Black Women: Free at Last

By Maya Pete

I’m a woman

Phenomenally.

Phenomenal woman,   

That’s me.

~Maya Angelou, Phenomenal Woman

“When we allow freedom to ring – when we let it ring from every city and every hamlet, from every state and every city, we will be able to speed up that day when all of God’s children, black men and white men, Jews and Gentiles, Protestants and Catholics, will be able to join hands and sing in the words of the old Negro spiritual, ‘Free at last, Free at last, Great God a-mighty, We are free at last.’” This excerpt, taken from the late Martin Luther King Jr.’s famous “I Have a Dream” speech, illustrated the nationwide yearning of African Americans to be treated equally to their white counterparts during the Civil Rights Movement. However, one might focus on the part of this excerpt where he indicates that “all of God’s children, black men and white men…will be able to join hands and sing.” Black men and white men.

King fails to emphasize the necessity for black women and white women to be free. More important was the essential need for black women to taste freedom, because the struggles for equity of white women are a different endeavor entirely. While they struggled to gain access to the public sphere, they did not have to overcome the added issue of racial oppression.[1] However widely accepted it is that women are implied when the term “man” is used, the idea seems to have been misconstrued in this situation. For it seems that following the Civil Rights Movement, the only group to reap the full benefits of equality was black men.

Black women were confined to a state of oppression—with two counts against them, being black and being female.

The question of the matter is: who was the prominent oppressor? Was it the white man who held the black woman down? Or was it her partner in crime, her confidant, and her shoulder to lean on…the black man? In Eldridge Cleaver’s 1968 memoir, Soul on Ice, Cleaver writes, in one of the most brutally honest passages of his book, “I became a rapist…I started out by practicing on black girls in the ghetto – in the black ghetto where dark and vicious deeds appear not as aberrations or deviations from the norm, but as part of the sufficiency of the Evil of the day – and when I considered myself smooth enough, I crossed the tracks and sought out white prey…. Rape was an insurrectionary act…. I felt I was getting revenge” (183). In this instance, black women were used as a means of “practice” for revenge, so that the black man could further redeem himself against the oppression he felt from his ancestors’ enslavement and the political and economic oppression he attributed to segregation policies, Jim Crow laws in the South, poverty, and second-class citizenship.

However, it is clear from Eldridge’s account that, in their pain, the black man neglected to sympathize with the black woman, and to see how his acts of vengeance were setting her back further than they were promoting him forward. For where was she to go to achieve freedom, to find her voice, if the white man owned the workforce and excluded her from educational opportunities, and the black man conquered and subjugated her body and sexuality? These times seemed the darkest of all for women in the black community, but out of the darkness there emerged a group of passionate, brave women writers, who found their voices in literature. Toni Morrison, Maya Angelou, and Sapphire are some of these feminine thinkers, who refused to sugarcoat the truth in order to appease the black men in their lives. They found their voices by describing the truth and exposing the lives of black women.

The Bluest Eye, written by Toni Morrison in the 1970s, details the internal struggle undergone by black women and girls dealing with the issues of rape, misconstrued conceptions of love, and discrimination, and how these phenomena were perpetuated by the discontent of black men and women within their own race. The most prominent struggle throughout this story was the fact that black girls felt the need to have the bluest eyes in order to be worthy of praise, to be treated equally, and to be looked upon as human beings that deserved civil treatment in their society.

Such ideas were promoted on the basis that white women, with blue eyes, were the standard of beauty that everyone aspired to achieve. Moreover, they were enforced by the acts or rape and abuse thrust upon them by black men; black women felt that the only way out was a change on their part.

“White women said, ‘Do this.’ White children said, ‘Give me that.’ White men said, ‘Come here.’ Black men said, ‘Lay Down.’” This selection from The Bluest Eye illustrates the pressure that black women felt to fulfill the needs of all different oppressors, as if it were her duty to obey white women, to serve white children, to respect white men, and then to satisfy the sexual needs and desires of black men. Free black men felt an entitlement to power and exerted it especially over black women, because women were easy targets, given less power and influence than men were. Moreover, as mentioned earlier, black women were practice objects for the pent-up rage black men felt towards white men; the men were practicing freedom and experimenting with a newly discovered subjectivity by exerting power over those weaker than themselves. In another excerpt from The Bluest Eye, Morrison specifies the vicious behavior that black men exhibited towards their female counterparts as an outlet for the abuse that they received from the white man. “When white men beat their [black] men, they [black women] cleaned up the blood and went home to receive abuse from the victim.” After watching the white man day-in and day-out, it becomes a case of monkey see, monkey do.

“Maybe that was love. Choking sounds and silence” (57). Ultimately, these instances of violence led young black girls to grow up believing in a misnomer of what love should truly be. Be careful little eyes what you see, as the song goes; children are extremely impressionable and are inclined to replicate the norms set by authority figures in their lives. Therefore, not only do these happenings perpetuate the cycle of rape and sexual abuse, but they envelop the black woman in it because she believes that this is the way that love should be.

The author Sapphire illustrates a similar problem in a more modern novel, Push. Push chronicles the life of sixteen-year-old Claireece (Precious) Jones, who is repeatedly raped by her father and beaten by her mother as a consequence. Precious writes, “I think I was rape. I think what my fahver do is what Farrakhan said the white man did to the black woman…. Farrakhan[2] say during slavery times the white man just walk out to the slavery Harlem part where the niggers live separate from the mansions where the white people live and he take any black woman he want and if he feel like he jus’ gone and do the do on top her even if her man there. This spozed to hurt the black man and even more than it hurt the woman getting rape – for the black man to have to see this raping” (68). This reiterates the idea that such acts of sexual violence came from immersion in the white man’s culture. Such tendencies were also used against the black man to beat him down mentally, because he could not protect the black woman. However, regardless of the origins of rape, the real issue of importance is the impact that this practice had on the progression, rather the setbacks, of black females. They felt unloved, un-pretty, and unappreciated. Although Precious could not read, nor necessarily liberate herself through literature in this instance, she came to this understanding by listening to Farrakhan speak. She found solace in his words and a mutual understanding that it was not her fault she was being raped, but instead the product of years of racial oppression dating back to the era of slavery.

Precious Motion Picture Directed by Lee Daniels 20 November 2009

Maya Angelou writes about a similar situation in her autobiography, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, in which she narrates her life and the major incidents that made her who she was. Unlike the characters discussed above, upon her first interaction with rape and molestation, Marguerite Johnson (Maya Angelou) was pleased with the affection that her assailant, Mr. Freeman, displayed toward her. Mr. Freeman was her mother’s boyfriend who she says, “lived with us, or we lived with him (I never quite knew which)” (55). At this time young Maya was living with her mother, brother, and around some cousins, aunts, and uncles after being moved out of her grandmother’s house.

Conversely, when she was molested, she conflated these feelings with the meaning of love. A young girl of eight, abandoned by her father and mother at the time, she had no idea what it meant to experience love. All she knew was that the warmth sparked by Mr. Freeman enveloped and consumed her. However, the aftereffect was what sent her spiraling downward. “For months he stopped speaking to me…I was hurt and for a time felt lonelier than ever.” Because Maya had mistakenly associated molestation with love, she could not fathom the wrongness of her feelings towards Mr. Freeman, and still saw him as a safe haven rather than a threat, until it was too late. “The act of rape on an eight-year-old body is a matter of the needle giving because the camel can’t. The child gives, because the body can, and the mind of the violator cannot. I thought I had died – I woke up in a white-walled world, and it had to be heaven” (63). Following this incident of rape, she could hide her violator’s secret no more because the pain was just too brutal. When her family found out it was Mr. Freeman who had asserted himself upon a child, he was killed. Maya condemned herself for his death. She felt guilt for telling his secret and consequently took a vow of silence. Rape caused her to lose her voice, literally.

Rape caused Precious to be kicked out of school due to pregnancy brought on by her father, twice. Rape also caused Pecola, from The Bluest Eye, to be removed from school due to pregnancy, and she became the object of the town’s ridicule and scorn rather than pity and compassion.

In each of these scenarios, a black man whom the main characters should have been able to trust, to rely on, to confide in, brings upon them the heartbreak of rape. Thus, he causes more traumatic consequences for each of these victims, adding to their oppression, silencing their expressions and further estranging their journey to freedom.

Moreover, the oppressors themselves are dehumanized. This, consequently, not only sets black females back, but also stunts the growth of black men who choose to partake.

“The Black female is assaulted in her tender years by all those common forces of nature at the same time that she is caught in the tripartite crossfire of masculine prejudice, white illogical hate and black lack of power. The fact that the adult American Negro female emerges a formidable character is often met with amazement, distaste and even belligerence. It is seldom accepted as an inevitable outcome of the struggle won by survivors and deserves respect if not enthusiastic acceptance.” Maya foreshadows the emergence of great black women, their possession of freedom, and their vocal expressions towards the end of I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings. Young Maya, after being violated, finds her voice through reading literary works aloud. She became a literary scholar and went on to become a world famous poet, author, actress, dancer and singer, all from writing truthfully about her oppression.  Sapphire writes about Precious attending an alternative school, due to her expulsion, and learning to love writing about her life as an outlet for the pent up anger, stress, and hurt. Additionally, Toni Morrison embodies the essence of the idea that black women express their oppression throughout the ages with her bestsellers based on true accounts, including Song of Solomon, Beloved, and The Bluest Eye. At the end of her novel, The Bluest Eye, she scribes, “They were through with the lust lactation, beyond the tears and terror, they could alone walk the roads of Mississippi, the lanes of Georgia, the fields of Alabama unmolested. They were old enough to look forward to death, disinterested enough to accept the idea of pain while ignoring the presence of pain. They were, in fact, and at last, free” (139).

Even throughout the times of darkness and oppression hidden to the rest of the world, black women were able to define their freedom in a sphere of their own.

Developing success over their own works of literature, black females were able to not only discover their voices, but also inspire and empower black women nationwide, by telling the truth.

Congruous to the definition of faith in St. Paul’s letters to the Romans, these women emerge as the realization of human freedom, things hoped for, and the evidence of things unseen. Literature liberates by allowing these women, and those to come after them, to expose their whispered, yet powerful stories that are swept under the rug by a society that does not want to acknowledge the truth. They allow black women of any descent to join hands and emerge from their dark days of oppression.

 

 

 

Leaving behind nights of terror and fear

I rise

Into a daybreak that’s wondrously clear

I rise

Bringing the gifts that my ancestors gave,

I am the dream and the hope of the slave.

I rise

I rise

I rise.

~Maya Angelou, Still I Rise

 

[1] While black men were allotted the ability to vote in the 1869 (with the ratification of the Fifteenth Amendment), women struggled for this privilege until 1919, when the Nineteenth Amendment was passed.

[2] Farrakhan Muhammad, Sr. is the leader of the Nation of Islam, a religious group in which he was formerly known as Louis X. He is most popularly known as a black religious and social leader, and is best known for his activism and controversial political views. He is often perceived as anti-Semitic and anti-white.

 

Works Cited

Angelou, Maya. I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings. New York: Random House, 1970; 1969. Print.

Cleaver, Eldridge. Soul on Ice. New York: Laurel/Dell, 1992; 1991. Print.

Morrison, Toni. The Bluest Eye. New York: Pocket Books, 1972; 1970. Print.

Sapphire. Push : A Novel. 1st ed. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1996. Print.

United States. Martin Luther King, Jr., National Historic Site, Georgia : I have a Dream. Washington, D.C.: National Park Service, U.S. Dept. of the Interior, 1990. Print.

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