The Denial of Black Manhood and The Silence of Black Womanhood
Matt Randolph ‘16
The following article is part of a blog series of academic reflections for Professor Polk’s “Black Sexualities” Course at Amherst College.
n my previous blog, I wrote about how enrolling in the “Black Sexualities” course for my senior year at Amherst College has given me the opportunity to explore academic theories and histories that resonate with my own personal identity. Without a doubt, each reading assignment for “Black Sexualities” continues to enlighten me to the significance of the politics of sexuality and gender in the history of race relations in the United States. For the past few classes, we have been analyzing texts concerned with the relation between masculinity and racial justice movements as part of the “Black Power and Masculine Anxiety” unit of the course.
The Denial of Black Manhood
Black Panther Party Member Eldridge Cleaver sought to pave a path of racial liberation and revenge toward patriarchal white supremacy through acts of sexual violence upon both black and white women. In the chapter “On Becoming” of Soul on Ice, Cleaver constructs the rape of a white woman as an “insurrectionary act…defying and trampling upon the white man’s law, upon his system of values, and I was defiling his women.” Cleaver truly believed that rape could be a viable, legitimate political tool to engage in racial warfare against a society that has denied black men their manhood since slavery. He clearly had not only a highly sexualized and gendered approach to the racial organization of society but to how one should act to combat racism itself.
Although Cleaver later states that he wanted to rape a white woman as a reactive act of revenge for the white man’s historical abuse and control of the black woman, he shows little respect for black women’s bodies and lives in practice. To Cleaver, the white woman’s body was a valuable possession for black men to take and defile from white men out of a desire for revenge, but the black woman was simply a disposable body to prepare for that strategy of sexualized violence toward her white counterpart. Cleaver confessed to “practicing on black girls in the ghetto” until feeling “smooth enough” to cross the tracks and seek out “white prey.” In Cleaver’s misogynistic methodology for achieving racial liberation, white women were simply pieces of white men’s property to be exploited and black women’s suffering could be exchanged for black men’s equality with white men.
In my opinion, a movement for the liberation of a marginalized people is not authentic and valid if it prioritizes only the men of that community. What kind of racial justice is possible when white women and black women are used as what Professor Polk conceptualized during one lecture as “bargaining chips” for the black man’s struggle to get even with and be equal to the white man? It certainly seems like this kind of racial justice works to validate and free black men seeking to reclaim their manhood at the cost of black women’s humanity.
The call of the Malcolm X’s brand of Islam was irresistible for the forgotten black men in the prison system like Cleaver who experience racial oppression so deeply. These black men could identify with Malcolm since he was once also incarcerated like them. However, Malcolm X was not just a great black nationalist leader to Cleaver, but the physical embodiment and source of the manhood for him and so many other black men. Cleaver’s aspirations for racial liberation connected to his feelings of insecurity revolving around his manhood. In Soul on Ice, Malcolm was treated by Cleaver as Black-American royalty: “Malcolm was our manhood, our living, black manhood! This was his meaning to his people…a Prince…our own black shining Prince…We shall have our manhood. We shall have it or the earth will be leveled by our attempts to gain it.” This manhood would need to be achieved at any cost it seemed, even if reclaiming the black men place’s in society meant the oppression of those within his own community.