Eradicating Patriarchy From Movement Spaces

This is article two of five in a patriarchy series—from the mouth of a Black man to the ears of Black men—written by the multi-talented Daniel Johnson. Subscribe via email.

Over the long history of Black resistance and social revolution in America, there has concurrently run a simultaneous vein of Patriarchy which has informed these movements as they have taken shape. In its present incarnation with outspoken leaders that identify along the LGBTQ spectrum and are largely women, what we have occurring organically is a decided push back against the ideals of Patriarchy as it relates to movement work and spaces. It may be correctly said that the movements of this present moment would not be possible in any other time but right now, in a time when you have more Black LGBTQ visibility than perhaps at any other time along the Black resistance timeline.

Consider the case of one Bayard Rustin, without whom the 1963 March on Washington might well have never manifested into a real and altogether transformative event. Rustin, who was at that time considered something of a pariah and a controversial figure, would today fit in rather well in today’s movement for Black Lives when we consider the movement of Deray McKesson in the present. Rustin was silenced largely due to his sexual orientation and still has not been properly credited for his due part in creating and crafting the agenda of the Civil Rights Movement, because of the way that Patriarchy and Respectability Politics dictated that those who were given prominent space and titles had to fit into the cisgender and heteronormative standards imposed onto the Civil Rights Movement as a whole.

Sixty years later, we have in McKesson an openly gay Black man who has been linked with the rise of Black Lives Matter as a movement, a rather uniquely modern development as far as it concerns the loosening of the bonds of Patriarchy as a definitive structure for a movement for Civil Rights; in conjunction with this movement, comes a move away from the centralized and in some ways more limited idea of a centralized movement, into the more nebulous and more autonomous “leaderless” (or leader full depending on your leanings) movement of Black Lives Matter.

According to M. Bahati Kuumba’s treatise entitled Gender and Social Movements: “The Black Panther Party (BPP) promoted a “revolutionary nationalist” philosophy that virtually equated African American liberation with Black male empowerment and masculinist forms of power.” So what we see developing here is not so much a “revolution” in terms of who is empowered or seen as vital, but it is actually a continuation of the gendered oppression of Black women that is part and parcel of the Patriarchy which is embedded in the society against which the struggle for Black Liberation is set.

Though the Black Panther Party is largely seen in the American imagination as a force that is initially revolutionary and frightening, it is only seen as so because much of the early emphasis is placed on the men and on masculine identities or roles. The irony here is that it will not actually become revolutionary by choice, but rather dubiously the Party only diversifies by force, due to the infiltration and internal destruction of the male leadership of the Party.

Though the Black Panther Party is largely seen in the American imagination as a force that is initially revolutionary and frightening, it is only seen as so because much of the early emphasis is placed on the men and on masculine identities or roles.

The assumption here made by the United States Government is that of Patriarchal societies: the idea that without any men to helm the Party, it will become weaker immediately. But thanks to women like ex-Chairman Elaine Brown and Angela Davis, as well as Kathleen Cleaver, the Party sees considerable power transferred to the women of the Party, who then go on to become the most well remembered members of the Party, save cofounders Bobby Seale and Huey Newton.

Before the destruction of the mostly male leadership of the Black Panthers, however, women were marginalized and minimized, as Kuumba posits: “This perspective posed legitimate African American women’s activism as supportive to male dominance in the movement and labeled any stronger type of resistance on the part of the women as symbolic castration or a “matriarchal coup d’etat.”

The more patriarchal nationalistic tendency in this movement relegated women’s roles to the background and often called on African tradition as justification.” To briefly speak to Kuumba’s last sentence, we see this most often in the contemporary pseudo revolutionary profiteering of one Umar Johnson and those of his ilk, who often set their criticisms of feminism as anti-African; and eerily similar to Daniel Patrick Moynihan’s “reasoning” which serves to blame Black women for the failure of Black people to collectively overcome racism, they blame the breakdown of the family structure and single mothers for Black America’s problems.

The problem of Patriarchy in movements and movement spaces is that it, as a system, generally tells women and those who are on the LGBTQ spectrum that their concerns and or oppressions are not as important as those of cisgendered males and that their specific issues are secondary. As a system, Patriarchy is violence towards everyone who is not a straight male, and additionally, as Audre Lorde said: “There is no such thing as a single issue struggle because we do not live single issue lives” so with that in mind, there has to be space at the proverbial table for everyone to lay out their issues and work out the best ways to ensure that these issues are addressed in a way that ensures collective survival.

The danger of Patriarchy to revolution and revolutionary movements is that it demands that one set of or one group’s set of issues dominates or overrules another set of issues, usually the unique issues of Black women and those on the LGBTQ identity spectrum who are living in a culture at large that does not want them to exist and is generally rhetorically and physically violent towards them. This is rather clear when you examine the rhetoric and positioning of Evangelical Christianity that many Black people subscribe to, which rather clearly designates Homosexuality (and it may be inferred those who are transgender or queer) as offenses to God. That position and rhetoric is the definition of violence. When the dominant culture is already against you because you are Black, and then you exist along an identity spectrum that is positioned as “wrong” and “unnatural” by members of your own population, then you are doubly and most importantly wrongly oppressed. You cannot have a revolution that is without revolutionary recognition of the humanity of ALL BLACK PEOPLE and not just the cisgendered heterosexual males and females in it, and as such, the existence of Patriarchy in these spaces is doubly dangerous and reductive.

The danger of Patriarchy to revolution and revolutionary movements is that it demands that one set of or one group’s set of issues dominates or overrules another set of issues…

In the current incarnations of Black Resistance, there is an ongoing movement towards the eradication of Patriarchy in movement spaces, this is most well evidenced by Black Lives Matter, BYP100, and the ongoing movement in South Africa, Fees Must Fall. In the case of Black Lives Matter, it was formed and founded by three LGBTQ Black women, Patrisse Cullors, Alicia Garza, and Opal Tometi which means that immediately, the concerns and unique issues that those identifiers raise are no longer languishing in the background, but they exist in the forefront of the revolutionary work of these women and the movement which they began. Or as they address the issue here: “Black Lives Matter affirms the lives of Black queer and Black trans folks, disabled folks, Black undocumented folks, folks with records, women, and all Black lives along the gender spectrum. It centers those that have been marginalized within Black liberation movements.”

What this means, more or less, is that the movement and its founders by and large are making a conscious effort to eliminate Patriarchy from the parameters of the movement by focusing on those groups which the charismatic male leadership of past movements have been habitually unable to or unwilling to focus on, because those men did not understand or even see the problems of those severely marginalized groups because heterosexual Black men have been the focus of any analysis. Last year, BYP100 was the subject of intense controversy when a rather prominent member of its Chicago chapter, Malcolm London, was accused of sexual assault by a member of the organization. The response from BYP100’s national leadership was swift and revolutionary, immediately centering both their framework of activism and their desire for accountability within the organization: “As an organization rooted in a Black queer feminist framework, we take reports of sexual assault extremely seriously. When this allegation came to our attention we immediately embarked on our accountability process.”

Similar to Black Lives Matter, Black Youth Project 100’s leaders are also Black women who identify along the LGBTQ spectrum which naturally informs the way that the organization will respond to issues which arise such as sexual assault and rape. Those issues were commonplace in movements of the past, but have largely been squelched, because the impetus of those male run movements was to ensure that Black men were not seen in a negative light, largely because of the idea of and the reality of the White gaze, seeing a Black man accused of sexual assault in the movement would invalidate the movement, and Black men were by proxy the faces of the movement, so Black women had to go unprotected. Now, Black women demand liberation and refuse to be erased, even if that means that Black men are put in a compromised position. Black women should not struggle for revolution and then have their unique concerns erased in order to protect Black men, that is the antithesis of revolution. That is Patriarchal suppression, and that has no place in this new movement for Black lives.

Similarly, during the Fees Must Fall protests, there came a confrontation detailed in the South African press Rand Daily Mail which led Panashe Chigumadzi to write: “There is a new militancy among black women. A couple of weeks ago, the black women of UCT‘s Rhodes Must Fall movement grew tired of the violent misogyny and patriarchy in their nominally intersectional movement and literally kicked out black men, declaring, “The revolution will be black-led and intersectional, or it will be bullshit”; and, “This revolution is led by black queer women.” So what we have here is a new generation of leaders who will not tolerate in silence the abuses of the past or the squelching of their voices and perspectives, these leaders will not be lead anywhere where their concerns are of a secondary nature. This significance to me is indicative of a shift in revolutionary thought as more Black men and Black women are reading and assigning value to the work of Audre Lorde, bell hooks, Alice Walker, Patricia Hill Collins and others. This new movement is not going to sit idly by, as allegations of rape or sexual assault or even a general attitude aligned with the interests of Patriarchy are barriers to true Black liberation.

Brittany Oliver, a Baltimore based gender violence activist, sums up the largely ignored issue of street harassment quite nicely here: “Street harassment is one piece to a larger puzzle of institutional sexism in our society. Like rape and sexual assault, they are not single-issues that will solve all of the world’s problems. It’s a mechanism used to reinforce power dynamics by intimidating women, dominating public spaces, and making it uncomfortable for us to enter any space. Now, street harassment cannot be solely viewed via a lens of gender alone. While women of all races experience street harassment, Black women’s experiences are harsh, racialized and are often told to keep quiet because it’s not a “real” issue. Black women are also often accused of being “fast-tailed” when men make crude remarks on our appearance and bodies.”

Here, we have a much needed illustration of exactly the kinds of harm that Patriarchy does to women, and women in the movement specifically. Patriarchy says that your issues aren’t “important enough” to be real and largely dismisses the unique experience of Black women and girls who are routinely catcalled or followed and harassed by grown men as young as 12 years old. Oliver makes a great point about the power dynamics and domination of public spaces as these two things are hallmarks of the Patriarchy which has largely been employed in movement spaces as well as the larger society. The danger of having these things in movement spaces, however, is that they serve to invalidate the claims and concerns of Black women, and in the intersectional movements of today, there is absolutely no place that Patriarchy should be reserved in. The deflection of attention on Black women and girls’ attire is one that is as old and as tired as rape culture itself and it is in the same Patriarchal vein as “if she wore that, she was asking for it” as if men cannot control their desires for the female body just because her clothes fit tight or just because she is “well-developed”, this thinking is reductive and destructive towards both Black women and girls and Black men.

Patriarchy says that your issues aren’t “important enough” to be real and largely dismisses the unique experience of Black women and girls who are routinely catcalled or followed and harassed by grown men as young as 12 years old.

There is no place in movement spaces for Patriarchy because if there is space for Patriarchy then there is concurrently no space that is safe for Black women. When women speak on issues they see, such as Oliver does, it is imperative that we as Black men get out the way, get our “not all men” feelings out of the way and simply resign to listen to what they tell us. Our liberation will only go as far as the liberation of Black women, because if they are not free, then we are not free.

The end of Patriarchy in liberation spaces is ultimately the beginning of complete Black liberation because as previously noted, there is no liberation for Black men without the liberation of Black women. There is no liberation to be had when there are certain individuals who are not included in said liberation and are told to “wait your turn” in regards to their freedom. As this relates to those along the LGBTQ spectrum, they shall be allowed to express their fullest and freest selves only in the spaces reserved for revolution at first, but as a result of this liberation, they will experience increased freedom in the larger society. I believe that we will see this going forward and it will manifest in several ways, one of which being that we will see movement spaces not only make space for these individuals to speak and have platforms, but we will see increased protection for these individuals coming from the core of the movements for liberation.

Trans folks are at a much higher risk than other marginalized identities, and I see this protection of them in movement spaces taking place primarily in the physical arena and also when they are given platforms to speak, there will be protection and an unquestioned affirmation of their right to speak about their lived experiences. I see the complete and total eradication of Patriarchy from movement spaces happening within the next 25 or 30 years, because as the influence of groups like BYP100 and Black Lives Matter grows, so will their ideals of truly inclusive activism, and also much like the resistance of Fees Must Fall, those who do not fall in line and erase Patriarchy from movement spaces will flatly be kicked out of the movement. This is the evolution of the movements for Black liberation in America, they are not focused on a heterosexist existence, they are focused on the marginalized and as they go, so go the rest of us. Patriarchy must fall, so that Black liberation can stand strong.

This is article two of five in a patriarchy series—from the mouth of a Black man to the ears of Black men—written by the multi-talented Daniel Johnson. Subscribe via email.

By Daniel Johnson

Daniel Johnson studies English at Sam Houston State University. In his spare time, he likes to visit museums and listen to music. He has self-published two collections of poetry and has written several short stories.