Monday, September 2, 2013

African Americans Should Thank Betty Friedan As Well As Martin Luther King

Last week's observance - indeed, a celebration - of the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom was well deserved, as it chronicled the struggle of African Americans to gain their freedom and realize the American Dream. It was, and continues to be, a worthy and lofty effort. 

But what some may not be as aware of, was the fact that 1963 is important for another reason: It was the year Feminist Betty Friedan published her classic work "The Feminine Mystique" - a powerful treatise that greatly informed what has become known as the Second Wave of the Women's Movement in America and ushered in the Sexual Revolution of the 1960s - a grand time of openly challenging the prevailing sexual mores of American life, especially as they regard Women, and shortly thereafter, Gays and Lesbians. Fueled partly by the new technologies of The Pill and medically safe abortions, and made possible in large part by granting Women increased educational, career and economic opportunities, the Sexual Revolution deeply and profoundly changed the way we Americans did business, so to speak.

Yet, when we hear the terms "Sexual Revolution", one can't help but think of White hippies and flower children, Woodstock, "free love", Janis Joplin and the "Indian era" Beatles - in other words, it's always couched and framed in *White ways* - when we know this isn't true. And to make matters worse, when the Sexual Revolution is discussed as it pertains to Black society, it is with the sense of "problems" in mind - out of wedlock pregnancies, absentee fathers, low marital and high divorce/breakup rates, STD infection rates, and so forth. To be sure, all of these problems and many more, are legitimate concerns; but we never seem to get around to actually taking stock of how the Sexual Revolution has liberated Black people, too - to truly celebrate that. The Sexual Revolution may not have had Black folks in mind, but what cannot be denied is that it has had a powerful and permanent, impact on the Black Nation - and I think the time has come to fully assess how deep that transformation has taken place.

This is vitally important for us African Americans, because, while we often speak of themes of "social justice" and "freedom", we do so in a way that almost deliberately leaves out one of the most basic of rights and freedoms - the freedom to our own bodies, to be able to love (and lust!) those we desire, and to be able to realize those desires. For most of our history on (pre)American shores, we as a people had no say in such matters - Black Women could be made the "handmaiden" of White slavers on a whim, if not outright raped with impunity, a practice that continued long after the Civil War ended; and Black Men could be killed on sight for the mere suspicion that he looked at or even whistled at a White Woman. It is a matter of historical record that Blacks were prevented from marrying and forming families during the Slavery era of American life; and in the century that followed its end, both Black Men and Women were still greatly constrained in terms of what they could and couldn't do in a fundamental sexual sense. 

For example, take the socalled Shotgun Wedding - no stranger to Whites, but in many ways a cultural artifact for many Blacks reading this today. Many couples were brought together under the aegis of such a practice, and in many instances not for the better; as legendary Black Feminist writer and scholar Zora Neale Hurston recounts in her classic work, Their Eyes Were Watching God, many Black couples were thoroughly and unhappily yoked to each other, either as a result of an unintended pregnancy, or due to economic necessity on the part of the (Black) Woman, or other reasons that would seem anathema to us today; the results of which often veered into adultery, recrimination and/or outright violence. Simply put, many Black couples did not belong together; they were suited only for a short term fling, at best. But the times, coupled with racial concerns both internal and external, prevented an open examination and remedy for these problems, until the 60s and 70s. As a result of things like No-Fault Divorce and the lessening stigmas associated with premarital sex,cohabitation and the like, couples who were unhappily mashed together could now separate with a minimum of acrimony, derision and strife. 

Sure, people like Daniel Patrick Moynihan were right to note that there were downsides to the changing times along these lines - his report on the-then state of the Negro Family appeared in 1965 - but what his work didn't do, and few if any scholar's work did in the decades since, was to attempt tobring a sense of balance to such a monumentally historic era as it related to Blacks. For every "tangle of pathology" Moynihan and others could find in Black America along what they considered to be libertine lines, there could be found instances where Black Women no longer had to endure a philandering husband, or indeed where a Black Man no longer was forced to "Man Up" and marry a Woman he had no intention of being with any longer than it took for him to bust a nut. The notion of hanging in there for "the sake of the kids" was one that has proven to be more ruinous than simply leaving a bad marital arrangement, both for the parents and especially for the kids, as millions of Black adults can clearly recount just how miserable their own parents were, trying to "live up" to some antiquated standard.  

Simply put, and even taking the aforementioned downsides into account, which again I freely acknowledge are real, we as African Americans, have tremendously benefitted from the Sexual Revolution of the 60s and 70s, whether it was intended for us or not. Black Women today, have never had more control over their sexual and reproductive destiny, than they do today - the Pill, Roe v. Wade, No-Fault Divorce, the Lilly Ledbetter Act, and so much more, has greatly enriched their lives, and who they would like to select for mates, be that short or long term. 

And while it is often not discussed in such a way, the Sexual Revolution has been a boon to Black Men as well: they quickly discovered that not all Black Women insist that they "put a ring on it"; and that quite a few Sistas have healthy sexual appetites too, that do not require a lifelong commitment to enjoy. The death of the Shotgun Wedding, meant that Black Men were free from the stifling confines of being put together with someone you had little in common outside of bumping bellies with. 

At this point there will be some of you reading along, who will rightly point out that there are costs, figuratively and otherwise, to pay for all this "freedom" - namely, in the form of welfare and other payments, to subsidize the mating and otherwise sexual decisions of others, particularly those among us who may not have the economic and other human capital resources to directly fund them on their own. You might say, well Obsidian, why should we - I - pay for them to screw around? If they can't afford it, maybe they shouldn't be doing it!

And on its face, that's a valid argument. But what doesn't get asked, is this: what were the costs of keeping things the old way? As Hurston makes clear in her novel, and even as teledramas in our time like the fictional Mad Men similarly make clear, many couples were miserable being kept together by force of law and custom; how much did that cost us in straight up dollars and cents? How much did it cost cities and municipalities, in terms of sending out police to homes were one or both of the spouses were beating the other to within an inch of their lives? How much lost time in wages and man-hours on the job, did that cost? How much did it cost in terms of affairs, STDs, kids sired (or birthed via cuckoldry) outside of those marriages, as a result? What about the early deaths that sometimes were attributed to those bad unions? How much did all of that cost? Mind you, the nation has already had a rousing conversation about "welfare reform", AND have enacted laws to curtail what many saw as licentious behavior on the part of the indigent; but where's the conversation and attendant passage of laws, on what I've just noted in this paragraph?

For those of us in the Black community who live by a quasi-code of Respectability, I ask you to consider those questions for a moment, honestly - because, if you honor the concept of human rights and take the idea of freedom seriously, you cannot do either without acknowledging that how you express your sexuality, whom you bang and under what circumstances said banging is to occur, is not only a part of what it means to be free - it is central to it. 

Now, let's be frank - as is so often the case when great change comes along, there can and will be, winners and losers, and the Black community is no different. There are many Black Men, who are rightly threatened by the expanded sociosexual freedoms Black Women in our time now have -because it can and often will mean, that said Black Women will not choose them for mates - because they can. No longer bound to societal convention or economic necessity, Black Women are more empowered than ever before to select the Men of their choice, Black or otherwise, based at least in part, on Desire - something their mamas and nanas couldn't dream of. 

But that's only part of the picture, because the sexual liberation of Black Women, invariably meant the sexual liberation of Black Men as well. A not insiginificant number of Black Women in our time can be heard making all manner of noise about the "death of courting (read: dating)" in our time - how so many Black Men do not seem to want to go through the rigamarole of old courting rituals that their grandfathers did back in the day (approaching a Woman, asking her for a "proper date", paying for dates without any expectation or even hope, of mating opportunities, and of course, conducting oneself like a "gentleman"). And you know something? These ladies' observations would prove to be quite astute. Black Men realize that in the age in which we live, such antiquated notions are just that,antiquated - but are also ineffective in terms of securing mating opportunities, in large part due to the diminished cache of being a "good provider" at a time when Black Women are more than capable of providing for themselves. As a result, many Brothas see "dating" as quaint and redundant at best, a timesuck and money pit at worst, with precious little to show for it. 

Both of these groups - Black Men and Black Women for whom the above applies - rail against the effects of the Sexual Revolution in Black America for a much deeper - and painful - reason:

Because both groups know all too well, that they will not be able to compete in the Brave New World said revolution has brought to the Black community. While that is regrettable, and deserves all our sympathy, it, nor any other personal failing or insecurity dressed in the guise of "morality" cannot be used as an excuse to attempt to turn the clock back on the progress - in this case, sexual progress - of African Americans. Yes, freedom ain't free - somebody's gotta pay; and to be sure, being free doesn't give one a license to be reckless - granted.

But the point is made: Black America is, without a doubt, BETTER off today, as a result of the seismic shifts that the Sexual Revolution brought about nearly half a century ago, than the centuries before it, regardless as to how much pearl-clutching and finger-wagging certain quarters of Black society engages in response. The idea that married/two-parent home/sex in the missionary position=good, while baby mama-daddy/exploring a healthy sex life/marriage being optional=bad, is both incredibly simplistic and downright disingenuous. Far too many African Americans - including the current occupant of the White House - knows all too well that there are many people from the latter cohort who are fine citizens; and that some of the worst among us, hail from the former. In no way is this meant to denigrate either choice - but that's it - the Sexual Revolution enabled us, African Americans, to CHOOSE.

To be sure, there are problems that remain: to wit, the current "Miley controversy" - a young White Woman who can "twerk" like a Sista, do all manner of popping "Mollys", hooking up and acting out - even  to the point of making sex tapes(!) if she chooses - and then, rejoin respectable White American society when she's "gotten it all out of her system", Chad-hubbie in tow. Black Women know instinctively, that such an option is not within reach for them - they must choose the Whore or Madonna route - not both. And there is the long struggle to realize full reproductive rights for Men - in this case, Black Men - who continue to be forced to be dads to kids they never wanted or intended.Roe For Men would take us all one step closer on that freedom road. 

Still, I don't think it is an accident that we observe the half century marks of the historic actions of King and Friedan which went down in the same year, when we look back and see how far we have come, pardon the pun; it is a powerful reminder to us African Americans, that freedom isn't just about ballot boxes, but about busting a righteous nut, too. 

Now adjourn your arses...

The Obsidian
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