem, who published Johnnie Tillman’s essay about welfare.

But then something funny happens–not funny ha-ha, funny unfortunate–is that as Chisholm goes around the floor of the Gary convention, as she starts seeking support from her white feminist friends, the cold, hard reality of politics invaded. Black elected officials distanced themselves immediately from Chisholm, because they believed that her president–her presidential campaign was an absolute–an absolute long shot, and they wanted to align themselves with more likely Democratic contenders for the national party’s nomination. A crushing blow comes from Chisholm when she overhears, at another black political conference, these two officials. She’s–I guess she’s just within earshot. One of them says to the other, two black men, “There she is. That little black matriarch who goes around messing things up.” 

So you have rising black political organizations in the high form of politics, a connection, it seems, to the grassroots activism that you see in groups like the NWRO. Shirley Chisholm tapping into this moment, like this will be the moment we can really forge change in this country. And like someone–I mean Chisholm wasn’t running on a women’s platform, per se; she’s running on, running on a liberal politics platform, but she was seen as unelectable by black elected officials, and also by the women in groups like NOW. They cast their support to the more mainstream, quote, mainstream Democratic contenders. So Shirley Chisholm seems as a complete affirmation of this double jeopardy status of black women in the United States. You know, because she’s black, she’s going to be discounted, because she’s  woman, she’s going to be discounted. Just depends on who’s doing the discounting.

And Chisholm wasn’t the only person to feel this way. In 1973, a year after the National Black Political Convention, a group is formed called the National Black Feminist Organization, the NBFO. And it sets about to criticize the stereotypes of black women, criticize the country for caring more about black men. As long as the brothers are taken care of, the sisters will be taken care of eventually. The NBFO activists took issue with the media for imposing standards of beauty that are purely anglo–anglophile. The NBFO addressed practical issues, like the NRO–NWRO did, like child welfare, unemployment, etcetera. And it, the, the National Black Feminist Organization added, in its ideology, something that had really been solely the domain of white feminist movement to that point, namely abortion rights and equal rights amendment. It is an organization with an ideologically broad umbrella on feminist issues, broader in its opinion than the National Organization for Women.

Now the NBFO, perhaps predictably, was met with a strong backlash. It was accused of hampering the black movement, in air quotes, the black movement, is accused of hampering it. You know, getting people confused about what’s the real voice of black America. Is accused of being man-hating, in part–in large part because it welcomed lesbians into its organizations, publicly. Now all of the NBFO collapses, almost as quickly as it’s formed. It does not last long. It exposed a range of hot button issues within the black community and inspired other groups to form, most famously, the Combahee River Collective. I want to turn quickly to the Combahee River Collective statement, the collective statement, and point, to some–point to some of these hot button issues. The statement reads that,

“We are a collective of black feminists who have been meeting together since 1974, involved in the process of defining and clarifying our politics, while doing political work within our own group and in coalition with other progressive organizations and movements. We see black feminism as the logical political movement to combat the manifold and simultaneous oppression that all women of color face.”

It goes into the genesis of contemporary black feminism, and then has three points of what we believe, the problems in organizing black feminists, and black feminist issues and projects. And I’m excerpting here. “What We Believe,” the statement says,

“Although we are feminists and lesbians, we feel solidarity with progressive black men and do not advocate the fractionalization that white women who are separatists demand. We struggle together with black men against racism, while we also struggle with black men about sexism. We are socialists because we believe that work must be organized for the collective benefit of those who do the work and create the products, and not for the profit of the bosses. We need to articulate the real class situation of, of persons for whom racial and sexual oppression are significant determinants in their working, economic lives.”

Calling on the recognition of problems in organizing black feminists, the Combahee River Collective says that,

“The major source of difficulty in our political work is that we are trying to address a whole range of oppressions. We are dispossessed psychologically and on every other level, and yet we feel the necessity to struggle to change the condition of all black women. If black women were free, it would mean that everyone else would have to be free, since our freedom would necessitate the destruction of all the systems of oppression.”

Again, that notion of multiple forms of, of oppression weighing down on blackness and, and female–women, womanhood. And it says in terms of “Black Feminist Issues and Projects,” is one of the,

“One issue that is of major concern to us, and that we have begun to publicly address, is racism in the white women’s movement.”

I made reference to this earlier, Shirley Chisholm’s sort of confront–what am I looking?  Wow, just completely drew a blank on a very basic word–controversial, on her controversial membership in the National Organization for Women. In the successful rise of the, the feminist movement, black women start telling stories of trying to affiliate with what are essentially white groups. And the stories they start to tell are rather–stories of great frustration, and they, they’re, they replicate themselves constantly. Black woman going into a meeting of local N–NOW activists and having her voice being the only voice that’s silenced, or having black organization, a women’s organization, trying to affiliate with the white women’s organization, and the white activists trying to take over the black women’s organization. Presump–presumption of who knows best.

So the Combahee River Collective, the National Black Feminist Organization before it as well, and people like Shirley Chisholm, all recognizing that there is something flawed, even in women’s rights organizations, and it’s, it’s the racial dynamic. So you have a rising sense of black feminist political awareness and determination to change the conversation. Shirley Chisholm was certainly frustrated, but she’s committed to change. In this era, on the political front, you see a reflection of that commitment to change, where the number of black women who are elected officials skyrockets from fifteen percent of the black elected officials are women in the late sixties, to nearly sixty percent by the end of the 1970s. A humongous change in who’s representing this constituency, presumptively but not always representing a black constituency.

Now as I did on Monday, I was talking about the incredible cultural power of the moment, and the interesting narratives of misogyny and hyper-masculinity you see in Blaxploitation films. This is also an era that you see the beginning of an incredible renaissance in black women’s literature especially. The great author Toni Morrison appearing on the scene with The Bluest Eye in 1970. Alice Walker, who would become most famous for writing Colored–ha-ha, I just noticed here, in my typing these notes here, I wrote, I wrote Colored People–The Color Purple. Just noticed that big old typo. Anyway, Alice Walker, who published that book in 1982, but in the seventies, she was doing an incredible amount of recovery work. For example, who’s, who here has heard of Zora Neale Hurston?  I mean pretty much everybody. None of your hands would have gone up prior to the nine–early 1970s. And the hands are being raised now because of Alice Walker’s, essentially, detective work. She makes it her mission, for example, to discover Zora Neale Hurston’s grave, unmarked. Zora Neale Hurston had this incredible moment in the, in the late thirties and forties, but disappears. She dies penniless, she’s working as a maid, her writing disappears.

Alice Walker discovers it and makes an attempt, a concerted effort, to bring her back into the literary conversation in American letters, and does it quite successfully. And she’s recognizing, Alice Walker is, in this recuperative work, dealing with Zora Neale Hurston, that this new voice, or in Zora Neale Hurston’s case, an older voice, but a new way of listening to this voice. It’s about black women who wanted to declare political engagement on their own terms, not men’s, not black men’s, and not white women’s. And Walker calls for a new term that would apply to black women in general and that’s womanist. A womanist politics is a black feminist politics. Walker, when asked to comment on the combination of events over the previous decades that open up the possibilities for black women, she said, speaking of her characters, said

“My women in the future will not burn themselves up. Now I am ready to look at women who have made the room larger for others to move in. I think one reason I never stay away from the southern movement is because I realize how deeply political changes affect the choices and lifestyles of people. The movement of the sixties, Black Power, the Muslims, the Panthers, have changed the options of black people generally and of black women in particular, so that my women characters won’t all end the way they have been, because black women now offer the varied, live models of how it possible to live. We have a new place to move.” 

And move they did. We will pick up discussion on next Monday. Thank you.

[end of transcript]

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