Black Women's Silence Has Never Gotten Us Free, Love.
All of this talk about Jay-Z has, not surprisingly, made me feel some kind of way.
I remember getting a call from my friend a few months ago, a Black woman, who lived in the New York at the time. She had been on my mind because she is a fountain of joy overflowing with the strength of truth telling. I wanted to talk to her because someone I cared about had just been sexually assaulted and I needed help processing it. I needed help figuring out how to be supportive. Before I got a chance to talk with her about my friend, she told me about getting sexually harassed on the subway and she wanted to talk it through with me.
I listened to her story and tried, as best as I could, to be supportive of her. Eventually, she got to the point that all the Black women in my life get to in stories like this. The point where they say “but I just didn’t want to say anything because I feel like Black men are already so attacked right now, you know?” I had heard it before. It was the same reason that the person close to me did not want to report what had happened to her.
I was immediately filled with rage.
The rage of my friends being unsafe. The rage at understanding that these assaults are not isolated incidents. The rage at the reminder that they had just killed Philando Castile and it was not safe to be a Black man in America. But mostly the rage that my persecution was used to silence my sister. Rage that Black men could simultaneously be so monstrous that we need to put down for caring a pen and so fragile that talking about street harassment would tear us asunder. Rage that rage was the only feeling I knew how to feel.
I told my friend the only thing I could: “Black women’s silence has never gotten us free, love.”
To which she replied “But we keep trying it, don’t we.”
“If you are silent about your pain, they will kill you and say you enjoyed it.” –Zora Neale Hurston
Black men have survived the middle passage, slavery, sharecropping, Jim Crow and lynching. How have we gotten to the point where we think Black men can’t survive the truth? Black people need Black women to break their silence.
Patriarchy, like all forms of oppression, breeds in isolation. Black people cannot get free if 51% of our people are in chains of a Black man’s making. AND, at the same time, I can’t shake the weight of the reality that Black men are only good when we are exceptional…or dead. And let’s be honest, usually only when we are dead.
I wonder sometimes. Did anyone ever call Mike Brown a good kid to his face, when he was still alive for it to matter? Did we tell Eric Garner he was a good father for doing whatever he could to bring home some change before his daughter told us to organize? Did people tell Trayvon that he had a bright future before a white man robbed him of it? I doubt it happened very often.
Black men are mostly talked about when we ain’t shit, absent or dead. Oh, there’s Idris’s too fine ass or Jessie Williams before he started dating white women… but they are exceptional. We only talk about them in contrast to other men, especially other Black men. The serial rapist Bill Cosby had more Black people capping for his lying ass than any Black man I know personally…because he was exceptional. He used to be exceptionally respectable and now we know he’s exceptionally fucked up.
Again, Black women hold me down. They always have and history has shown that they probably always will. In private, Black men support me while holding me accountable. Yet for the most part, besides my chosen and blood sisters, even the Black women who support me, praise me for being exceptional. I’ve done “the work.” I read bell hooks. I support the women in life in visible ways. I have mastered performative solidarity. I’ve learned how to be what my friend once called “a safe nigga.”
It’s rare that I am told that I’m still worthy of being loved when I’ve fucked up, especially from other men. It’s rare that people remind me, when I come home tired and angry from walking through a white world, that I’m still worthy of being loved. Like my uncle used to say, ain’t no body going to thank you for paying the bills on time, but they sure do holla when it gets shut off.
There is some sad truth to the old Chris Rock joke that niggas always want credit for some shit we supposed to do. Imma be honest. I really need that shit. Part of my on-going journey in overcoming patriarchy is to be in touch with my pain and be real about my needs. I know I am responsible for meeting 80% of my needs myself but that other 20% can be so crucial. I need, and I think Black men as a whole need, some public validation that even when we are alive and unexceptional, we are worthy of love. We need it from Black women and Black GNC folk but mostly, I think we need it from each other.
I think honestly I’d settle for the recognition that these social expectations are literally killing me. Paying the bills on time is a struggle when the bills are more than you make every month.
Sometimes I wish people recognized that the way I used my overdraft protection and post-dated checks like credit is Black boy alchemy. Me and my brothers are stretching a week’s pay to a month’s electricity like an old testament prophet. I wish people realized that my ability to remind my sisters that they are beautiful despite what society tells them is the art of Black male healing that my grandfather taught me.
I wish that I had been taught that my desire to push people further, to realize their full potential, could be sacred masculinity; that I didn’t have to tear folks down to build them up. I wish we talked more about Black men who didn’t need to drag Black women over the coals in order to heal and get their shit together. I wish we could have a holiday to thank all the Black men whose aggressive posturing towards white people on street corners is the only reason I can afford to live in my neighborhood.
Sometimes I’ve wished that there were more writers like Langston Hughes and James Baldwin. I wish there were more writers who could express their love for me. I wish I could tell all the little Black boys jumping rope and being carefree that they are the real MVP. I wish I was better at telling my own father that I love him. I wish everyone knew him like I did. I wish I could explain that I forgive him for being so tired every day when he came home…cause the bills were always paid on time. I wish we knew how to do that while recognizing that my mother paid more bills that he did.
I wish there was way to be real about the fact that my mother learned how to carry all that weight and still smile and play puppet games and that the difference in their capacity for affection is real and fucked up and still doesn’t detract from the fact that my dad loved me and showed it. He showed me he loved me in the only way he knew how, until he learned to show it better, to say it better, to apologize for not showing it in healthy ways and do better to love by building us up without tearing us down. I wish we knew how to praise him for learning how to love without losing sight of the system that never taught him.
I believe, and will always believe, that Black women need to speak their truth and their pain. The truth of all those 0-4:33 women show us how much work we have to do. It forces us to be better. But I need our politics to tell the whole story: that we are still good while we are trying to get to better.
I need a politics that acknowledges the Black men who stay, who hold families and communities down. I need a politics that acknowledges the Black men who show up and quietly do the work. I need a politics that can praise Black male charisma as divine and beautiful and necessary even as it challenges its centrality. I need a politics that can hold the reality of rape culture in one hand and the capacity for Black men to address harm without causing more harm in the other. I need a politics that can hold the capacity for violence in Black patriarchy and the reality of Black male growth.
I need a politics that can hold all of me and love me even, maybe especially, when I’m not exceptional.