Saturday February 28th was the tenth anniversary of the State of the Black Union. Each year it is organized by Tavis Smiley. The state of the Black Union is meant to be a representation of the best that black minds have to offer. The panel was divided into two different sections to ensure as much participation as possible. The first panel consisted of Maxine Waters, Charles Ogletree, Stephanie Robinson, Peter Harvey, Michelle Singletary, Marc Morial, Michael Eric Dyson, Iyanla Vanzant, Les Brown, Jesse Jackson, Tricia Rose, and moderator Raymond Brown.
Though there was much enlightening commentary, particularly from Michael Eric Dyson, I would be remiss if I did not pay particular attention to the issue of submission raised by Michelle Singletary. Wrapped in religious dogma, she made a great effort to announce to all that even though she earned more money than her husband that she was a “submitted woman”. It was of particular importance to her to encourage black women to submit to their black husbands because “the black man is the natural head of the household”. This commentary was followed by raucous laughter and a quick admission from various men on the panel that they were the submitted members in their particular relationships, thus turning the issue of patriarchal oppression within the black community into a comedic routine.
The black church has a longstanding history within the black community and in fact without the work of devoted church leaders much of the advances that the black community have made would never have occurred. Even with the acknowledgement of the good deeds performed by the church, it continues to be misogynistic as well as transphobic and homophobic.
Religion is meant to be a path to enlightenment and comfort and instead it is commonly used as a justification to perpetuate intolerance, and hatred. It is telling that black women were once again encouraged to submit to a man with religious dogma used as justification. This particular approach ignores the fact that not all black women are straight and that families no longer solely consist of a mother, father, and 2.5 kids. Simply because the heterosexual understanding of family is hegemonic in discourse, does not necessarily mean that it is beneficial to all participants. The authoritative strain of most family dynamics is particularly oppressive to both women and children.
Encouraging women to be submissive to men is nothing but recreating hierarchal structures that we know from experience is damaging. Regardless of the racial oppression that we all face as black people, it is important that we recognize that men and women experience oppression differently because of the way in which we understand gender. Male headship cannot be considered benign simply because it means that the interests of men will continually be privileged over that of women. Though not all men benefit from male privilege equally, what is quite clear is that our current patriarchal state has been damaging to untold millions.
The entire roundtable seemed to assert that for blacks to prosper that we only needed to confront the limitations placed upon us due to racism. This was made clear by the lack of focus on gender, sexuality and changing family dynamics. Over 70% of those listed at Remembering Our Dead are people of colour. There is clearly a genocide occurring within our community and yet there was not a single trans woman or trans man on the panel. This once again speaks to our continual refusal to admit that there is no such thing as a monolithic blackness. A simple one size answer is not possible because not only does blackness come in various shades, it is coloured by a myriad of experiences and truths.
While many of the panellists spoke about the ways in which the system necessarily exploits African Americans, a reoccurring theme was responsibility. It would seem that if you have a cell phone, or any creature comforts while carrying any debt you are being irresponsible. They simply did not pause to think that consumerism is pushed to all citizens from almost the moment of birth. In an afternoon of watching cartoons a child will be inundated with commercials featuring toys, cereal, vacations, music, movies etc., Blacks are no guiltier than any other group of people of purchasing products that either increase creature comforts or that we have been told increase social status.
Telling African Americans that things will change, if we suddenly “become responsible”, speaks to the fact that many on the panel assume a middle class standing for the average African American. Someone who is working or under-class will not have the same opportunity to consume because they will possess neither the capitol, nor the credit to equally participate in our consumer culture.
If you are living paycheck to paycheck, over-consumption is not an issue in your life. The poverty and debt in the black community does not result from an addiction to abundance, rather it stems from an acute lack of access to financial power. If you do not control the means of production it is not possible to exist with an abundance of wealth. It is the system that is corrupted and not the individual worker who must sell her or his labour to achieve subsistence. Advising African Americans to look out for themselves, instead of waiting for government aid, does not consider the unequal relationship between employer and employee. Without a significant reinvestment in organized labour, the African American community cannot hope to overcome the inequality that is bred into our system of exchange.
It was certainly encouraging to see so many black intelligentsias gathered to speak critically about the various issues that African Americans face. We are often invisible in the mainstream media, and therefore the 6 hours dedicated by C-SPAN to covering the state of the black union was certainly encouraging. Blacks need to continue to engage critically if we are going to achieve any change however, we need to ensure that in any discussions that occur that the diversity of our community is fully represented. When we present blackness as a monolith it encourages those that have limited experience in racial discourse to reject the uniqueness of us as individuals and perpetuate stereotypes that are limiting.