Bill Cosby. Umar Johnson. Fela Kuti. And Farrakhan.
Our world is divided. The way our brains are set up, we categorize things to navigate the massive amount of information that bombards us. Add a pinch of greed, power and fear and voilá - hierarchal social systems based on those categories. White is over black. Rich over poor. Man over woman. Don’t be a poor black woman. Rich white men run shit (for now). A middle class black man, such as myself, gets to experience how hierarchy works on different levels. My maleness gives me privilege while my Blackness is under attack. With this consideration of the varying power dynamics of my intersecting identities I’ve been paying close attention to conversations about gender in modern black worlds.
[Trigger warning: this essay includes reference to violence and sexual assault against women]
I recently posted a photo on Facebook of me standing with Dr. Umar Johnson at the Million Man March. That was two strikes for some - shaking hands with a misogynist while listening to Farrakhan preach patriarchy. I always sit in the back of the room at events like an Umar Johnson lecture. Or at the Million Man March I spent the whole time walking around taking photos, watching people watch. The reaction of the audience is much more interesting to me than what a speaker is saying. I align with Ella Baker’s position that “strong people don’t need strong leaders”. And since there is strength in unity I get concerned when I see unnecessary divisions between Black people. The comments under my pic with Dr. Johnson became data for my unintended research study. The responses were split down the middle, both supporters and detractors cursed freely. Many seemed to have a visceral reaction to Umar. Team #NOjohnson have no doubt that he is a dangerous homophobic misogynist. For team #YESjohnson despite flaws Umar is genuinely committed and capable of contributing something worthwhile. But what does team #NO and team #YES think about each other? Although we must be careful not to confuse unity with uniformity, does that type of polarization hurt us?
More valuable than observing that some like him and some don’t, there seems to be patterns in how certain types of people respond to Umar. Here we go with the categories again. It was very important to me to matriculate through the academy in a way that would not disconnect me from what matters. I wanted to be type of scholar that can still speak to regular people. Regular…? So I’ve always made extra effort to pay attention to the “street scholars”. The “Hidden Colors” intellectuals have a cadence that connects with people in a different way than Robin Kelley, Barbara Ransby and Angela Davis. But let’s not confuse university with White. The University of Timbuktu was just one of the structures with remains. Diverse formations of deep thought and study have always existed with African people. Every institution in the US, however, is designed to instill values that maintain the existing power hierarchies. Institutions of “higher” education are perhaps uniquely positioned to develop language and philosophy slick enough to appear progressive while reinforcing status quo. I’m not necessarily saying that US universities deliberately recruit the best and brightest of our communities, remove them, rearrange their priorities through a rigorous hazing process until the promise of tenure becomes worth compromising effectiveness…necessarily. That was a round about way of saying that university academic types tend not like Umar. And I think something about that needs more serious investigation.
I see two major problems with a polarized audience: 1) the potential for false arguments and 2) unspoken assumptions each side makes about the other. The false arguments concern is that two sides can really be fighting for the same thing but be divided by semantics. I, for example, might not self-identify as feminist/womanist because I think I’m too deep to be confined by labels. But I genuinely desire and work towards a world where women have a leveled playing field, accurate representation, control over their own bodies, equal compensation for work, and equal access to resources/opportunities. The 2nd problem, assumptions made about the other side, is most pronounced when wondering what feminists think about the women supporters of Umar, Farrakhan, Shahrazad Ali, etc. It’d be much easier if men liked Umar and women hated him. If a woman agrees with a misogynist does that mean that she hates herself? That seems ironically patronizing. Or is it possible that adjectives like misogyny, sexism and patriarchy have room for interpretation? Is there an explanation other than brainwashing for women that find power in polygamy, covering, and traditional household roles? The unspoken assumption that these women are less aware or intelligent seems antithetical to supporting women’s right to choose what freedom looks like for themselves. And also, now you’re talking about my mama.
Bill Cosby is in a different category. Let’s say for argument’s sake that he raped one woman - the other 50 were lying just to get attention. That type of violence, the forced removal of choice, puts Cosby in the category of those cultures around the world that don’t even pretend to operate democratically like the US. The barbaric practices of personal and institutional violence against women on that level is beyond my comprehension, but I do know that it must be met with severe consequences. I hope, if he is guilty of harming just one woman, that a provocative magazine cover is just the beginning of Cosby’s troubles.
I haven’t seen any indication that Umar Johnson has forced a woman to do anything. So I remain cautiously open to his potential contribution. It’s a constant sorting and balancing act. Which is getting harder to do in a digitized world where T.I says “I can’t vote for the leader of the free world to be a woman” then quickly apologized after he realized his customers were offended. I have to mentally discard things that disgust me from men who I still think add value. That’s how I can still listen to Miles Davis. Fela Kuti gets a pass because his music and message are so good. I can walk around the Million Man March hear a comment I don’t agree with and just keep walking. I’ll still buy MLK stamps despite his infidelities. I saw Straight out of Compton. I’ll still celebrate Kwanzaa despite Maulana Karenga. And I’ll always love my father. The work is learning to appreciate the parts, and not discarding the whole of people.
Now we can get to the real problem with Umar and Farrakhan. Beyond the semantics, ivory tower disconnect, and baby bathwater syndrome. They and sometimes their audience seem oblivious to the violence they endorse. They have a responsibility as public figures to consider the contexts in which they speak. Those power hierarchies, white/black, rich/poor, man/woman have always been maintained with force. Violence is more American than apple pie. So when folk are triggered (<-- violent word) by a careless statement from Umar or Farrakhan, it is a response to a long brutal persisting history of physical, sexual, emotional and spiritual violence against women. They might just think they’re suggesting a woman should cook, but their tone, delivery and content gives fuel to the men in the audience who believe woman are inherently subservient. The absence of intentional roles for women in leadership positions in their organizations (or in Fela’s band) resonates with men who see power in a certain way and believe women don’t deserve access to it. Umar and Farrakhan will both start a speech honoring women, but eventually slip in to language reminiscent of an anti-women school of thought. A writer with For Harriet observed in an interview promoting the march that Farrakhan began with "the woman is everything in the way of building civilization” and ended with remarks that she says “contribute to rape culture”. While black women are out in the streets protesting state violence against black bodies they should not have to have to worry about coming home to us and being a victim of domestic violence. Umar and Farrakhan need to be more considerate of that.
I think a lotta guys mean well. We really do want our sisters and mothers, and your sisters and mothers to be treated well. But due to European domination, colonization, and internal power struggles, we have all been exposed over time to perverted ideas about power and humanhood. Then we often mistake new for progressive. For instance, to critique some patriarchal sentiment a person may call the idea “archaic” or “antiquated”. But a nook is just more convenient than book, not necessarily better. In my study of primitive (<-- another generally negative connotation) African culture the power of women was central to the structure of societies and their spiritual cosmologies. Nowadays the face of wall-street, banks, and stock exchanges is men in suits, but in most traditional African societies, the marketplace, the hub of economic development and trade, was always operated by women. “Oba” the Yoruba word for king is not gender specific. Every Oba was given their power by an Iya Oba, a queen mother who gives the authority to govern. The deity who rules over the principle of kingship itself- Shango, receives power from his mother- Yemonja. There is a collection of cosmic beings called Awon Iyami- “The Great Mothers”, that are so powerful you can only speak about them in soft tones and must bow every time you mention them. Based on the spiritual understanding of our ancestors every being in the universe, other than the Supreme Being itself, has a constant obligation to appease The Great Mothers. We understood in antiquated times that real power always flowed through women.
Maybe there never was and will never be a utopian moment when all the people are truly one. I don’t know what it’s gonna take for us to come together. I do know it will have to be intentional. Because the powers that be, the human powers that currently be, thrive off of us being divided. They profit off our polarization. We still think men are from Ogun and women are from Oshun. (*calling the planets Mars and Venus just reminds me how thoroughly our understanding of the universe is defined by the dominant culture). I hope this doesn’t read like I’ve figured any of this out. I wish I had the secret to reconciling our real and imagined differences. Instead I just wanted to contribute something towards the conversation. That encourages us to dig deeper, disagree with love, and decide to have the difficult dialogues that seek to move us closer together, closer to our collective power.
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