Thursday, July 24, 2008

Black In America: The Invisible Women

image I sat down to watch the much anticipated series Black in America: Black Women And The Family on CNN last tonight.  The first part of the documentary was specifically dedicated to children, and the obstacles that they face growing up in poverty, and getting a good education.  The very first family that was highlighted was that of a male single father.  Though it is wonderful to see a black male so heavily invested in his children, a show that is dedicated to the struggles of women should have presented a black mother first.  This of course was only  one  example of the way in which a show dedicated to women, was in fact aimed at reinforcing a certain idea of what constitutes a black woman. It is assumed throughout the entirety of the documentary that not only can black men speak on behalf of women, it is right and proper for them to do so.

If someone were to watch this show with little  knowledge of black women in the US, they would assume that they are all CIS, and that they are all heterosexual. It seems that these are the two main identifiers of black females. Throughout the two hour documentary not one mention was made of black lesbians or transgender women.  It seems that sexuality or gender identity in some way conflicts with identifying as a black female.  By  making these groups invisible it further highlights how marginalized they are by mainstream America. If a documentary is dedicated to black women, it should include ALL black women.  I suspect that much of this omission had to do with its continual linking to the black church, which we know has not historically been in support of people that refuse to identify as heterosexual, or that refuse to live the gender binary. There wasn't even a referral to a single black female minister, even though we all know that they exist.  The reverend T.J Jakes cannot speak on behalf of black female clergy, and their theological experiences, and theories.

When the issue of the single black female (or rather the disappearing eligible black bachelor) was introduced, the perfect opportunity existed to discuss bisexuality or lesbianism, but these omissions speak to the fact that there is a sense of denial in the back community about the concrete identities of these two groups.  The message that this documentary sends is that a deep dick is the cure to all that ails you, and if you cannot find it within the black community for the sake of self preservation you should seek it in any community.

It was further troubling that the documentary was insistent in promoting marriage as the answer to the poverty that black women face.  Marriage is no guarantee that the relationship will survive, and offers only the potential of stability.  Progressive programs like socialized day care, or education subsidies as concrete solutions was not even proffered as a legitimate counter to the "traditional heterosexual lifestyle."  This push to return to the patriarchal family only encourages black women to give up their autonomy and agency.  Every single marriage that was presented on the show was positive and life affirming, however I must ask where are the women that have been battered by their spouses?  Did they just click their ruby slippers and disappear into a kind of invisible Neverland?  These women exist, and daily their lives are made miserable by their abusive husbands.  What about the women that have experienced marital rape, don't they count as black women?  What about the women dealing with husbands that are addicted to illicit substances?  There are many more models that I could provide to question whether or not marriage is a good solution to the problems that plague black women, but my question is why CNN did not see fit to include this in a show supposedly dedicated to black women?

Whole groups of women were erased in this documentary.  As I sit here I wonder about the women in the prison system and how race effects their experiences. What about women working in the sex trade industry as either prostitutes, strippers, or porn actresses, how has race effected their life experiences?  When we think of the black woman we are meant to either think of the noble, self-sacrificing single mother, or the rich affluent over achiever who spends her nights embracing a vibrator lamenting on her lack of access to good dick. Had CNN bothered to look outside of the cultural images that exist about black women they could have created a documentary that was far more inclusive, and spoke to the various identities that make up black females in the US.  Once again we are misrepresented and constructed as something that we are not. 

Tomorrows instalment is called the The Black Man, somehow I suspect that this particular segment will be far more inclusive.  When it comes to race, society has always focused on the black male, and relegated the black female to his invisible helper. Black women are always told about the ways in which they must conform to black male headship to uplift the race.  Though the black male is specifically othered by race he still exists with privilege, and I am quite sure that the patriarchy will not be discussed in any significant way.

If we are going to discuss race it cannot and should not be done without the other isms that function together to limit social mobility.  A true conversation begins when we discuss things like age, disability, and sexuality.  The more intersections that enter any debate, the greater the chance to end up with an accurate portrayal of the black experience.  Though CNN had lofty aims it failed to present any real illumination on what it is like to black in America.


Ebony Intuition said...

I agree the documentary was a complete flop. It didn't show a broad spectrum of black women at all like you mentioned.

"When it comes to race, society has always focused on the black male, and relegated the black female to his invisible helper. Black women are always told about the ways in which they must conform to black male headship to uplift the race. "

This quote is very true, i've noticed from a long time ago that people from other races (mainly white) are always telling black women how to conform to black male leadership, this is why as much as I don't agree with a lot of things that black men do ( considering there are a lot of black men being used as pawns and are in the boule society), I'm not going to listen to someone else who doesn't have their best interest in me either.

I've noticed on a lot of black blogs that everyone gets mad when only the black man is talked about or discussed not realizing that it's society who only focuses on the black man, its not the black man doing it. I personally think this is the new method of white supremacy diving us and conquering us. White people are not going to give up their power so easily it will be a fight to the end regardless if we like it or not. The will use anything in their power to keep us divided that is the only way to rule people.

United we STAND Divided we fall

Larry Geater said...

My biggest complaint about the Special was its slow pace. It was as if the producers were trying to present as little information in as long a time as is humanly possible. My ADD self could only sit through half of it but I will be going back for more.

Panamaican said...

I thought the program was primarily about the black family, and only to a lesser extent about the black woman. Taken in that light, lesbian and transgender relationships are less relevant. not that black women engaged in such relationships should be marginalized but they have minimal impact on the creation and furtherance of the black family. In a simialr vein, any conversation about foreign oil dependance should include the gas we put into private planes, boats, and riding lawn mowers but the primry concern and solution centers around the automobile and the energy devoted to discussing fringe users is wasted energy. A conversation about being a black lesbian, bisexual, transgendered individual, or female prisoner doesn't help the conversation on why 69.5% of black children are born out of wedlock.The program, although not nearly deep enough for the title "Black in America", was focused on the black family unit, not all apsects of blackness in America. If that's what you want, then you should wonder where the segments were on being a female black immigrant to this country or the perceptions of black American females by foreign countries. They weren't there because they're not relevant to the show's focus.

And regarding the likely greater emphasis on the black male. The black male is the subject of a greater number of negative stereotypes than the black female. It's a rarely heard comment that the black female is the one holding the black community back. That dubious honor is often attributed to the black male. The comments about how the black woman is relegated to the invisible helper of the black male, that's false. The prevailing opinion is that the black woman runs things and neither needs, or can expect, help from the black male. Her competence and ability to succeed is never questioned because it is assumed that she was forged in a crucible devoid of competent, driven, and uplifitng black males to partner with. I'm not saying that it's true, just that it's the sterotype that black men and women consistently buy into. Comparatively, black women are considered much further from failure, as a gender, than black men. Ask anyone who peeks into a law school or med school classroom, there's consistently more women than men. There are consistently more absentee fathers than mothers. More black men than women in prison. And less black men than women in college. No one is relegating black women to invisibility or asking them to conform to men. We're just asking that you stop talking about yourselves long enough to focus on where the most improvements are needed.

Panamaican said...

Whoops, last line was a little more antagonistic than intended. I realize this is a woman's blog and that women are the subject to be talked about. I should amend that sentence to say: "The greater conversational emphasis on black men over black women is warranted since it is within the black male community that the greatest growth is needed."

Renee said...

@Panamaican it seems to me that men can always find some reason to focus on themselves and you wonder why I claim that the black woman is invisible.

Panamaican said...

@Renee: Men aren't looking for a reason to focus on themselves. If you look at these shows like a teacher looking at a classroom, the bad students always get more attention than the good. Black men would gladly take up the black woman's "invisibility" if people said "The black man holds the black community together". If his toughness and competence were assumed in fields other than athletics and music. That's an invisibility the black man would long for. What you call invisibility, I call the greatest compliment of all. Silence...because there's nothing that needs to be said, you're already doing it right.

Jack Valentine said...

It's cultural propaganda. It was made by white people for white people so they can continue to have fucked up conceptions of color. It's also the commodification of blackness for white consumption and entertainment.

Renee said...

@ Jack It was made by a black woman however the audience is that it is intended for is clearly white.

Renee said...

@Pan invisibility is not a compliment it is an attempt to eliminate your existence...this is problematic as it specifically devalues black women...I do have a question for you, do you believe in the black male patriarchy?

saartjetoday said...

I wholeheartedly agree with the author of this post. The CNN documentary was framed in an entirely heterosexist and patriarchial lens. Simply put, it assumed that every black woman should be married to a man. This is an outdated view of the black family structure. Not all black women need to or even want to be married to a man.

Having children out of wedlock is not the cause of the health, education, and income disparities facing the black community. While many single women would like to have a committed intimate partner, most of them will tell you that not having a man is the least of their problems. What they need most is more along the lines of reliable child care, health care, quality education, enrichment programs, job training, transportation and a network of family members and friends dedicated to helping in brining up the next generation.

Simply being married to a man does not necessarily improve a woman's quality of life, and too many instances, such marriages can be oppressive to women.

And it's true that studies shoe that two parent households, regardless of the parents' gender, are generally better for children than single parent households. But this does not mean that single parent households, equipped with necessary resources and support, cannot be equally as beneficial for children. For example, many single mothers rely on family members and friends to give additional emotional support and guidance to their children. And middle and upper class single women can afford to provide for their children's needs on just one income.

CNN needs to realize that this is no longer 1950's America when all women were expected to live as subservient wives and forgo their career ambitions to cook and clean all day. Times are changing and women are feeling freer to live their lives as they choose. Marriage rates and out of wedlock births are not the best indicators of the overall well being of black America.

Billie said...

I wanted the documentary last night (I'm a white woman). I was a bit dismayed that the focus of the show (at least in the beginning) was on the single father and his children. While his situation is difficult, it doesn't represent the situations of single women with children. As the author of this post noted, the directors of the documentary needed to include the "isms" that the black male does not encounter simply because he's male (or at least he encounters them differently).

Since this documentary was clearly created for a white audience, I wonder how the documentary would change if it had been (or will be) constructed for a black audience. How would the focus change? What would be the point? How would black Americans depict black women?

Now THAT would be a documentary I'd want to see.

american mad said...

I'm a Blackman and I want to state unequivocally that we are the problem. Sisters have been doing their thing for some time now. I am very proud of their progress. Only 12% of us have college degrees and of that group close to 70% are females. Our men are the problem. We are the ones that are spreading AIDS to our women, we are the ones that are killing our own, and we are the ones that impregnate and bounce. There is always room for improvement but I am very proud of how our women have moved forward in spite of our men.

panamaican said...

@Renee: I believe that America is a patriarchy. I don't beleive that the current black situation can be defined so simply. A brief aside on invisibility. Invisibility, at least as to criticism based on gender, race, sexual orientation, religion, etc., should be a goal for all people. Your existence is not based on how much someone chooses to talk about you. You exist and succeed or fail whether everyone notices or not. You become visible as a group if you are exceptionally great or exceptionally bad. No one, black, white, male or female should be visible for doing what they're supposed to be doing. I'm not sure how how black women are being devalued. What attributes of black women are being eliminated from existence? I don't mean what attributes don't get a lot of attention but which ones are explicitly/implicitly being devalued.

Returning to the black male patriarchy. There's enough disrespect aimed at the black male from within his own community to make me doubt that a traditional patriarchy is in effect. If you're referring to African families, or black Hispanic families, or West Indian families, I'd agree with you. But black American families hardly follow those clear cut roles. There are enough elements of a matriarchy within black America to make me wonder if we can be shoved into such a neat box labeled "patriarchal society".

Panamaican said...

@Saartje: No one is saying that single parents can't provide wonderful, loving homes for children or that every woman needs a man to complete her. However, as you stated, a two parent household has numerous benefits over a single parent household. Admitting that isn't marginalizing or insulting the single parent. Nor is promoting that viewpoint. If you want to address many of the issues affecting our community, a two parent household raising children with love and understanding sets a great foundation. This doesn't mean alternative methods don't exist and can't be effective but some methods are more effective than others over large sample sizes. Two incomes beats one income every time. Two positive role models beats one positive role model every time. Watching two people engage in a loving relationship provides a more easily understood example of how one should act in a loving relationship than watching one person. Raising children while being married doesn't guarantee that a child/woman/man's life is magicaly better but it can stack the odds in your favor.

Renee said...


. You become visible as a group if you are exceptionally great or exceptionally bad

Or you become invisible when your power is so great that you are considered the norm...consider white people. In this case creating these group of people as invisible is meant to shame them into performing their gender and heterosexuality, it is not an indicator that they have been accepted. Considering the violence that black lesbians and trans women face in our society to not talk about that is to be complicit in their abuse.

There's enough disrespect aimed at the black male from within his own community to make me doubt that a traditional patriarchy is in effect

A black man may face racism in the public sphere but he can always come home and beat and rape his wife. If a black man and a woman are married the statistics prove that man will perform less domestic labor. His ability to opt out of work is proof of a black male patriarchy

bplutchak said...

As a white woman I suppose I should be relieved to discover that the solution to poverty in black america is for black men to marry the mothers of their children. I suppose I should be relieved to be let off the hook for any institutionalized racism that may (but apparently does not) contribute to black poverty. I suppose I should be relieved that black women are trivialized yet again, providing me less competition for the limited resources allowed to women in america. For some reason I'm just deeply disapointed.

Danny said...

A black man may face racism in the public sphere but he can always come home and beat and rape his wife. If a black man and a woman are married the statistics prove that man will perform less domestic labor.

I'd very much like to see that data.

All this talk of patriarchy from so many different sources and sites but I never see the definition of it. I'm going make a small post formally questioning it but for now I ask, "How do you define patriarchy?"

Renee said...

Patriarchy is not an organized. To me it simply refers to the unearned privileges that men are born with. Keep in mind privilege can be mitigated by certain factors like age, race, ability, sexuality or class but that does not mean that in most situations an unfair advantage does not exist. Some feminists like to think of it as a crazy sort of conspiracy but I really don't see it that way. Some men work on acknowledging their privileges and try to negotiate it fairly. Some men work on maintaining and extending their privileges and some men simply stumble along benefiting where they can neither acknowledging it or being totally aware of it. To me patriarchy in a nutshell comes down to male privilege.

Danny said...

Renee I am SO glad you actually explained what you think it is. Most of the time when I ask this I just get a link to the Feminism 101 blog which is the internet equlivilent of regurgitating the textbook meaning of something in school without.

Professor Tracey said...

Awesome post! I will be linking this post to a massive round-up on what black women in the blogging world discussed, debated, and critiqued about their portion of this series. I really appreciate your voice!

zobabe73 said...


Main Entry:
pa·tri·ar·chy Listen to the pronunciation of patriarchy
Inflected Form(s):
plural pa·tri·ar·chies

1: social organization marked by the supremacy of the father in the clan or family, the legal dependence of wives and children, and the reckoning of descent and inheritance in the male line; broadly : control by men of a disproportionately large share of power2: a society or institution organized according to the principles or practices of patriarchy

It's real easy to look words up on this newfangled internet thingy...
Isn't asking women to explain it to you a little passive aggressive?

Anonymous said...

Do you have any more info on this?