Uncovering the Truth: Understanding the Impact of American Culture
on the Black Male Black Female Relationship

by Elonda R. Wilder-Hamilton
The Black male/Black female struggle has been, and continues to be, the focus of countless debates, discussions, newspaper and magazine articles, books, television talk shows, convention symposiums, etc. And without a doubt there are just as many opinions on what is wrong with Black male/Black females relationships as there are individuals with solutions to the problems. In this paper I will attempt to examine the impact of external factors, such as the legacy of slavery, segregation, integration and institutionalized racism, as well as the internal factors, such as self-hatred, depression, and low self-esteem have had, and are having on Black/male Black female relationships. I will also discuss the problems inherent in Black male/Black female relationships when Black masculinity and femininity are defined by Euro-centric standards.
Nothing is ever as simple as it seems, and the same holds true for the Black male/Black female relationship. Lastly, I will offer some solutions that I hope will be beneficial in helping us gain a better understanding of the overall complexity of Black male/Black female relationships in America.
For many African Americans dealing with the history of slavery is very difficult to say the least. For some it is easier to deny the pain than to acknowledge the suffering that our foremothers and fathers had to endure. Because of this, there are lingering anxieties in the hearts and minds of Black people that few will ever fully examine or make conscious. Na'im Akbar refers to this condition as the psychological chains of slavery.
Dr. Gwendolyn Goldbsy Grant, the author of the book The Best Kind of Loving (1995), calls it the auction-block syndrome. The auction block was the place where our ancestors were judged and sold with no thought to their human dignity or feelings. It is extremely painful to think about the indignities they suffered. Yet their experiences are part of what some experts describe as genetic memory and consequently affect the psyche of all African-Americans. I believe, however, that our history cannot and should not be discounted if we are going to fully understand why we, as African American men and women, behave the way we do. In order to begin the healing process we need to know where the pain is coming from. To do this we must take a step back in time and critically examine how Black men, women and children were treated by White America during slavery and the century following the emancipation if we expect to find answers to the today's problems. The reality is that in spite of the educational, economic, and social gains that Blacks have made, America still operates as an oppressive system that has been, and continues to be, responsible for keeping a large number of African Americans trapped in the lowest strata of American economic, political and social life. I believe there is a direct correlation between our ability and inability to problem solve and our common experience of being Black in America. In other words the oppressed is not entirely responsible for his or her oppression. According to Dr. Grant, the Black family prior to 1960 was known for its strength, endurance, and stability. The survival of Black Americans in the midst of extreme cruelty and cultural deprivation has actually been attributed to a strong, stable and supportive Black family. Relationships between Black men and Black women during this time were tightly bonded on the basis of experience and mutual respect. She states that the relationships were genuine partnerships. Black men and Black women modeled manhood and womanhood as an equal working unit, not on who was the major breadwinner.
Elsie B. Washington in her book Uncivil War the Struggle Between Black Men and Women (1996), gives an overview of the Black male/Black female relationship beginning with slavery. She chronicles the obstacles that Black men and women faced during emancipation, through reconstruction, through the great migration, through the roaring twenties and the Great Depression and up to the Civil Rights Movement. Dr. Andrew Billingsley confirms Grant's assessment of the Black family in his book Climbing Jacob's Ladder (1992). He writes: "For the hundred-year period between the end of slavery and the aftermath of World War II, the structure of African American family life was characterized by a remarkable degree of stability. Specifically, the core of the traditional African-American family system has been the nuclear family composed of husband and wife and their own children. Divorce was rare and couples stayed together till the death of a spouse. Children lived with their parents until maturity, then started their own families.
As late as 1960 when uneducated Black men could still hold good-paying blue-collar jobs in the industrial sector, married couples headed 78 percent of all Black families with children. By 1970 only 64 percent of African American families with children were headed by married couples. This declined steadily to a minority of 48 percent by 1980; and to 39 percent by 1990 and the trend is likely to continue into the future."
Dr. Billingsley says that beginning in 1980, for the first time in history, female-headed families with children outnumber married-couple families with children. What is important to note here is that Dr. Billingsley is speaking of ALL families! This is the first time since slavery that a majority of Black children are living in single-parent families.
Dr. Billingsley is an optimist and his works on the Black family centers around its flexibility and adaptability instead of its pathology. He underscores that marriage is only one of several basis for family formation and endurance. Black men and women have been avoiding or abandoning marriage in record number during recent years, and this trend speaks more to a shift in the marriage relation than in the family structure itself. This trend simply means that a number of alternative family structures have arisen in post-industrial America that are more suited to the diversity of the African-American family structure. Unlike Dr. Billingsley, Washington sees the great migration as the turning point for the change in the Black family extended structure. She states that it was during this time that parents and children moved away from grandparents, aunts and uncles who not only provided support as part of the extended family network but also served as unpaid child caretakers and mediators of marital disputes and disagreements. It's important to note that White sociologists initially labeled the extended family structure as dysfunctional. According to Washington, not only did White sociologists view the extended family structure as a foreign concept but it was also contrary to the individualistic, Euro-centric viewpoint which stresses every man and every family for themselves.
Washington looks closely at the Civil Rights Movement when Black men and Black women marched and protested side by side with fair-minded Whites to end racism. She suggests that some areas of conflict between Black men and Black women were compounded by the structure of the civil rights organizations. For example, many of the organizations were closely allied to, and modeled after, Black churches where men were the leaders. In most churches the pastors and important officers were men while women were assigned to manage auxiliary and support areas. White men had the vast majority of leadership roles in the larger society, so it seemed that to be "equal" Black men had to be the leaders of Black organizations. Or as Washington points out, Black men and women believed that to be integrated with Whites, they needed to behave the same as Whites. For the most part, Black women in the movement were ready for Black men to take the lead and stand up to the system in a forceful non-violent way and Black men did just that. Washington also indicates that a lot of the Black men in the Civil Rights and Black Power movements considered women as the rewards for the soldiers or warriors who were on the front lines. Not only were women relegated to lesser roles of importance but also it was generally believed that women would serve the movement best in roles of sexual and domestic support. An oft-repeated quotation that was attributed to Stokely Carmichael is that "the best position for women (in the struggle) is prone."
During the 1960s and 1970s both Black men and Black women dated inter-racially. This created another problem for Black male/Black female relationships. Black men justified their attraction to White women as an act of revenge against White men for raping Black women during slavery. Some Black women counter-reacted and responded to the advances of White men who were in the movement. It was during this time of Black and White togetherness that many people had their first encounter with someone of a different race. Education attainment also became the great un-equalizer between Black males and Black females. Almost invariably in any number of Black families with male and female siblings, one or more of the females will obtain college educations. Why is this?
Unlike their sisters, boys are encouraged to be willful and involved in sports and other "manly" pursuits, or to work part time. Girls on the other hand, according to Washington, are taught to be disciplined, to study hard and to help out at home. This difference in educational attainment for Black males and Black females has a historical base. Black parents knew that their sons could obtain blue-collar occupations and earn enough to support themselves and their families. But, more often, their daughters, whose major avenue for employment was domestic work, were sent to college. As a consequence, Black parents encouraged their daughters to be good students because college was the only way for them to avoid "Miss Ann's kitchen." Their sons, on the other hand, who could earn "good" money in factories and foundries, often dropped out of school early to get a job. This historical adaptation to post-war conditions has evolved into disparate expectations for the education of Black boys and girls. The lowered anticipation of success along with the larger society's ever-present apprehensiveness about Black males, have combined to ensure that Black boys do not receive the attention or encouragement in school that they should. In the last several years Black social scientists and others have begun to describe how Black boys are discriminated against in the primary grades. Those black boys for whom academic attainment is discouraged, both at the school and in the community, rarely go on to higher education. Consequently, many Black men have been unable to take advantage of the same educational grants and opportunities that Black women obtained.
The 1970s saw openings for Blacks in white-collar positions in corporate White America that previously had not existed.
Additionally, the Women's Liberation Movement created a push to open doors for women in business. Employers could fulfill both gender and racial quotas by hiring a Black female. Black men also suspected that Black women were preferred to them because White employers perceived Black women to be less threatening than Black men.
And although few Black women joined the ranks of the demonstrating women's liberationists, many did agree with the call for equality with men. The issue of sexism and male domination raised by White feminists struck a responsive chord in Black women causing them to look at their own history with Black men. The truth was that sexism was and always had been a part of their relationships.
bell hooks, writes in her book Yearning (1990): ". . . until Black men can face the reality that sexism empowers them despite the impact of racism in their lives. . . . Historically the language used to describe the way Black men are victimized within the American racist society has been sexualized. When words like castrations, emasculation, impotency are commonly used terms to describe the nature of Black male suffering, a discursive practice is established that links Black male liberation with gaining the right to participate full with patriarchy. Embedded in the assumption is the idea that Black women who are not willing to assist Black men in their efforts to become patriarchs are the "enemy". . . Until Black women and men begin to seriously confront sexism in the Black communities, as well as within Black individuals who live in predominantly White settings, we will continue to witness mounting tensions and ongoing divisiveness between the two groups. Masculinity as it is conceived with patriarchy is life-threatening to Black men." By tradition and circumstance Black men occupied the dominant role in most Black families and organizations, and Black women had largely accepted this. However, the financial independence that came with education and better paying jobs made Black women less willing to put up with sexism, or any other type of abuse, from Black men. Black women also had more control over their lives with the advent of easier methods of birth control and legalized abortion, which they took advantage of, often over the protests of Black men. However, Black men did not see themselves as oppressors of their women but rather they saw themselves as the victims of White America. Black women who make more money than Black men are often said to have an "attitude," and it is "attitude" that makes Black women less desirable as marriage partners. Other women, sympathetic to the Black man's plight, agree that his life is more difficult.
The issue of who has it easier or tougher has now become a point of contention between Black men and Black women.
Dr. David Ellwood in his book Poor Support (1988) states that there is accumulating evidence to support that part of the problem with Black male Black female relationships is the lack of jobs for young black men. According to Children's Defense Fund director Marian Wright Edelman, in the late 1980s there were 12 million more White men in the labor force than White women. At the same time, the average number of Black women employed exceeded the average number of Black men who also had jobs. By the late 1980s high-paying blue-collar jobs had all but disappeared due to the epidemic of plant closing. According to David Driver, author of the book Defending the Left (1992), approximately 500,000 U.S. jobs were exported to Mexico. By 1990, 32 percent of Black men in their prime productive years aged 20 to 44 were without work. In 1930 a full 80 percent of all Black men were employed. By 1983 the number of employed Black men had dwindled to 56 percent. Surveys indicate that many Black men say that a woman with more education and/or a higher salary, education, does not intimidate them.
Money, however continues to be a sore point between Black men and Black women. Some Black men say that is not so much the money or the degree, but the attitude of superiority that these Black women bring to the relationship.
African American sociologist Hank Allen writes in his book The Black Family "that perhaps the most difficult obstacle Black families face is not moral, economic, political or organizational but physiological-culture."
Black psychologists Derek and Darlene Powell Hopson, in their book, Friends, Lovers and Soulmates (1994), suggest that Black have internalized the irrational messages of racism, and they feel a sense of worthlessness and powerlessness that creates low self esteem, depression and self-defeating behavior.
In an essay that appeared in Lenora Fulani's book The Psychopathology of Everyday Racism and Sexism (1988), Judy Simmons writes: ". . . We (Black) women have had a high degree of responsibility, decision-making power and self-reliance in the family and social matters; however, I think many of us have neither sought nor enjoyed our independence. We wanted and expected to be part of the romantic nuclear family despite all the evidence we have had for generations that this is a slim possibility. So we've tended to feel cheated and mistreated by men and life. Since we do not realistically prepare ourselves for the responsibilities that remain after our dependent-mating dreams die, we are usually under the gun financially and psychologically, overwhelmed, overburdened and feeling powerless." Dr. Cornel West, professor of religion at Harvard, agrees with the Hopsons that a profound sense of psychological depression, sense of personal worthlessness and social despair have befallen African Americans. He is quoted in Washington's book as saying, "The frightening result is a numbing detachment from others and a self-destructive disposition toward the world." He goes on to say:"life without meaning, hope and love breeds a cold-hearted, mean-spirited outlook that destroys the individual and others." Washington agrees that much of the negative behavior exhibited in Black male/Black female relationships fits what Dr. West's characterization of "cold-hearted" and "mean spirited." Adultery and abandonment of one's spouse and children, she writes, are indeed cold hearted, selfish and cruel. Physical and mental abusiveness is indeed mean-spirited behavior. The same can be said of African Americans who make sweeping negative statements such as "Black men ain't shit" or "Black women are bitches and hoes (whores) with attitude." Black women are always listening to people (usually men) telling them they have an "attitude" problem." Individually and as a group, Black women have been called bitchy, bossy, and evil.
Essence Magazine editor-in-chief Susan Taylor says that Black women are not bitchy, bossy or evil. She believes that Black women are just plain tired. "Tired of man troubles and money troubles and work troubles. Tired of having people play games with our heads, our bodies, and our feelings. Tired of feeling anxious, and tired of being worried. Tired of working so hard and being blamed for so much of what goes wrong. Tired of feeling powerless, and tired of being disappointed, and tired of being called too strong."
And what about Black men? Richard Majors' book Cool Pose (1992) that he co-authored with Janet Mancini Billison says it all. Historically, racism and discrimination have inflicted a variety of harsh injustices on African-American males in the United States. Being male and Black has meant being psychologically castrated and rendered impotent in the economic, political, and social arenas that White men have historically dominated. Black men learned long ago that the classic American virtues of thrift, perseverance, and hard work did not give them the same tangible rewards that Whites received. Often Black men are the last ones hired and the first ones fired. Yet Black men have defined their manhood in terms familiar to White men breadwinner, provider, procreator and protector. Unfortunately, unlike White men, Black men have not had consistent access to the same means to fulfill their dreams of masculinity and success. Many have become frustrated, angry, embittered, alienated, and impatient.
For some Black males, the two most common responses to blocked opportunities are rigidity and aggression. In American society some Black men demonstrate their masculinity through violence, toughness and the symbolic control over others.
Rutgers University professor of psychology Nancy Boyd Franklin believes that African American men and women are greatly impacted by distorted and negative images of themselves. She believes that what keeps Black men and Black women apart have more to do with external forces and our own internalization of negative, victimizing messages. Through literature, the printed and electronic media, America has historically demeaned Black intelligence, morals and physical attributes.
In place of reality, White America, or what Dr. West calls "white supremacist ideology" has presented negative, stereotypical images of African Americans and Black culture. The consistent lack of positive Black images is psychologically devastating to African American. The demythologizing of Black sexuality is crucial for Black America. So much of Black self-hatred and self-contempt has to do with the refusal of many Black Americans to love their own Black bodies according to Dr. West. And if a Black men and women has contempt for themselves because they are Black, how can they love and cherish each other? Black men need to understand that attitude is perceived as a message to the world that say, "I can take care of myself." All attitudes are not always negative. Positive attitude, or "truth telling," comes out of real strength. It is an example of how Black women have managed to use their righteous and justifiable anger to empower themselves through all these hard years. Positive attitude helps us get what we need and deserve. Attitude becomes negative and self-defeating when it ends up hurting ourselves or those we love. It is negative when it creates a defensive posture that we put around ourselves, like a wall, to keep from feeling any more pain or loss. Attitude is a way of concealing vulnerability. When a Black female shows a lot of negative attitude, there is always an underlying reason. Usually, she is overwhelmingly hurt and disappointed by everything that has happened to her and everything that she has seen. Often her self-esteem has taken such a beating that she feels nothing but rage. Should African American men and women continue to define their manhood and womanhood by mainstream standards or should they redefine for themselves what it means to be a Black man and Black woman in America?
William July suggests in his book Understanding the Tin Man (1999) that the redefinition for African American men should begin with a recreation of their image in their own minds, making a conscious separation from negative stereotypes of African American men. This redefinition of manhood for African Americans, according to July, lies in the Black man's ability to connect to a greater spiritual power outside of himself.
Washington echoes July's sentiment. She states that traditional African society is imbued with a reverence for the spiritual and that African American spirituality has been the saving grace in the United States. California psychotherapist, Dr. Derethia Du Val strongly advised that Africa Americans turn to the Black community for their own definitions of Black man and Black womanhood. Many African Americans, says Du Val, are confused as to "how to be Black people in this world and it's affecting how we communicate with each other." In centuries past "Africans revered the image of the woman symbolically and physically. Women were an integral part of the development of the community." Now, she laments, "we're looking to someone else's value system to show us how to relate to each other and it doesn't fit our reality. Many young women look to the White value system for role definition," Dr. Du Val adds, "so consequently, they have lost the strategies that their mother had in terms of seeing a vast number of available men in the Black community." In conclusion, it is obvious that many external and internal factors affect Black male/Black females relationships. Many of the external factors are beyond our power to control, yet there are some things we can control. We can change how we relate to each other. We can love and support each other. We can stop hurting and downgrading each other. We can change how we define ourselves. We can place more emphasis on our spiritual development. We are not worthless. We are not void of emotion. We are not un-loveable. When we suffer from depression counseling is available. We need to know our history. When we know our history we will not be so quick to judge each other or ourselves for our shortcomings. Knowing our history will allow us to celebrate the determination Black men and Black women have demonstrated in the past, and continue to demonstrate in spite of horrendous odds against us. Knowing our history will help us build better and stronger Black male/Black female relationships.
Works Cited
Billingsley, Andrew. Climbing Jacob's Ladder. New York; Simon & Schuster, 1992.
Driver, David. Defending the Left. Chicago; Noble Press, 1992
Ellwood, David. Poor Support. New York; Basic Books, 1988
Fulani, Lenora. The Psychopathology of Everyday Racism & Sexism; Harrington Park Press, 1998.
Grant - Godsby, Gwendolyn. The Best Kind of Loving. New York; Harper; Collins Publishing, 1995.
hooks, bell. Yearnings; South End Press, 1990
Hopson, Derek and Darlene. Friends, Lovers and Soulmates. New York; Simon & Schuster, 1994
July, Williams II. Understanding the Tin Man. New York; Doubleday Publishing, 1991.
Majors, Richard and Billson-Mancini, Jane. Cool Pose. New York; Simon & Schuster, 1992
Washington, Elsie. Uncivil War the Struggle Between Black Men and Women. Chicago; The Noble Press 1996
Solutions for Resolving Conflicts in Black Male and Black Female Relationships
Black Agenda