The Face of African American movements became increasingly Pro Black after the 1960s. Black youth throughout the country started to question the methods of the “Old Guard”; middle class Civil Rights leaders of the previous decade. The peoples desire for a new group led to the rise of the Black Power Movement. The Mobilization of the Black Power Movement rested on the fact that Black students around the country wanted to see change on and outside of their campuses. The Foundation of the Black Panther Party for Self Defense and the Us Organization added another set of voices to the movement. These voices were equally radical to their collegiate counterparts, in that they were tired to the historic disenfranchisement that white institutions pushed on to them. But, the foundation of group stemmed from a need to address the ongoing violence plagued Oakland as a result of police aggression. Another layer to discuss that is often overlooked, is the position of Black women within the Black Power Movement. This relationship was one that was complex due to the need to preserve black manhood and masculinity. The onslaught of the 1970s and 1980s, saw some changes in the way Black Movements talked about women and gender politics, but Black women found themselves in the middle of the fights for civil rights and against chauvinism.
The fight for Black empowerment, was one that was severely male centered. These spaces weren’t intended to be spaces for Men and Women to work together equally, which can be seen in the Black Panther Party, the Us Organization, and even within the Black student movement. At the foundation of The Black Panther Party for Self Defense in 1966, the groups focus was on racism and police brutality within their community. Huey P. Newton and Bobby Seale founded the group in Oakland, California in an effort to address police brutality. Their quest for Black liberation was tied to establishing manhood and redefining black masculinity. When Black women joined the group, their roles were subservient and based in community since they were not seen as protectors. When looking at The Panthers, Us, and other Black movements of the time one must look at the push and pull relationship of competing ideologies, author Tracye Matthews states “Three such ideologies that bear mentioning because of their enormous impact on the period are cultural nationalism, feminism, and the Black matriarchy/tangle of pathology thesis (Matthews, p. 271).”
The first ideology to be examined is the Us Organizations idea of cultural nationalism. To loosely define cultural nationalism, one can say that it is a form of nationalism, in which a nation or in this case, a group of people is defined by a shared heritage. Maulana Karenga stressed the importance of cultural awareness and wanted to do this through the revival of African traditions; dress, language, religion, and familial arrangements as well as the rejection of white supremacy (Matthews, 271). While this sounds promising in theory, it proves to falter when actually discussing gender roles. Karenga promoted complimentary gender roles in which the determination of femininity was based on submission. His teachings state
“A man has to be a leader and he has to be a man who bases his leadership on knowledge, wisdom, and understand…The role of the woman is to inspire her man, educate their children, and participate in social development…We say male supremacy is based on three things: tradition, acceptance, and reason. Equality is false; it’s the devils concept. Our concept is complimentary (Matthews, 272).”
Karenga’s passage clearly represents a prevalent thought amongst male leaders and followers alike. While it is not surprising, it is interesting that his philosophy mirrors the hegemonic practices of white America. To equate femininity to submission diminishes Black womanhood to something that revolves around working to do for everyone else which is in many ways superficial and enforces the role of caretaker on Black women.
The intersection between race and gender, seem to leave Black women wondering where to put more time. The women of the Black Panther Party seemed particularly involved in the development of Black Feminism. While the BPP displayed unsavory chauvinism and a lack of awareness for women’s issues in the past, they denounced cultural nationalism and made an effort to try to push more progressive gender ideologies to distance themselves from the Us Organization. The women within the BPP recognized the hypocrisy in what was going on within the movement and made efforts to increase awareness, but their fight for a place in the Women’s Liberation Movement seemed like an increasing uphill battle. The fight for validation and shared power within the women’s movement is one that is historic. Women like Sojourner Truth and Ida B. Wells have been defenders of Black women and critics of white abolitionist and suffragettes simultaneously. And with this history one can argue that the legacy of Black women’s involvement can show that there can be conversations and activism that can be inclusive of both civil rights and Black womanhood. Black women were key players in the Women’s Lib Movement, and finally had the power to call out the injustices within the movement by pointing out racism and classism. Small groups of Black women challenged NOW by pressuring them into shape their agenda in a way that focuses on issues that are important to women of color and poor white women (Taylor, 249). Black Women stressed the importance of inclusivity because theirs as well as other groups were left out of the collective struggle, due to white power players being middle class. This is not to invalidate the need to liberate middle class women, but simply a means to call out the inequity within the movement and the need to have more voices because the experiences within womanhood cannot be seen as a monolith, but rather a compilation of many stories with a common goal. One group that seemed to be on the outs were Black lesbians, but they were also the movements biggest critics. They wanted to unite the two groups and at the “1977 Combahee River Collective released a statement stating their political commitment in dismantling “interlocking” racial, sexual, and economic oppression (Taylor, 249).” By stating this, there is opportunity for collaboration within the movement and the means in which this would get done is through writing. This writing essentially laid the blueprint for “public discourse about Black women and feminist theory (Taylor, 250).”
Furthermore, while caught between race and gender, Black women proved that race, sex and class work in congruence to each other, thus creating an intersection. Their scholarship and activism proved to validate the work of their predecessors and also allowed Black women to have agency in their discourse, which is something that Black students wanted during the Black Student Movement. With the availability of courses in African American history comes the availability to become more aware of what is going on through the perspectives of many. Toni Cade Barbara’s Liberatory Theory states that “In fashioning of new relationships that will obliterate the corrosive system of dominance, manipulation, exploitation (Taylor, 250);” Ideally, the need for change in relationships within the Black community, rest on Black men adopting a Black feminist mindset. This theory seems valid, but the question that remains is how this would be implemented within the black community?