When We Were Kings
Black Patriarchy & the Promise of Protection
The most disrespected person in America is the Black woman. The most unprotected person in America is the Black woman. The most neglected person in America is the Black woman. And as Muslims the honorable Elijah Muhammad teaches us to respect our women and to protect our women…we believe that if the white man will do whatever is necessary to see that his woman gets respect and protection then you and I will never be recognized as men until we stand up like men…
Malcolm X, 1962
It’s vital that we deal constantly with racism, and with white racism among Black people — that we recognize this as a legitimate area of inquiry. We must also examine the ways that we have absorbed sexism and heterosexism. These are the norms in this dragon we have been born into — and we need to examine these distortions with the same kind of openness and dedication that we examine racism…
Audre Lorde to James Baldwin, 1984
When Nia Wilson was murdered by white supremacist John Cowell at McArthur Station in Oakland I was nearly 3,000 miles away. I had went to the South on my annual pilgrimage to see my family. That first weekend we arrived my mother threw a party for Aïdah, Solène and me. Relatives journeyed from as far west as California and as far south as Florida to see us, and meet our daughter. What I thought would be a simple get-together became ceremonial when my mother asked the room to form a circle. With Aïdah’s help, she had printed and framed pictures of four men and four women from both sides of the family that had passed away. One by one, the person who knew them the best was called forth to say a few words.
I stood there holding a photograph of my grandfather, Aïdah at my side, feeling stunned all of a sudden — like I had just found out about his death for the first time again. I began to well up, but held the tears down so that I could, in my grief, describe how beautiful a man he was. And though I was in a room full of people who cared, it was emotionally taxing to cycle between gratitude and despair, acceptance and denial as I spoke about him. That night I plopped down on the bed grateful for a day of remembrance yet exhausted.
Almost exactly a week later I read about a Black women who was stabbed in Oakland on BART. My initial reaction was to mentally and literally bookmark news about her death. I wasn’t ready to sit with what happened because to do so meant to grieve. I didn’t have the strength to perform that mental and emotional labor at the time. But if I’m being truthful, I never feel I have the strength for it.
I arrived back in the Bay three days after she was killed but found no empty tomb. She was still dead. And John Cowell was still breathing. I took the BART to a dentist appointment in San Francisco. When I transferred at MacArthur I saw a young Black women who looked just like Nia traveling alone, boarding the train that I was leaving. I did a double take before running off to make my train before it left. As it pulled off I wondered where she was going. I wondered if she felt safe. I wished that I was traveling in the same direction so I could watch over her. Wished that I had offered to protect her.
The next day I went to Jumu’ah at a mosque a couple blocks away from MacArthur station. The khateeb began talking about Nia in the second half of his sermon. I was now faced with what I was avoiding. He angrily lamented the low turnout at a meeting organized at the mosque after her death, bellowed about how her murderer walked off BART unhindered and then brazenly rode it again the next day. Then he waxed nostalgic about the days when the Fruit of Islam would shut down Oakland if one of their own was attacked. Echoing Malcolm, our living Black manhood, he made a call to arms — urging men without felonies to buy firearms to protect themselves and their women.
As he spoke I felt my body tensing, my heart racing, adrenaline coursing through my veins. The room boiled with anger. And shame. The side that was male, anyway. Shame and anger hung heavy in the air and when the air couldn’t hold anymore a brother would cry out “Takbeer!” and others would respond “Allahu Akbar.” God is the greatest.
The Black militant cry for the need to use violence to “protect our women” is, on the surface, a righteous call. It is a call to defend the integrity and humanity of our daughters, wives, nieces, sisters, aunts and mothers by any means necessary. However, when that protection is only from violence on the basis of race and conspicuously ignores sex-based oppression, that call to valor rings hollow. It becomes little more than a one-dimensional offer of solidarity, based on the assumption that Black women’s fight is mainly — or solely — against racial oppression.
And notice the language — protect “our” women. Language that suggests ownership. Language that paints Black women as passive objects instead of autonomous, active participants in their own liberation. In her 1970 article The Liberation of Black Women, civil rights and women’s rights activist Pauli Murray wrote:
“For all the rhetoric about self-determination the main thrust of black militancy is a bid of black males to share power with white males in a continuing patriarchal society in which both black and white females are relegated to a secondary status.”
The poverty of Black men’s gender politics is revealed in moments like this. Moments when it feels most inopportune to bring up Black patriarchy — like when a young Black women is murdered by an agent of the white supremacist state. And a father is very publicly grieving the death of his daughter. And Brothers are grappling with the anger and shame of not having been able to protect a sister — afraid that, perhaps, we aren’t able to keep any of the women or girls in our lives safe. If we don’t discuss Black patriarchy, though, the experiences and voices of Black women will become drowned out by the men’s reactionary cry to close ranks. In Race Matters, Dr. Cornel West discusses the patriarchal implications of such a call:
The idea of black people closing ranks against hostile white Americans reinforces black male power exercised over black women (e.g. to protect, regulate, subordinate, and hence usually, though not always, to use and abuse women) in order to preserve black social order under circumstances of white literal attack and symbolic assault.
Malcolm X offered Black women what Dr. Farah Jasmine Griffin calls “the promise of protection” born from his “sincere concern for their emotional, psychic, and physical safety” but also “reflective of a power struggle between black and white men.” Under this social and political arrangement, Black women’s lives become no more than collateral damage in the war on Black people (read: Black men). Black women’s suffering, if mentioned at all, is cast as part of the suffering of Black folks generally — not as a distinct, specific oppression that rests at the intersection of blackness and femaleness.
So let’s say we accept Malcolm’s premise that “you and I will never be recognized as men” unless we use violence the way white men do in order to protect Black women. Two things happen: 1. Black men become trapped in a narrowly defined masculinity — modeled after white men — wherein “recognition” of manhood comes primarily from one’s ability and willingness to use violence 2. Black women are objectified as a symbol of Black men’s “honor”, transforming white violence against Black women into a proxy war on “the Black man”, an act to further his emasculation.
This is why, while we may talk about how almost 60 percent of Black women killed by police are unarmed, we’re less likely to — in that same conversation — bring up the role of intimate partner violence in the oppression of Black women. For instance, while only making up 13 percent of U.S. women, Black women comprise about half of female homicide victims — the majority of whom were killed by us, Black men.
This has got to change.
I’m calling on all Black men to stop blaming Black women into maintaining a code of silence about Black male violence — lest she “divide the race.’ Stop shaming them into swallowing their pain and indignity because we have “bigger problems”(i.e. racist state violence against Black men).
Begin to acknowledge the ways in which they experience Black patriarchal violence alongside white supremacist violence. Reject a politics of denial that suggests this acknowledgment somehow diminishes Black men’s experience of racist oppression or invalidates all the ways we have supported, loved, honored and partnered with Black women in the struggle for liberation.
Grieve the loss of Black women’s lives instead of the loss of an ability to control their lives and what happens to them. Our identity is so tied to control and power — the lack of it, the quest for it, the nostalgia of a fabled past when we had it — that it’s hard for us to imagine a life of purpose outside of the archetype of the mythic Black king. But Black women don’t need a dominator. They need a partner.
I left Jumu’ah feeling numb — not raw with emotion like I expected to be after having sat with Nia’s death. Then it occurred to me that it was because I hadn’t actually grieved. I had only processed anger and shame — the only emotions patriarchal culture deems acceptable for men to express. This first Jumu’ah after her death could have been a time to collectively mourn, not Black men’s failure to control and protect, but the loss of a young Black woman’s life. It could have been a chance to hold up images of those we’ve lost within our hearts. To pray for Nia and the souls of those who have crossed over. It could have been a forum for women to speak about what they need to feel safe and for men to make a promise of partnership instead of one of patriarchal protection. It could have been a time to practice a different type of remembrance. One that centers Black women’s experiences instead of Black men’s patriarchal angst.
After the party my mom organized I held her in my arms and thanked her, particularly for the ceremony honoring the dead. She smiled and told me that my father came up to her before he left and, with a look of awe on his face, said, “I didn’t know you could do that.”
“Do what?” she asked.
“Organize this ceremony and speak the way you did. That was really powerful.”
Still holding her, I leaned back and said, “I didn’t know you could do that either Ma.”