It is difficult to imagine a more startling thesis in a book about black America than the one stated in "Gender Talk." Co-authors Johnnetta Betsch Cole and Beverly Guy-Sheftall assert the antagonisms and communication problems between men and women are more damaging to the black community than issues of race alone.
These two women -- friends and serious scholars -- have produced a book both courageous and informative. They open windows and boldly air their "race's dirty linen" in this meticulously researched and documented work.
When Anita Hill accused Supreme Court nominee Clarence Thomas of sexual harassment in the fall of 1991, the complexities of black gender drew the attention of the whole nation, causing wide public fascination and confusion. This was something new. It seemed the white community long had assumed a sort of collegiality among blacks.
My personal awakening to the perplexing and complicated nature of black male-female relations came from reading Alice Walker's "The Color Purple." I never could quite understand the passage where Celie, having suffered continual abuse from both her stepfather and husband, offers such seemingly illogical advice to her stepbrother, Harpo, on how to handle his strongly independent wife Sofia. Although Celie and Sofia are friends and Harpo possesses a confused sense of his masculinity, she tells him, "Beat her."
In truth, as Cole and Guy-Sheftall reveal, that culture retains a long-held value to close ranks and protect men at all costs. Any black woman who goes against a brother is vilified and scorned. "Thomas's support in the black community actually increased after Hill's charges of sexual misconduct," they write. "He became yet another example of a Black man targeted by the system presumably for sexual crimes he did not commit."
The authors present a credible rationale for the tangled web of black gender issues, going back to the institution of slavery. Enslaved men were so emasculated by white owners and so unable to protect their women that even in freedom, black women worked overtime to build up, support and defend their men. This attitude has resulted in a patriarchal society, one in which some black men have abused their women and children from a latent need to exert their authority, expressed in bruising hyper-masculinity.
I must say, Cole and Guy-Sheftall tackle some weighty subjects. They examine the black church and its dominance over women, the homophobia rampant among blacks, and the growing problem of HIV/AIDS -- now the leading cause of death for black women 25 to 44 in the United States. That fact shocked me. I wonder if it likewise shocks the women of the black community.
The authors also focus on little-known bits of black cultural history, such as the female lynchings that took place after the Civil War and lasted to the time of the Depression. Nothing they write is meant to be sensational, yet I constantly was jolted into fresh awareness of what they refer to as "intraracial gender matters." They bravely step into the world of hip-hop music and its generally vulgar lyrics, which celebrate men's dominance over and denigration of women. Cole and Guy-Sheftall are genteel, educated women -- one a college president and the other a professor and editor -- yet they choose to delve into dark spaces in order to expose and possibly correct areas of their culture badly in need of change.
Statistics indicate black women are graduating from college in record numbers and moving into highly paid professional careers. Hollywood presents images of Angela Bassett and Whoopi Goldberg living it up in Jamaica, having it all. Despite these hard-fought gains, the authors detail how black women are losing respect in their own community, are remaining partner-less and suffering from rape and incest in order to prop up black men, and no one wants to talk about it. Silence reigns.
"Gender Talk" presents many voices along with those of the authors, and the quotations compare with cut crystal, they are so clear. Consider this comment of Byllye Avery: "The number one issue for most of our sisters is violence -- battering, sexual abuse."
How pathetic to note the only gender issue discussed ad nauseam in the media today concerns the trivial question of whether a woman golfer should be allowed to compete equally with men. Thank goodness for a strong and growing black intelligentsia in America and for the forum provided by this book to raise difficult but substantive matters. The voices speaking here deserve an audience.
This is a work of impressive scholarship, broadly researched and carefully footnoted. Yet it reads easily and the subject is truly fascinating. The authors weave their arguments from painful human histories. Considering the ongoing disrespect and actual brutality toward black women, I detected no off-putting anger and blame, just refreshing consistency and a clean, proud tone.
Although Cole and Guy-Sheftall offer no easy answers, they do end with humor and hope, recounting advice from an African American brother encouraging them to practice the Noah Principle. "There will be no more credit for predicting the rain," he tells them. "It's time to build the ark."
("Gender Talk: The Struggle for Women's Equality in African American Communities" by Johnetta Betsch Cole and Beverly Guy-Sheftall, Ballantine Books, 228 pages, $24.95)