If the Hat Don’t Fit,
How Come We’re Wearing It?
An Appreciation of Women Writing
If the hat don’t fit how come we’re wearing it is not a question but a statement. When African American men question the contemporary writings of African American women, they are not really questioning aesthetics, politics, form, structure, or content. What is really evidenced is a pained reaction: a statement of hurt, perhaps envy, and certainly an automatic defense of the walling wounded, male ego.
Sometimes when the sisters turn up the heat, we brothers retreat into sullen silence, pull the wool over our eyes, wrap our ears in mufflers, and don huge fur caps which totally cover our heads (even in summer). We do all of this allegedly to “protect” ourselves from the bad weather. But what bad weather? Do we really need to be protected from the writings of African American women? Many men do not even want to deal with the writings of contemporary African American women m general, and writers like Shange, Walker, Lorde, Morrison specifically.
Like swingers stumbling on the rhythms of bebop, like a self-proclaimed alto saxophonist who has just figured out Bird’s (Charlie Parker’s) “Donna Lee” being confronted with the white plastic, smoldering bent notes of Ornette Coleman’s “Lonely Woman,” like anyone comfortably bound in tradition then confronted with a future which is difficult to fathom, we blame the drummer when we cannot catch the rhythm. The reality is that we just do not understand what our sisters are writing nor why. Moreover, we really do not want to go through the changes of learning how to read this music. “Besides,” we think to ourselves, “what is there to gain from understanding a difficult woman when we can find easy ones?” For us “easy” means a feminine voice that is content to be a period at the end of our sentences rather than a troublesome question mark challenging us.
Sisters Are Through Blowing All the Things Men Are
No mailer how hip bop was, there was still much more music left to be made. Music not only new but also different. Like Trane, tired of playing “All the Things You Are” over and over again with only minute melodic variations, many sisters have abandoned the old song forms and are sounding out new song forms. “Favorite Things” no longer sounds like anything we recognize.
When the new music hit, a lot of the establishment could not hear it. “Antijazz” is what they called Dolphy and Trane. An immensely important artifact like “Meditations” was rated “no stars” in Downbeat by a critic with lead in his ears. Likewise, brothers close their minds to sisters’ songs, complaining about the noise and crying about how bad the sisters write about us.
For example, somebody always brings up Ntozake Shange’s image of the brother dropping the baby out the window. Dudes be enraged, saying Shange is a menace to men, a divisive force in the Black community who pits the women against the men. These same brothers rarely utter one word against Wright’s Native Son. They do not mention how Bigger took a big brick and bashed Bessie’s brains out ’cause she–Black and female and in his arms when he got mad–had nerve enough to love him. Cats do not mention Trueblood in Invisible Man, unashameded of his acts of incest. Don’t mention the male character in Baraka’s play Madheart, the character who slaps the Black woman and beats her to the stage floor as part of her “revolutionary” instruction. I mean, what have women looked like in much of what we have written?
The writings of women are easily understandable as a counterweight to the imbalance of past literature. But actually, these new songs are more than the past, much more than simply reactions to the traditional AABA popular song form (“A” being male, “B” being female). When Ornette cut “The Shape of Things to Come,” he wasn’t trying to rewrite history. Rather, he was shaping the future. Ditto what the sisters are doing. The past is gone. Regardless of how many of us may want to hold on to out-moded ideas, since the sisters blew through with their new songs, things will never be the same. Never. And thank goodness!
It is both dishonest and untrue to say that the “negative male” characters presented by sisters are atypical or unrealistic. Traditionally, men have been socialized to demonstrate and condone anti-female behaviors and attitudes. Through its persuasive and pervasive media network, the men who run this society constantly reinforce a negative an/or subordinate view of women. With or without knowledge of the social forces at work, every man who is not actively struggling against sexism is either active promoting or passively supporting sexism just by accepting the status quo.
Being a man in modern American has been a position of privilege and dominance vis-a-vis women. This is the case regardless of the feelings and actions of individual women and men that may vary from the norm of female/male relationships. It is this hard fact of life, this business as usual, that is rightly being criticized. Bigger and all similar-acting brothers are indefensibly wrong in their social relationships with women.
Objectively, if some of us are not Bigger-like in our social relationships, why should we feel any heat about the negative portraits of Bigger-ish behavior? To assert that most men are not like Bigger avoids confronting the reality of day-to-day life: most men have the potential to be Bigger-like, and this society traditionally encourages such behavior.
Upon close study, it is clear that women’s male characters are written far more realistically than men’s female characters. Undoubtedly, it is only our male blindness, defensiveness, and possibly chauvinistic self-interest that prevents us from understanding and accepting the figurative and literal validity of male characters portrayed in the contemporary works of African American female writers.
If the cap don’t fit’ then why are we wearing it? Why are we insisting that there is something so wrong with conscious and critical women writing true-to-life stories about how men routinely treat women in our culture?
In African American literature of the 60s, it was common to find the image of women as “mirrors” of “their men.” Now that the mirror talks and says what she sees, all of a sudden we are pronouncing the image distorted and contending that the mirror is blemished. Have we men ever considered that perhaps the blemish lies not in the mirror, but in the subject, in the male?
This is not to say that the works of women are perfect in both execution and content. There is much to criticize, but the fact that African American men have colluded with the sexist status quo remains true. Generally, we men materially and psychologically have advanced ourselves via male domination of women. Women who point out and criticize this central truth can hardly be accused of hating men and promoting divisiveness. There is nothing wrong with criticizing one’s conditions.
Most men are not ready to take the cap off; even though some of us are willing to chivalrously “tip” our caps to those women whom we recognize as “ladies.” Fortunately, women are through smiling at the emperor’s old cap.
Like Toni C. Said, “Nobody Asked You to Like It”
Some of us men are slick. Inside of certain relationships we remove our caps; but otherwise, we hold our caps in our laps and reserve the right to put them on whenever we feel like doing so. We only condemn certain “female” writers, the ones we consider “too out” (i.e., mainly any woman who is not publicly heterosexual and preferably in a relationship with a Black man). We become liberals on the issue of sexism. We oppose raw sexism but remain unwilling to deal with the subtler but nonetheless destructive aspects of our own chauvinistic behavior.
But it is not enough for us men to move pass a vagina fixation. It is not enough to exorcise the “dog” in us. We must also move past a breast fixation. Too many of us want every woman to be our personal nurturer, offering us her breast We want women to coddle and pet us like cute puppies.
Divorce is up. Rape is up. Pornography is up. Wife-beating and other forms of battering are on the rise. With this reality of the world facing African American women, why should any man expect women to write pleasing portraits of us? Besides which, how would any rational woman define a “pleasing” male?
Whether we men want to see it or not, this world is terribly violent toward women–forty-eight hours a day. Did you see that flick? Did you see how the women were presented? You cannot go to the movies today without seeing a woman shot, raped, fucked-over, or socked in the jaw with a fast-swinging male’s fist breaking her lip to the accompanying applause of an audience that emotionally agrees with artistic-misogyny. In A Boy and His Dog, a woman was actually eaten (for survival’s sake of course), and that film was set in the year 2000-plus. According to Hollywood, 20 or so years from now, men and dogs will be casually cannibalizing women.
Look at life through the eyes of a woman and you will see an arsenal of weapons arrayed against you and potential violence from every male you meet. A daughter moving through puberty cannot even trust her father as she steps out the bathtub; she better keep the door locked. Better believe it; momma’s top incisor tooth ain’t loose ’cause she bit on a bone while eating a steak.
And when it ain’t violence, it’s sex. Raw. Unrealistic. Heavy breathing from the radio, bump and grind on the television, and triple Xs (XXX) outselling everything on cable. Imagine life as a woman. Then write it like you see it, like you feel it, like it is. Guess how it will come out.
In the final analysis, women writers would not be accurately dealing with their condition if unreconstructed (men who refuse to admit their sexist socialization and are actively anti-feminist in their modes of behavior) males “liked” and applauded the bulk of contemporary writings by women. Just as we did not expect racist Whites to like the Black Arts movement, no one should expect male chauvinists to like anti-sexist writing, even when it is authored by a male, but especially when authored by a female. Most African American women writing today have long ago come to that conclusion. Both the validity of their work and their own will and ability to continue working is in no way dependent on men liking or approving of women’s literature.
But Is It Jazz?
Moreover, it does not really matter what most of us think. Like the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians playing to an audience of eight in some hall on Chicago’s southside, or Coltrane ascending with Pharaoh even as die-h hard fans walked out ’cause they couldn’t dig it’ the hard fact is that our sisters are going to keep writing.
Contrary to a popular belief, men do not own writing. We men cannot stop women from writing, nor can we dictate content or censor them without becoming Black male fascists. The very act of wielding our censorial whips and chains suffocates our own humanness in a box inaccurately marked “mankind”–a box that inexorably becomes an auction block and trading station, from which men speculate on the commodities of women’s lives, loves, and dreams. We cannot close the mouths of women without first closing our hearts, minds, and spirits. To stop women, we must first stop ourselves from being human. No human being loves oppression. Brave humans fight for freedom. And any person worthy of being called a man would fan the flames of women’s struggle to liberate themselves from the tyranny of male chauvinism.
When men say certain women writers/editors “have to be stopped,” all we’re doing is repeating the drawing-room conversation of plantation owners whom we serve and, unfortunately, too often imitate. The bourgeois–those who possess the major productive forces in this society–always fear any new phenomenon that they do not own or control. In many cases we reject the writings of women not just because we don’t like the content, but also because we can’t control it. Besides, like a slave rebellion on a nearby farm, this thing could get out of hand and exert a bad influence on our women. Harriet Tubman’s coming!
If anything, we ought to encourage sister writers. Let’s water this new literature, herald its coming, and look forward to a wider variety of vegetables and fruit. Let’s look forward to a far nicer, spicier, and yes, healthier meal than the bogus bread, blood, meat, sugar, and salt diet that most of us imbibe and chase down with alcoholic drinks.
Yes, the new music was really music. Alvin Ayler and Archie Shepp are Great Black Music, Aflican Diasporan aural creators using our ear canals to clear our heads. They could blow the standards but chose to set new standards. Our music and our lives are better because they blew what they knew to be real, regardless of what the experts had to say.
Similarly, our lives are better because Toni Cade Bambara, Sonia Sanchez, Mari Evans, Jayne Cortez, Alexis DeVeaux, Alice Walker, Maya_Angelou, Ntozake Shange, and others are working literature into new areas. Their human geographics not only describe us, but also, and more importantly, women’s writings decisively contribute to the voicing of our collective reality. Their voices specifically include previously omitted parts of our history, present, and future. Rather than describing to others/aliens what we are like, African American women are voicing the Black experience, and dialoguing with the folk-field folk, that is, those brave enough to run for it (“it” being hard freedom in the hills).
At the fifth Howard University Writer’s Conference, I spoke about what I believe is the wonderful development of women writers. Part of what I said bears reiteration:
[I]t is my perception and my belief that much of the most creative and politically-important work happening in current Black literature is being authored by women. It may seem that there are more women being published. Overall, the work of talented Black women is more interesting, confronts our conditions in more creative ways, asks more questions, proposes more alternatives to the status quo than do the works of men.
In my opinion, Alice Walker’s The Color Purple, Toni Bambara’s The Salt Eaters, Alexis DeVeaux’s book on Billie Holiday, and a number of other examples of fiction by Black females are much imore inventive than recent published fiction by Black male writers.
Why do I believe this? First, because more of our talented male writers have been, shall we say, “gainfully employed” in status quo positions by colleges, corporations, foundations, and government agencies. More men have received grants, fellowships, and the like. For many Black men, it is no longer in our interest to sink the ship of state because many of us have been granted a berth aboard the U.S.S. Status quo. Sure, our security aboard ship is shaky, but the point is that we are there, not in the water.
This is a generalization, but I think it is a generalization that corresponds in many important ways to our current reality vis-a-vis our creative writings.
In the context of Black literature, women and those who are sensitive to women are offering critiques of society that stretch beyond class and race, and this stretching is both healthy and necessary. Female authors are making these important creative strides because they are reacting both to our people’s oppression and exploitation in general and to their own particular oppression and exploitation as women. In other words, they are fulfilling their historic mission as articulated by Franz Fanon.
We Got to Move
Women writers are not aliens, nor should their presence be surprising. Women writers are truly our colleagues, and we ought to be their comrades. We ought to share struggle and space with them. To do this, we must leave the estates of our male mansions. We must leave the familiar but alien colonial capitals and journey into the bush of ourselves.
Of course, the bush is no easy place to go, especially for of us who have grwn accustomed to the creature comforts of the big cities. The bush can be dangerous, and, at times, unmerciful. Yet, the bush is also liberating. The bush is the internal terrain for which we alone are responsible. It is the hearts and imaginations of our people; the now deformed and malnourished center of our existence, which requires not only discovery but also therapy in order to restore whole communities.
Going into the bush requires sacrifice; you cannot ride in air-conditioned splendor. Why go after ephemeral and uncertain freedom in the hills when there are certain comforts to be had beneath the reign of our historic oppressors? The answer is simple: our future is in the bush; the plantation will not survive. We have no choice. Either save ourselves or perish with our oppressors.
Essentially, this is what sisters are saying. What do they gain by remaining the wives, bitches, and whores of men’s dreams? Look at the reality: many of our sisters are living alone with their children anyway. The social landscape is not improving. That is why more and more of them are running for the hills, running for their lives. And we should be on the road with them, fleeing an oppressive past, escaping to an arduous but liberated future.
Our sisters are not hiding from us, unless, of course, we hold a chain in our hand and are scouts and slave-catchers for the old regime. Our sisters are not begging, requesting, pleading, nor even any longer willing to cross the burning sand and softly present their case at our feet like peasants petitioning a governor. From here on out, if we are to talk, it will be as equals. Dialogue with Black women can only take place when and if we decide that we are willing to leave the big house and live in the hills. Jamaican Maroon leader, Nanny, catches British bullets in her teeth. No way is she going to listen to the bullshit of some assimilatto who refers to himself and the establishment as “we.”
The women are not waiting for us. They gone. And that’s one of the reasons why much of their literature is so interesting.
Source: What Is Life: Reclaiming the Black Blues Self (1994)