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Our Dirty Little Secret

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For as long as Black people have lived on these shores, we have struggled against the oppression of Whites. But now two of our most prominent scholars, Johnnetta B. Cole and Beverly Guy-Sheftall, argue in their new book, Gender Talk: The Struggle for Women’s Equality in African American Communities (Ballantine Books), that there’s another area of struggle we’ve ignored: the ways in which Black men hurt and oppress Black women.

It’s the dirty little secret we don’t want to talk about. Through exhaustive research that examined everything from hip-hop lyrics to the writings of Nobel laureate Toni Morrison, Cole, president of Bennett College in Greensboro, North Carolina, and Guy-Sheftall, a professor of English and women’s studies at Spelman College in Atlanta and the director of the school’s Women’s Research and Resource Center, concluded in their controversial book that despite the enormous gains we’ve made, in our communities men continue to be the power brokers.

Cole and Guy-Sheftall assert that it isn’t good enough for African-Americans to talk only about racial and economic empowerment. We must also take up the cause of empowering our women.

Essence editor-in-chief Diane Weathers recently talked with the authors of Gender Talk about why sexism, misogyny and other issues must be included in the next phase of the Black struggle.

Diane Weathers: You argue in Gender Talk that to emphasize racial oppression and place little or no focus on gender-related oppression distorts the African-American experience. How?

Beverly Guy-Sheftall: Historically we have made the argument that the primary victims of racism have been men, and we continue to believe this. In fact, both Black women and Black men have been victimized by racism. The sexual exploitation of Black women during slavery was as devastating as the emasculation of Black-male slaves.

Johnnetta B. Cole: We focus on the lynching of Black men as if no Black woman was ever lynched. But that’s untrue. Historical records show that lynching happened to Black women and children as well. Focusing on who was better or worse off maintains a kind of competitiveness around the degree of our oppression.

Weathers: What about present-day examples?

Cole: We know that many African-American women experience domestic violence. Focusing only on race can lead a sister who is being physically brutalized to say, “I can’t turn him in because I know the criminal-justice system is organized against him.” So she puts up with it. Having a gender consciousness helps her understand not only that he has no right to brutalize her, but that there is also something systemic to his assumption that he can get away with beating her.

Guy-Sheftall: A lack of gender consciousness often leads people to believe that Black men beat Black women out of their frustration with the “White man” and not for the same reason that men all over the world beat women: It’s a result of the power imbalance. But overall, we tend to ignore domestic violence altogether. Black people are programmed to focus on the external ways our safety is compromised, for example, the way White police brutalize Black men. But Black women’s safety is often threatened by Black men, and that’s something we don’t like to talk about.

To read the entire article “Black America’s Dirty Little Secret,” pick up the July issue of Essence magazine.

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