In the past few weeks, I've had the opportunity to have very brief conversations with Kevin Powell. Its very interesting to speak with someone with similar passions for community service. As someone who has been very transparent on her blog, I find this essay by Kevin refreshing. I just happen to see this on Facebook as someone posted it many months ago.
I AM A SEXIST MALE.
I take no great pride in saying this, I am merely stating a fact. It is not that I was born this way-rather, I was born into this male-dominated society, and consequently, from the very moment I began forming thoughts, they formed in a decidedly male-centered way. My "education" at home with my mother, at school, on my neighborhood playgrounds, and at church, all placed males in the middle of the universe. My digestion of the 1970s American popular culture in the form of television, film, ads, and music only added to my training, so that by as early as age nine or ten I saw females, including my mother, as nothing more than the servants of males. Indeed, like the Fonz, I thought I could snap my fingers and girls would come running.
My mother, working-poor and a product of the conservative and patriarchal couth, simply raised me as most women are taught to raise boys: The world was mine; there were no chores to speak of; and my aggressions were considered somewhat normal, something that we boys carry out as a rite of passage. Those "rites" included me routinely squeezing girls' butts on the playground. And it was at school that boys were encouraged to do "boy" things: work and build with our hands, fight each other, and participate in the most daring activities during our gym time. Meanwhile, the girls were relegated to h1ome economics, drawing cute pictures, and singing in the school choir. Now that I think about it, school was the place that spearheaded the omission of women from my world view. Save Betsy Ross (whom I remember chiefly for sewing a flag), I recall virtually no women making appearances in my American history classes.
The church my mother and I attended, like most black churches, was peopled mainly by black women, most of them single parents, who dragged their children along for the ride. Not once did I see a preacher who was anything other than an articulate, emotionally charged, well-coifed, impeccably suited black man running this church and, truly, these women. And behind the pulpit of this black man, where he convinced us we were doomed to hell if we did not get right with God, was the image of our savior, a male, always white, named Jesus Christ.
Not surprisingly, the "savior" I wanted in my life was my father. Ten years her senior, my father met my mother, my father wooed my mother, my father impregnated my mother, and then my father-as per his socialization-moved onto the next mating call. Responsibility was about as real to him as a three-dollar bill. When I was eight, my father flatly told my mother, via a payphone, that he felt she had lied, that I was not his child, and that he would never give her money for me again. The one remotely tangible image of maleness in my life was gone for good. Both my mother and I were devastated, albeit for different reasons. I longed for my father's affections. And my mother longed to be married. Silently, I began to blame my mother for my father's disappearance. Reacting to my increasingly bad behavior, my mother turned resentful and her beatings became more frequent, more charged. I grew to hate her and all females, for I felt it was women who made men act as we do.
At the same time, my mother, a fiercely independent and outspoken woman despite having only a grade-school education and being poor, planted within me the seeds of self-criticism, of shame for wrongful behavior and ultimately, of feminism. Clear that she alone would have to shape me, mother spoke pointedly about my father for many years after that call, demanding that I not grow up to "be like him." And I noted the number of times my mother rejected low-life male suitors, particularly the ones who wanted to live with us free of charge. I can see now that my mother is a feminist, although she is not readily familiar with the term. Like many women before and since, she fell hard for my father, and only through enduring immense pain did she realize the power she had within herself.
I ONCE HATED WOMEN, AND I TAKE NO PRIDE IN THIS CONFESSION. I entered Rutgers University in the mid-1980s and my mama's-boy demeanor advanced to that of a pimp. I learned quickly that most males in college are some variety of pimp. Today I lecture regularly, from campus to campus, all over the country, and I see that not much has changed. For college is simply a place where we men, irrespective of race or class, can-and-do act out the sexist attitudes entrenched since boyhood. Rape, infidelity, girlfriend beat downs, and emotional abuse are common, and pimpdom reigns supreme. There is the athlete-pimp, the fratboy pimp, the independent pimp, and the college-professor-pimp. Buoyed by the antiapartheid movement and the presidential bids of Jesse Jackson, my social consciousness blossomed along racial lines and, behold, the student-leader-pimp was born.
Blessed with a gift for gab, a poet's sensibility, and an acute memory for historical facts, I baited women with my self-righteousness by quoting Malcolm X, Frantz Fanon, Machiavelli, and any other figure I was sure they had not studied. It was a polite form of sexism, for I was always certain to say "My sister" when I addressed women at Rutgers. But my politeness did not lend me tolerance for women's issues, nor did my affiliation with a variety of Black Nationalist organizations, especially the Nation of Islam. Indeed, whenever women in our African Student Congress would question the behavior and attitudes of men, I would scream, "We don't have time for them damn lesbian issues!" My scream was violent, mean-spirited, made with the intention to wound. I don't think it is any coincidence that during my four years in college I did not have one relationship with a woman that lasted more than three or four months. For every friend or girlfriend who would dare question my behavior, there were literally hundreds of others who acquiesced to the ways of us men, making it easy for me to ignore the legitimate cries of the feminists. Besides, I had taken on the demanding role of pimp, of conqueror, of campus revolutionary, and there was little time, or room, for real intimacy, and even less time for self-reflection.
CONFESSIONS ARE DIFFICULT BECAUSE THEY FORCE ME TO VISIT GHETTOS IN THE MIND I THOUGHT I HAD LONG ESCAPED. I was kicked out of college at the end of my fourth year because I drew a knife on a female student. We were both members of the African Student Congress and she was one of the many "subversive" female leaders I had sought to purge from the organization. She had left but for some reason was in our office a few days after we had brought Louis Farrakhan to speak at Rutgers. Made tense by her presence, I ignored her and turned to a male student asking him, as she stood there, to ask her to jet. As she was leaving, she turned and charged toward me. My instincts, nurtured my inner-city upbringing and several months of receiving anonymous threats as the Farrakhan talk neared, caused me to reach inside my pocket and pull out a knife.
My intent was to scare her into submission. The male student panicked and knocked the knife from my hand, believing I was going to stab this woman. I would like to believe that this is not the case. It does not matter. This woman pressed charges on and off campus, and my college career, the one I took on for myself, my undereducated mother, and my illiterate grandparents, came to a screeching halt.
IT IS NOT EASY FOR ME TO ADMIT I HAVE A PROBLEM.
Before I could be readmitted to school I had to see a therapist. I went, grudgingly, and agonized over my violent childhood, my hatred of my mother, my many problems with women, and the nauseating torment of poverty and instability. But then it was done. I did not bother to try to return to college, and I found myself again using women for money, for sex, for entertainment. When I moved to New York City in August of 1990, my predator mentality was still in full effect. I met a woman, persuaded her to allow me to live with her, and then mentally abused her for nearly a year, cutting off her friends, her peace of mind, her spirit, and eventually pushing her into a bathroom door when she blew up my spot, challenging me and my manhood.
I do not want to recount the details of "the incident" here. What I will say is that I, like most black men I know, have spent much of my life living in fear. Fear of white racism, fear of the circumstances that gave birth to me, fear of walking out my door wondering what humiliation will be mine today. Fear of black women-of their mouths, of their bodies, of their attitudes, of their hurts, of their fear of us black men. I felt fragile, as fragile as a bird with clipped wings, that day my ex-girlfriend stepped up her game and spoke back to me. Nothing in my world, nothing in my self-definition prepared me for dealing with a woman as an equal. My world said women were inferior, that they must at all costs, be put in their place, and my instant reaction was to do that. When it was over, I found myself dripping with sweat, staring at her back as she ran barefoot out of the apartment.
Guilt consumed after the incident. The women I knew through my circle of poet and writer friends begged me to talk through what I had done, to get counseling, to read the books of bell hooks, Pearl Cleage's tiny tome, Mad at Miles, the poetry of Audre Lorde, the many meditations of Gloria Steinem. I resisted at first, but eventually I began to listen and read, feeling electric shocks running through my body when I realized these women, in describing abusive, oppressive men, were talking about me. Me, who thought I was progressive. Me, who claimed to be a revolutionary. Me, who still felt women were on the planet to take care of men.
During this time I did restart therapy sessions. I did, also, spend a good deal of time, talking with young feminist women-some friends, some not. Some were soothing and understanding, some berated me and all men. I also spent a great deal of time alone, replaying my life in my mind: my relationship with my mother, how my mother responded to my father's behavior, how I responded to my mother's response to my father. I thought of my education, of the absence of women in it. How I managed to attend a major university affiliated with one of the oldest women's colleges in America, Douglass College, and visit that campus only in pursuit of sex. I though of the older men I had encountered in my life-the ministers, the high school track coach, the street hustlers, the local business men, the college professors-and realized that many of the ways I learned to relate to women came from listening to and observing those men. Yeah, I grew up after women's studies classes had appeared in most of the major colleges in America, but that does not mean that feminism actually reached the people it really needed to reach: average, everyday American males.
The incident, and the remorse that followed, brought about something akin to a spiritual epiphany. I struggled, mightily, to rethink the context that created my mother. And my aunts. And my grandmother. And all women I had been intimate with, either physically or emotionally or both. I struggled to understand terms like "patriarchy," "misogyny," "gender oppression." A year after the incident I penned a short essay for Essence magazine called simply, "The Sexist in Me," because I wanted to be honest in the most public forum possible, and because I wanted to reach some men, some young black men, who needed to hear from another male that sexism is as oppressive as racism. And at times, worse.
I AM NO HERO. I AM NO SAINT. I REMAIN A SEXIST MALE. But one who is now conscious of it and who has been waging an internal war for several years. Some days I am incredibly progressive, other days I regress. It is very lonely to swim against the stream of American male-centeredness, of black-man bravado and nut-grabbing. It is how I was molded, it is what I know, and in rejecting it? I often feel mad naked and isolated. For example, when I publicly opposed the blatantly sexist and patriarchal rhetoric and atmosphere of the Million Man March, I was attacked by black men, some questioning my sanity, some accusing me of being a dupe for the white man, and some wondering if I was just "tryin' to get some pussy from black women."
Likewise, I am a hip-hop head. Since adolescence I have been involved in a rap culture as a dancer, a graffiti writer, an activist, a concert organizer, and most prominently, a hip-hop journalist. Indeed, as a journalist at Vibe magazine, I found myself interviewing rap icons like Dr. Dre, Snoop Dogg, and the late Tupac Shakur. And although I did ask Snoop and Tupac some pointed questions about their sexism, I still feel I dropped the ball. We black men often feel so powerless, so sure the world-politically, economically, spiritually, and psychologically-is aligned against us. The last thing any of us want is for another man to question how we treat women. Aren't we black me, the endangered species anyhow? This is how many of us think.
While I do not think hip-hop is any more sexist or misogynist than other forms of American culture, I do think it is the most explicit form of misogyny around today. It is also a form of sexism that gets more than its share of attention, because hop-hop-now a billion dollar industry-is the soundtrack for young America, regardless of race or class. What folks don't understand is that hip-hop was created on the heels of the civil rights era by impoverished black men and Latinos, who literally made something out of nothing. But in making that something our of nothing, many of us men of color have held tightly to white patriarchal notions of manhood-that is, the way to be a man is to have power. Within hip-hop culture, in our lyrics, in our videos, and on our tours, that power translates into material possessions, provocative and often foul language, flashes of violence, and blatant objectification of and disrespect for women. Patriarchy, as manifested in hip-hop, is where we can have our version of power within this very oppressive society. Who would want to even consider giving that up?
Well, I have, to a large extent, and these days I am a hip-hopper-in-exile. I dress, talk, and walk like a hip-hopper, yet I cannot listen to rap radio or digest music videos without commenting on the pervasive sexism. Moreover, try to drop seeds, as we say, about sexism, whenever and wherever I can, be it at a community forum or on a college campus. Some men, young and old alike, simply cannot deal with it and walk out. Or there is the nervous shifting in sets, the uneasy comments during the question-and-answer sessions, generally in the form of "Why you gotta pick on the me, man?" I constantly "pick on the men" and myself, because I truly wonder how many men actually listen to the concerns of women. Just as I feel it is whites who need to be more vociferous about racism in their communities, I feel it is men who need to speak long and loud about racism in their communities, I feel it is men who need to speak long and loud about sexism among each other.
I AM A RECOVERING MISGYNIST.
I do not say this with pride. Like a recovering alcoholic or a crack fiend who has righted her or his ways, I am merely cognizant of the fact that I have had some serious problems in my life with and in regard to women. I am also aware of the fact that I can lapse backward-and have-at any time. My relationship with my mother is better that it has ever been, though there are days when speaking with her turns me back into that little boy, cowering beneath the belt and tongue of a woman deeply wounded by my father, by poverty, by her childhood, by the sexism that has dominated her life. My relationships since the incident with my ex-girlfriend have been better, no doubt, but not the bomb.
So I flow solo, and have down so for some time. For sure, I now count among my friends, peers, and mentors feminist women like bell hooks and Johnetta B. Cole, and young feminists like Nikki Stewart, a girls' rights advocate in Washington, D.C., and Aishah Simmons, who is currently putting together a documentary on rape within the black community. I do not always agree with these women but I also know that if I do not struggle, hard and constantly, backsliding is real. This is made worse by the fact that outside of a handful of male people around the country-who I can speak with regarding sexism as easily as I do with women. So few of us actually believe there is a problem.
The fact is there was a blueprint handed to me in childhood telling me this is the way a man should behave, and I unwittingly followed the script verbatim. There was no blue-print handed to me about how to begin to wind myself out of sexism as an adult, but maybe there should have been. Everyday I struggle within myself not to use the language of gender oppression, to see the sexism inherent in every aspect of America, to challenge all injustices, not just those that are convenient for me. I am ashamed of my ridiculous sexist life, of raising my hand to my girlfriend. But with that shame has come a consciousness and as the activists said during the civil rights movement, this consciousness, this knowing, is a river of no return. I have finally learned how to swim, I have finally learned how to push forward. I may become tired, I may lose my breath, I may hit a rock from time to time and become cynical, but I am not going to drown this time around.
Kevin Powell, poet, journalist, and activist, is the editor of the forthcoming "Step Into a World: A Global Anthology of the New Black Literature" (John Wiley 8z Sons, fall, 2000). He lives in Brooklyn.