Racism: The belief in the inherent superiority of one race over all others and thereby the right to dominance.
Sexism: The belief in the inherent superiority of one sex and thereby the right to dominance.
Heterosexism: The belief in the inherent superiority of one pattern of loving and thereby its right to dominance.
Homophobia: The fear of feelings of love for members of one’s own sex and therefore the hatred of those feelings in others.
The above forms of human blindness stem from the same root—an inability to recognize the notion of difference as a dynamic human force, one which is enriching rather than threatening to the defined self, when there are shared goals.
To a large degree, at least verbally, the Black community has moved beyond the “two steps behind her man” concept of sexual relations sometimes mouthed as desirable during the sixties. This was a time when the myth of the Black matriarchy as a social disease was being presented by racist forces to redirect our attentions away from the real sources of Black oppression.
For Black women as well as Black men, it is axiomatic that if we do not define ourselves for ourselves, we will be defined by others—for their use and to our detriment. The development of self-defined Black women, ready to explore and pursue our power and interests within our communities, is a vital component in the war for Black liberation. The image of the Angolan woman with a baby on one arm and a gun in the other is neither romantic nor fanciful. When Black women in this country come together to examine our sources of strength and support, and to recognize our common social, cultural, emotional, and political interests, it is a development which can only contribute to the power of the Black community as a whole. It can certainly never diminish it. For it is through the coming together of self-actualized individuals, female and male, that any real advances can be made. The old sexual power relationships based on a dominant/subordinate model between unequal shave not served us a people, nor as individuals.
Black women who define ourselves and our goals beyond the sphere of a sexual relationship can bring to any endeavor of realized focus of completed and therefore empowered individuals. Black women and Black men who recognize that the development of their particular strengths and interests does not diminish the other do not need to diffuse their energies fighting for control over each other. We can focus our attentions against the real our attensions against the real economic, political, and social forces at the heart of this society which are ripping us and our children and our worlds apart.
Increasingly despite opposition, Black women are coming together to explore and to alter those manifestations of society which oppress us in different ways from those that oppress Black men. This is no threat to Black men. It is only seen as one by those Black men who choose to embody within themselves those same manifestations of female oppression. For instance, no Black man has ever been forced to bear a child he did not want or could not support. Enforced sterilization and unavailable abortions are tools of oppression against Black women, as is rape. Only to those Black men who are unclear about the pathways of their own definition can the self-actualization and self-protective bonding of Black women be seen as threatening development.
Today, the red herring of lesbian-baiting is being used in the Black community to obscure the true face of racism/sexism. Black women sharing close ties with each other, politically or emotionally, are not the enemies of Black men. Too frequently, however, some Black men attempt to rule by fear those Black women who are more ally than enemy. These tactics are expressed as threats of emotional rejection: “their poetry wasn’t too bad but I couldn’t take all those lezzies.” The Black man saying this is code-warning every Black woman present interested in a relationship with a man—and most Black women are—that (1) if she wishes to have her work considered by him she must eschew any other allegiance except to him and (2) any woman who wishes to retain his friendship and/or support had better not be “tainted” by woman-identified interests.
The Black lesbian has come under increasing attack from both Black men and heterosexual Black women. IN the same way that the existence of the self-defined Black woman is no threat to the self-defined Black man, the Black lesbian is an emotional threat only to those Black women whose feelings of kinship and love for other Black women are problematic in some way. For so long, we have been encouraged to view each other with suspicion as eternal competitors, or as the visible face of our own self-rejection.
Yet traditionally, Black women have always bonded together in support of each other, however uneasily and in the face of whatever other allegiances which militated against that bonding. We have banded together with each other for wisdom and strength and support, even when it was only in relationship to one man. We need only look at the close, although highly complex and involved, relationships between African co-wives, or at the Amazon warriors of ancient Dahomey who fought together as the King’s main and most ferocious bodyguard. We need only look at the more promising power wielded by the West African Market Women Associations of today, and those governments which have risen and fallen at their pleasure.
In a retelling of her life, a ninety-two-year-old Efik-Ibibio woman of Nigeria recalls her love for another woman:
I had a woman friend to whom I revealed my secrets. She was very fond of keeping secrets to herself. We acted as husband and wife. We always moved hand in glove and my husband and hers knew about the relationship. The villagers nicknamed us twin sisters. When I was out of gear with my husband, she would be the one to restore peace. I often sent my children to go and work for her in return for her kindness to me. My husband being more fortunate to get more pieces of land than her husband, allowed some to her, even though she was not my co-wife.
On the West Coast of Africa, the Fon of Dahomey still have twelve different kinds of marriage. One of them is known as “giving the goat to the buck,” where a woman of independent means marries another woman who then may or may not bear children, all of whom will belong to the blood line of the first woman. Some marriages of this kind are arranged to provide heirs for women of means who wish to remain “free,” and some are lesbian relationships. Marriages like these occur throughout Africa, in several different places among different peoples. Routinely, the women involved are accepted members of their communities evaluated not by their sexuality but by their respective places within the community.