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African American Women Speak Out

African Americans in general have come a long way from the dark days of slavery; this is especially the case for women. There are so many challenges and issues that this group has faced over the year thus making it very difficult to summarize all this information in one piece. Consequently, the paper will focus on the last fifty years i.e. African American women’s struggle between the nineteen fifties all the way to the present day.

The role of African American women in the Black Panther Party and their depiction at that time

When conducting an analysis of the black movement in the Black Panther party, one cannot help but realize that there were numerous clashes going on in this association. First of all, Black People were struggling with the revolutionary agenda and in order to garner support for their movement, most of the members of this party had to construct certain identities that were unique to the black person.

Another issue that cropped up in this period was the fact that there high levels of Sexism in the Black Panther party. This was largely depicted by the Actions of the Party’s leaders-Huey Newton and Bobby Seale. In a book Published by Doubleday “A taste of Power” by Elaine Brown (1994), the author describes her experiences as a member of the Black panther party. Elaine Brown was brought up in a poor Black community but had the opportunity to access education.

During her time in the Black Panther party, Elaine Brown, along with other women in the movement were largely interested in transforming African American welfare. These actions were the things that took up most of her time. Some of the activities that Ms. Brown focused on included increasing medical assistance to her community, provision of food assistance among many other aspects related to the social well being of her community. However the men in this party had a more radical approach to their coz. Most of them applied as double thronged approach in the revolutionary activities; there was the political dimension and the militant dimension. Leaders like Huey Newton and Bobby Seale wanted to create a defensive system for the Black people through military techniques. These ideas even permeated into the running of their daily activities.

For instance, the Black Panther party used to publish a newspaper in which Elaine Brown was one of the editors. At one time, it happened that Brown (1994) had delayed with the newspaper’s production by one hour. In response to this action, the tough disciplinarian Booby Seale sought to find out who had caused this delay. When it was revealed that the editing took longer than required, Seale commanded his subordinates to disciple Elaine Brown. They did this by flogging her with ten lashes on her back.

Brown (1994) explains that while going through the beating, she was “burning with rage” at the actions of her leader Seale who seemed to be applying double standards in the administration of justice within this party.

Within the Black Panther movement, women were expected to silently obey the words of the male leaders. Even the manner in which codes of practice were established in the Black Panther Party reflected this deeply engrained Sexism. No one was expected to vote or contribute to the rules governing the party. Instead, women were to listen and abide by the decisions made by their male counterparts. It is also interesting to note that within this party, there were no female leaders as all of them were predominantly male. This goes to show that women were almost invisible. To the men in top positions, women were seen as instruments that could be used to implement the party goals and nothing more.

However, despite this seeming mistrust, on cannot overlook the fact that some women in the Black Panther Party contributed towards Black empowerment in their own silent way. One such case is the latter mentioned author who chose to change her society in whichever little way she could.

Cleaver (1968) in his book Soul on Ice brings in a totally different dimension to the sentiments and feelings that African American men held about Black women. It should be noted that this book was written while the author was in prison. He had been arrested and tried for a series of crimes that included robbery with violence. While facing life imprisonment, the author began putting his ideas to paper through this book.

In “Soul on Ice”, the author describes his experiences as a young black man struggling with his identity. In his descriptions, he brings in the element of the white women. According to the author, the white women symbolized something that was unattainable to the Black man. In other words, Cleaver (1968) regarded women in a political manner. To him, sexual interconnection represented an avenue that he could utilize to make known his political sentiments.

Through the book, one is also able to understand another unconventional idea about the African American woman at that time. Cleaver (1968) says that he had a picture of a white woman pinned on his prison cell wall and on one occasion, the prison guards to his cell came and tore down this image. In response to this action, Cleaver started questioning his true outlooks towards the Black woman. He even asked a number of prisoners about their opinions on Black women.

Most of them asserted that it was exceedingly difficult to be attracted to the black woman because black men were bombarded with images of white women who they could only idolize but never get. Consequently, Cleaver brings out the fact that black women were not admired by their men.

Soul on ice also reveals a very interesting phenomenal in gender issues; that there were double standards in treatment of women at that time. Cleaver (1968) confesses that he wanted to exercise control over the white race by raping their women. He further reveals that in order to perfect this act, he began by raping Black women. The most shocking aspect of the “Soul on Ice” was the fact that the author only apologized to members of the white race for raping their women but rationalized his violent sexual acts against African American women as part of the moral deterioration of their society.

This part drew some sharp critics from African American feminists who believe that the same mentality still exists today. Many African American women have been violated and abused by Black men but society dismisses it as a normal occurrence in ‘that’ part of society.

Bambara (1970) through her book “The Black Woman: Anthology” brings out a rather positive aspect to this discussion. According to the author, there are a series of exemplary black women in history who have depicted courage and promise through their actions. These author cites a series of poems, books and other works are highlighted in order to bring out the positive role that many Black women are capable of embracing at their time.

In the “Black woman”, the author manages to address some of the challenges that one has to tackle when trying address gender identity for African American women. She brings out the fact that many African American women were struggling with racial inequality and domination by males at the same time. Additionally, the author also explains that women have the ability to transcend their circumstance by becoming the best that they can be. Bambara (1970) claims that this is only possible when women manage to balance the following;

• Motherhood
• Racism
• Politics

She insists that being black and female presents an individual with double trouble in American society as she knew it.

The book is los particularly insightful in exploring the issue of male patriarchy and gender identity. Bambara (1970) believed that women’s identity could be constructed independently from men’s. She also asserted that women’s struggles needed to focus on the restoration of their rights rather than continual emphasis on the issue of their attachment to men. The latter author also believed that female identity formation needed to be intertwined with the concept of black hood. According to her, one could not eliminate the issue of race and claim to have discussed gender effectively. Bambara (1970) believed that African American women had the capacity to change their lives as they knew it because so many other women (as cited in her book) had done the same.

Jackson (1970) also epitomizes the struggle that African American women underwent during the regime. George Jackson was serving a sentence in Soledad Prisons. He decided to join the Black Panther Movement while in jail and started writing socialist ideology through his book “Soledad Brothers.” In his writings, more emphasis was on the black revolution and political ideology.

Very little reference was given to the direct role that women play in Jackson’s society. However, one can relate male struggles to female struggles because both these genders were members of one race and injustices undergone by Jackson were the same injustices that women had to undergo too. Jackson (1970) complained about the failure of the American system to include Blacks in the economy. Consequently, the same can be said about African American women at that time. They were also undergoing economic oppression because of the lack of economic opportunities. The capitalistic approach of the ruling class caused the black community to be the inferior group and women in that category were no exception.

Deburg (1993) asserts that the Black struggle in the nineteen sixties and nineteen seventies was not just a political movement; it was also highly cultural. This author believed that the most revolutionary actions carried out by the Black Panther movement were related to the following

• Racial pride
• Self definition
• Strength

The Black Panther party was instrumental in the restoration of racial pride within the Black people who had been struggling with self hatred for so long. In fact, a large percentage of them were instrumental in the restoration of this self confidence. Deburg (1993) also brings out the fact that self actualization was a concept that was widely preached by these members. They believed that they could restore strength and belief in oneself among the black people. These sentiments were deeply spread among the people and Black women must have received them too.

Deburg (1993) adds that this construction of black identity was done through music especially soul music, it was also done through other cultural avenues like paintings, folktales, comedy and writings. The author enlists some of the contributors to this struggle and some of them happened to be women. Consequently, through the book, it is possible to see that women played a crucial role in changing society. However, their contributions still do not outweigh or even correlate to those ones that their male counterparts made in the black struggle.

Additionally, Deburg (1993) also talks about the issue of beauty. He asserts that African American women as icons of beauty were redefined as a result of the activities of the Black Panther Party. They were able to assert that some of the conventional ideas of beauty in America were misguided and that the physical features predominant among Black women (such as the Afro hair and full lips) were attractive features.

Forner (1995) explains the fact that the activities of the Black Panther Party were highly misunderstood. Most of them were taken out of context and considered as just another invisible force in the Black community. The author talks about how women in this community were able to contribute towards the coz laid out by this Party by carrying out a series of community based activities. These included handing out posters, conducting liberation clinics and schools too. In other words, the author brings out the fact women in this movement were largely regarded as policy implementers. Men were the ultimate policy makers in the Party.

Hansberry (1959) was a demonstration of some of the struggles that black people and women especially were undergoing at that time. This play continued to be read and enacted in many parts of the country even years after Lorraine Hansberry’s passing thus bringing out the fact that African American women are yet to come out of certain oppressive situations.

Hansberry (1959) uses a series of characters, phrases and words in order to bring out African American women’s struggles during her time. For example, in this play; “ a raising in the sun”, the playwright uses the phrase “ drop the Garbo routine”. Through this phrase, the author is trying to show how men wanted women to know their place in society. This fact is seen through one of the characters in the play known as Beneatha. The latter character was different from others because she was aggressive and was unafraid to point out any chauvinistic tendencies among the men that she interacted with. This caused a lot of tension between her and her male counterparts because this was not expected of women. Additionally, this woman was independent and liberated.

Hansberry (1959) also brings out the fact that African American men expected Black women to behave in a submissive manner. She brings this out through another character known as George. George tells Beneatha that if she wants to find a husband, she would have to be act like other women; this meant that she should not have behave in a very intelligent manner or in a way that depicted that she had studied so much.

The latter author’s writings are also essential in bringing out some of the struggles faced by black women in her time because of the problems that this category of Americans had to overcome. Through another character known as Mama, it is possible to understand African American women’s plight at that time. Mama may seem like a strong woman when viewed externally, but inwardly, this woman was struggling with insecurities related to her children’s future as she was unsure about what it held for them. Another woman that was dealing with dilemmas in the play was Ruth. Ruth had found out that she was pregnant and that she would have to raise yet another child in a home that was already struggling with their finances.

This child was coming at a time when Ruth was having problems with her marriage and did not know what will happen in the future. Beneatha is also struggling with a much larger problem in the African American community and America at large; that of gender barriers. These were particularly difficult for her because there were also other class barriers imposed upon her as an African American woman. Lastly, the play epitomizes the rigid beliefs held by certain African American Men who held stereotypical views in a world that was filed with so many possibilities for change. Consequently, this was why such men tried rationalizing their traditional ideas as much as they could.
The role played by African American women today

The role played by African American women today has changed drastically compared to the sixties and seventies. One only has to look at recent political events that the country has witnessed today to certify this; one of them being that America elected the first black president in history. President elect Obama’s victory was important to the black race but it also provided an opportunity to re-examine the role of black women in society today and contrast this to what it had been in the past.

Many feminist activities believe that the existence of a black first lady provides an avenue that allows black people to have positive female role models. Many black women had problems finding such dominant black, female role models in the past. Through Michelle Obama, this has now changed.

It should be noted that Michelle Obama has fitted well into this role because she represents sound American values. She also represents strong black women who manage to overcome challenges in their communities to make it. This is because Michele attended one of the most prestigious universities in the land; Harvard and she also managed to rise up the career ranks, raise two daughters and be a wife to her husband. All these issues highlight the fact that Black Women’s portrayal in society today is more balanced than it was thirty or forty years ago. At that time, most women were supposed to take behind the scenes roles. Even in the Black Panther Party, they were seen as invisible elements or entities that would only be important in behind the scenes struggles. (Regina, 2001)

This kind of mentality has drastically changed today. Black women can be seen making speeches and participating actively in political life. However, this does not distort the importance placed on family values. African American women today are expected to be active politically or economically and also to be active in their personal lives through family institutions. First Lady Michelle Obama has epitomized this new image of the African American woman today.

However, one should not assume that these changes are without their flaws. The United States media being as trivial as it is has still depicted some negative depictions of these kinds of role models. For instance, when Barrack Obama won the Democratic primary elections, Michelle commented that “ for the first time in my adult life, I am proud of my country because I think people are hungry for change”.

Many media houses kept playing the first fourteen words of this phrase. This caused conservatives and critics to label her as unpatriotic. This was unfair treatment of this female African American icon because very little attention was given to the last words in the latter phrase. Consequently, the criticisms were taken out of context. Other media houses have attempted to label her as a bitter woman because of the thesis she wrote during her university education about the oppression of black people. There was also a point in time when some groups accused her of talking against a certain white leader in church. These assertions bring out the fact that the media has still not fully embraced this issue. However, the latter are a far cry from what went in the nineteen sixties and seventies. At least now African American women in the limelight can be criticized and get a chance of exonerating themselves.

Also, they can express themselves more openly than they did forty years ago. (Hudson, 2008)

Another issue that is interesting to note about the portrayal of African American women today is the fact that there are still certain stereotypical images that bombard Americans today. Most of them encompass the depiction of African American women as loud, angry and physically large. These images have been common in most comedies or movies and African American feminists assert that in order to get rid of these stereotypes, then more “normal” depictions of women will be necessary. For instance, they could depict those ones studying etc.

Conclusion

African American women are now enjoying the fruits of their struggles during the sixties and seventies because back then women took the back stage; they hardly took part in policy making initiatives and their voices were not heeded. However, this has changed drastically today. African American women now have the opportunity to express themselves, take up leadership positions and be role models to others.

References
Cleavers, E. (1968): Soul on ice, available at http://www.amazon.com/Soul-Ice-Eldridge-Cleaver/dp/038533379X/ref=nosim/?tag=chickenajourn-20 accessed on 25th November
Bambara, T. (1970): The Black Woman, Washington Square Press
Jackson, G. (1970): Soledad Brothers – The Prison letters of George Jackson, available at, http://historyisaweapon.com/defcon1/soledadbro.html accessed on 25th November
Foner, P. (1995): The Black Panther's Speak; Da Capo Press
Baraka, A. (2000): Black Fire; an Anthology of Afro-American Writing; Plagrave
Deburg, W. (1992): A New Day in Babylon; Reed Business Information Publishers
Hansberry, L. (1959): A play - A Raisin in the Sun, available at http://www.public.iastate.edu/%7Espires/raisin.html accessed on 25th Nov 2008
Regina, J. (2001): African Womanism in the Black Panther party; Western Journal of Black Studies, 22nd September
Hudson, C. (2008): African Womanism; reclaiming our lives, Gale Group Publishers
Brown (1994): A taste of Power; Doubleday Publishers

By: Sherry Robbert

Author is associated with ResearchPapers247.Com which is a global Research Papers and Term Papers Writing Company. If you would like help in Research Papers and Term Paper Help you can visit ResearchPapers247.Com>

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