Documents from the Women's Liberation Movement
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A HISTORICAL AND CRITICAL ESSAY FOR BLACK WOMEN OF THE CITIES (excerpts)
by Patricia Murphy Robinson
Myths galvanize people and direct their form of culture. They are the fullness and depth of the people. They are the projections of their learned fears, anxiety, frustrations, hopes and the deepest unconscious contradictions of a civilization. In them is found not rational, linear thought but the inner contradictory reality of the human being. The American Dream is the end of a long, circuituous route away from the animal-body, the land, woman and black to condensed wealth (money, machines and property), cities, man and white. It is time now to break out of these deathly myths and this culture built on the oppression of women and blacks.
The western world was built on much more than colonialism and imperialism. It was built on the long-standing mythical split of male and female, as well as the split of body and mind. All things having to do with the animal body were repressed unconsciously. The repressed reality of life, like oppressed peoples, never stays repressed. It always threatens to rise and cause trouble to those who need to control others and themselves.
Men who controlled the making of myths and culture after the overthrow of women, saw to it that women were eventually relegated to the darkness, pressed down into that infamous, anarchic hell of the fables. Animals, women and black become the underground witches and demons in men's minds, their own feared, chaotic animal feminity. This split enabled the male head to soar to the celestial heavens, there to be worshiped in countless Apollian symbols.
The woman's body which receives, hosts and gives forth the future of the species had to be suppressed when the phallic aggressive male decided he needed power over others and that soft, feminine part of himself. Some thousands of years ago, the female was considered the Goddess of the Universe from which heaven and earth sprang. Certainly, the myth conforms to reality, out of one comes two. The female births both male and female. The Adam and Eve myth turns that reality on its head. The female now issues from the male. Hence we know how terrified the male had become of animal reality to establish such a perversion of the truth.
Briffault in The Mothers traces the first animal family to the first human family and notes that the male's only role early in human history was insemination. Then he drifted off, leaving the female to take care or herself during pregnancy, birth and the nursing of the young. When men and women began to live together, what can be called culture began. But women controlled the first fruit or surplus, the child, by reason of its long need for protection before it can take care of itself. This was concrete power over the child and the male in those places with a warm climate and food and water readily available. There was no real need for a male procurer, a hunter.
Today in the time of the cities, cybernetics, nuclear power and space exploration, white men have developed a man-made body, the self-regulating machine of manless factories and laboratories. Man has now projected and sublimated his "holy" head into electronics and soared in "Apollo" to the moon. He struggles to perfect artificial insemination and a machine host for the human foetus. At last man has done away with the practical need for his own body. Now he must turn his attention to the danger the woman's body has always posed to his rule. He concerns himself with the biological control of reproduction of the species -- as necessary to his sustained power over others as his present concentration on the reproduction of capital rather than the production of goods.
The notorious subjugation of human beings with black skins to the "other world" of dark hell and slavery took place rapidly as the Semites, Christians, Moslems and the middle-class industrial capitalists secured their conquests. Outcast black men and women were the menial slave laborers and the scavengers of the waste of the city. They were also the receptacle into which white male conquerors and their ladies could caste their own fears and guilt for this murder and rape; and how they trembled inwardly behind their armies at the expected retaliation of the have-nots. The long, neurotic, historical process by which these descendants of the hunters and the herders attempted to deny their biological reality was achieved through the projection onto others of what they could not stand in themselves. They were animals who were born and died.
But through symbols and capitalism they could live forever. From this oppressed humanity they brought forth huge profits. The raw fruits from the earth were molded into vast monuments and empires of condensed wealth. Through interest, money could actually grow. And on top of it all they stood tall with their heads in the clouds; beneath, the black, bending bodies did not stir. From the pyramids to the cities, we are stuck with these monuments and great surpluses built on man's fearful need to be God.
When a group must be controlled, you always take away from them, their Gods, their very reflections of themselves and their inner being. But first you must use force:
In the days when all the forest was evergreen, before the parakeet painted the autumn leaves red with the color from his breast, before the giants wandered through the woods with their heads above the tree-tops; in the days when the sun and moon walked the earth as man and wife, and many of the great sleeping mountains were human beings; in those far off days witchcraft was known only to the women of Onaland (Tierra del Fuego, South America). They kept their own particular lodge, which no man dared approach. The girls, as they neared womanhood, were instructed in the magic arts, learning how to bring sickness and even death to all those who displeased them.
The men lived in abject fear and subjugation. Certainly they had bows and arrows with which to supply the camp with meat, yet, they asked what use were such weapons against the witchcraft and sickness? This tyranny of the women grew from bad to worse until it occurred to the men that a dead witch was less dangerous than a live one. They conspired together to kill off all the women; and there ensued a great massacre, from which not one woman in human form escaped.
The legend goes on to describe how the men waited for the little girls to grow up so they could have wives. Meanwhile they plotted how they would have their own lodge (secret society) from which all women would forever be excluded. The menial tasks would be performed only by women. They would be frightened into submission by means of demons drawn from the men's imagination.
This is only one of thousands of such legends taken from all parts of the world that indicate some crisis occurred where leadership was wrested from the woman, either by force or seduction or both. Certainly there was great fear of women and a sense of being oppressed by their inner and reproductive powers. The great earth mother could bring forth life and inexplicably take it away. This was one kind of power. In fact, it could only be overcome in most of the folk stories by tools of war in the hands of muscular men -- the murder of the women and the great earth goddess by the phallic aggressive men, determined to have their external power over nature and its symbolic representative, woman.
In highly organized hunting societies with their sacred animal totems, women were separated and confined to the domestic role. The great hunters occupied those areaas where there was much large game and the efforts required were herculean. Africa, North and South America, Asia have great historic legends of the mighty hunters and horse herders, the determined individualists and the male supremacists. The split of the male and female is well documented during this paleolithic period.
Even though hunters roamed the banks of the Congo so did agricultural communities arise there. The plant as well as the animal were the main sources of food. In those villages where women produced food by planting, both woman and the earth were valuable. The women who tilled the land came to own it. Man was almost superfluous except for his sexual mating role.
Anthropologists describe this period as the famous matriarchy when woman, owning the land and having much to say about the distribution of surplus, had not only sacred power but economic and social power as well. In West Africa, particularly, secret male councils were formed in reaction to this female dominance. Unlike the more aggressive hunting societies, males were elected to such lodges. Men from other tribes were encouraged to join so that a secret council might spread through many tribes over a large area. The sacred divinities were still often female. The moon, symbol of the Great Mother, was a basic part of their life. These secret societies did not absolutely exclude women. She was kept symbolically among the group Gods.
These lodges gradually developed into councils of chiefs or elders and the communal village was eventually ruled by a male tribal aristocracy. With polygamy women and children were finally subjugated and exploited by a male aristocracy as was most of the lower strata of the African village. It was on this feudal development in African society that European feudal states were able to build a cooperative venture with African chiefs for the beginning of the slave trade.
In the rise of the cities the suppression of the female is concrete and complete. Cities developed out of this surplus produced by the countryside. It is on the increase of this surplus that the growth of cities depend. Cities fed by an economic surplus are essentially not needed and superabundant. Control of the surplus whether it be of children (labor), food, goods leads to special privilege and prestige for the elite of a society. The root meaning of prestige is deception and enchantment. No force of arms can control whole peoples forever. Deceive the oppressed into believing you are a God. Make them believe that you are supernaturally powerful and they will offer themselves up to you, at least all those who have learned to despise and hate themselves through their lowly-defined class position. Finally these lower class people have only labor as their wealth, not the products of their labor. This is the alienation in which the male industrial ruling class took root.
From the early times the surplus has been given to the Gods, male and female and to their earthly representatives. The rest was divided communally and later stored. Those who could specialize and increase the surplus might have the power to raise their social status in the hierarchy. Through deception and enchantment, the tactics of the shaman, the trickster, the medicine man, the class hierarchy grew rigid and power over the poor and women was made concrete, first by force and then deception and seduction. The prestige of the aristocracy (kings) and the upper classes (the entrepreneurs) is maintained on psychological power which developed into sacred and religious power. As the ruling classes' religious and psychological enchantment of the oppressed is weakened by shifting historical forces, they must revert to their original force of arms to prottect their huge surplus and to hold down the rebellious people.
The village was a communal gathering place in basic equilibrium with itself and its surrounding. The walled in city was a separation from nature. From the fields and forests the city attracted men who felt the need for great expression of physical prowess and control over others in daily life. The hunters and herders entered the cities, bringing their individualism and male supremacy. Sacred temples, where gathered the money-lenders, are the base of our banks and where metallurgy was turned into wasteful ornaments to adorn the new rulers of the world -- men. The city became the religious monument of male Gods, springing from, yet in opposition to the village.
Cities represent the mythical power of kings, gods, money and gold. They represent the male's psychological need for the "higher" life, away from the human body and away from the human female, the peasant and that view of life. Man began to assume superhuman proportions symbolically. Concretely, he was the exploiter of lower-class human beings.
The city is primarily masculine and reflects that revolt against the feminine principles of connection with nature that began in the paleolithic period with the northern hunters and the southern herders. The revolt was decisive with the wide acceptance of Judeo-Christianity and the Moslem religions. Women, now no longer in the image of the great Gods, became decisively powerless.
James Boggs, in an unpublished manuscript, writes:
Black men from the time they were captured back in Africa with the help of tribal chiefs lost their domination over the black woman. For a long period in black slave society in the United States there was no domination of the female by the male. Both were entirely dominated by whites. African male domination continued in the African bush, where hardly touched by the white settlers, African elders could continue their male supremacist customs and control of the land.
Essentially the white master controlled the black slave family and slave groupings by superior force of arms. The main responsibility of the field female slave was to produce male babies -- the labor commodity needed for the master's fields. Male field slaves were used as studs. The stories that come down to us by word of mouth from our slave great-grandmothers tell of stag pens throughout Virginia and South Carolina where "black bucks" were made to copulate with indentured white females from England.
This arrangement was a good basis for establishing faithful house slaves to look to the physical comfort and entertainment of the master and his family, since the master controlled the children from all black unions. He usually allowed these lighter-skinned blacks in the big house and slowly created another class of slaves in addition to the house slaves. This one was based on color as well as social position in the slave hierarchy. The children from the master's union with the slave women were part of this class. Many from this group became the educated, multi-lingual parlor entertainers, in the image of the feudal court-jesters.
The first form of solidified relations between black male and female were generally decided by the master who thought that a certain black was so good he ought to settle down, usually with the cook. In order to keep a good male house-servant "tame" he gave him a black woman for a permanent mate. They could both imitate the master and his lady and achieve social prestige. This could be carried among field slaves as well in order to have responsible field foremen, slave quarter guards and black bounty hunters who returned escaped slaves to the plantation for money. This slave hierarchy developed by the master plantation class for its own support decreased the need for constant force against the slave population.
The master had the right and practiced it freely to have sexual freedom even with the black woman he allowed the black male. At anytime he could countmand the black slave's orders of the black female. At best the house-servant or field foreman was sharing "his woman" with the white master.
Among the field slaves the master could not control the male-female relationship to the extent he could control the house slave's relationships. Among field slaves, man-woman ties were very unstable. The male could be sold, beaten, killed off for reasons bearing on the productiveity of his labor e.g. his age, his speed and usefulness in the fields, number of children from his matings, the degree of submissiveness to the slave role. His brutal oppression and distance from privilege and social status planted the seeds of hatred and revolt. The master could be paternalistic to the house slaves but was forced by the fear of retaliation to be hostile and sadistic to the field slaves.
The field woman was a laborer beside men, a begetter of children who was let out to the other plantations for breeding. She was responsible for cooking, feeding and care of the slaves, midwifery and finally in old age, the mammy for other slave children. If she rose in social status then she became a mammy to the white children.
The black male slave's position under slavery in the United States was similar to the position of the male during the early agricultural stages of history when women owned the land and controlled the surplus. He had no responsibility for an extended family unit beyond the sexual act and conception -- which he oftimes had to steal if he was not assigned. The family unit was, as in earliest history, the mother and the children, but usually for a limited time. Extended family units were not helpful to increase production and judicious use of labor.
The black woman who worked in the big house and the fields acted not as a dominant factor over the black male but as his protector and savior. Her primary strategy was to allow herself to be sexually used, often to save the life of the black male. She could speak out to the master and to the white boss if she pleased him with good food, good sex, good care of his children, a role which the master's own woman was seldom allowed to pursue. White women were the vicarious display of the master's economic and social position, his property as well. A vocal link between the white man and the black man, the black woman often forced opinion and bargained successfully for whatever fitiful reforms were possible under slavery.
Among all freed slave society there was a loose family relationship but most particularly among field slaves, who were still tied to the land they could not own and were only nominally free. But with the rise of industrialization after the defeat of the South, they could hire themselves out as hired hands. Whites receded from direct domination to indirect domination. Black males still had to accede to the white boss on whom he depended for a job. But the black woman was still the farm worker anchored to the land much as her African sister is to this very day. In the towns she could be a domestic and a little higher in social status. It was only during World War II that she, like the black male, was allowed into the factories and then only as a desperately needed semi-skilled laborer, earning smaller wages than even the black male.
Generally the black male looked upward toward the master, his boss and his material possessions, property, e.g. the white woman, the land, the factories, education, culture and its material extravagances. But the highest piece of personal property, the white woman, was off-limits except in the North where a few black men could get a white woman descended from indentured slavery and usually economically and socially oppressed herself.
After emancipation the black man got his black woman but his range of domination was only in the home, not in the public arena. The white man could still counter his orders to the black woman by removing him from a job, a home or from the land. Only in the small arena of the black family could the black man hit back during slavery, after emancipation and up practically to the present time. The use of the black woman as a whipping post reflected the stigma the black man carried within himself and from the ruling white society, that of a whipped person, a cur dog.
Because this tortured black animal can't beat the master, he beats his black woman, that bitch dog. She retaliates by any means necessary and the cycle continues as both are unable to bring the contradiction to its logical explosive conclusion and synthesis -- confrontation with THE MAN. It is understandable, for so many black males and females have grown to love the white man's money, property, and military prowess, and assuming the master's possessions are power, they tremble in envy as they dream of taking the master's place.
But the bitter joke is that money and property and machines are only projections and sublimations of the power in the body, not power itself. These physical entrapments were the adornments and possessions of inadequate kings and queens and later rich merchants, absurdly wearing the masks of a Protestant God. They could only rule over the lower classes if the latter believed they were Gods and awesomely powerful. It does take two, after all, to oppress -- the oppressed have to be seduced into the supernatural belief by these symbolic representations of power so that they give up themselves, their labor and the products thereof.
The long patriarchy and aggressive male rule is also based on the illusion of male power suffered by exploited and self-hating black and white women. Historical movement charts the struggle for the repressed dreams of oppressed peoples to rise and return to their proper equilibrium. Social unrest, wars and insurrections, loosen the inner binds of the individuals and the outer binds of exploited human beings. It is said that true revolutions begin from the bottom up and from the inside out. There is such great power in the lower recesses of our people and deep within us all. Perhaps our struggle is to radiate it rather than possess it.
The American Dream is a bold, heady, ruthless dream -- away from the black woman, the very image of the Great Earth Mother and the Black Madonna. For us black women, "motherfucker" is now a definintive, historical term symbolizing the first murder, the murder of the Great Earth Mother repeated endlessly to this day.
In the black world, the black man could only be a man at the black woman's expense. In the western world, the white man could only be a man at the black man's and the white woman's expense. All of it seduction and trickery, a prestige game, dying myths, absorbed by us all. We vomit them up!
Revolutionaries are the smashers of myths and the destroyers of illusions. They have always died and lived again to build new myths. They dare to dream of a utopia, a new time of equilibrium and synthesis.
A HISTORICAL AND CRITICAL ESSAY FOR BLACK WOMEN OF THE CITIES is reprinted here only in part due to length. Patricia Robinson wrote the essay in June, 1969 for: Robin, Maryilyn, Carrietta, Maureen, Aretha, Celeste, Denise, Lenise, Dale, Saundra, Donna, Linda, Wanda, and their beautiful brothers, but most of all for Wilma Sanchez and Norma Abdullah, courageous women and brilliant theoreticians.
"It is the son who has the real chance to turn spy on the father-rulers, who have for too long deceived the people and enchanted and enslaved world population." -- Patricia Robinson, from an unpublished manuscript on Malcom X as a destroyer of myths, April, 1969
"ONLY THROUGH THE PEOPLE'S OWN STRUGGLES AND EFFORTS CAN THEIR EMANCIPATION BE ACHIEVED, MAINTAINED AND CONSOLIDATED. IT CANNOT BE BESTOWED OR GRANTED BY ANY OUTSIDER. NOR CAN IT BE FOUGHT FOR OR SECURED THROUGH THE EFFORTS OF ANYONE EXCEPT THE PEOPLE THEMSELVES." -- Liu Shao-ch'i
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