Friday, April 10, 2015

Civil Rights before Women’s Rights, Revisiting Malcolm X and women at Howard University

Speaking at Howard University for the first time, I revisited the legacy of Malcolm X. A month ago at Duke University, when I spoke on the legacy of Malcolm X and Muslim women, I strategically prioritized the struggle for civil rights over the struggle for women’s rights, though I honored both.

Malcolm X did not play a direct role in advancing women’s status in the Nation of Islam. Worse, Malcolm X made chauvinistic comments in his autobiography. Despite these problems, Malcolm X had a profound impact on women as he raised the race consciousness of both women and men and led thousands to Islam through his autobiography.

My challenge, therefore, was to show the way in which Malcolm’s legacy elevated women at the same time that I recognized that gender justice was not Malcolm X’s legacy. Reconstructing what his legacy has done for women without carrying out a feminist critique of Malcolm X, I strategically prioritized the race struggle over the gender struggle. At the same time, I constructed a narrative of gender liberation and demonstrated Muslim women’s leadership and resistance.

As I revisited Malcolm in preparation for my Howard talk and picked up the book Freedom’s Daughters: The Unsung Heroines of the Civil Rights Movement by Lynne Olson, I realized that through my approach to Malcolm, I was following in the legacy of black women civil rights activists who helped to inspire the women’s rights movements through their leadership but, at the same time, saw alliance with black men, even when they were sexist, an important strategy for race liberation.

I began the Howard talk highlighting my appearance on WUNC’s “The State of Things,” and describing how my interest in contextualizing Malcolm X’s powerful but patriarchal words instead of critiquing them demonstrated one of the ways in which I negotiate race and gender struggles as did the countless black women activists before me.  

Here’s the beginning of my Howard talk:

February 21, 2015 marked the 50th anniversary of the assassination of Malcolm X. That Friday, I was a guest on WUNC’s “The State of Things,” alongside two other Islamic Studies scholars, discussing the legacy of Malcolm X. The host, Frank Stacio, broadcasted this audio clip by Malcolm X: (It's always better to hear Malcolm X in his own voice; the start of quote highlighted by Stacio begins at the 2:15 mark of youtube video.)

"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 and the only time a Muslim really gets real violent is when someone goes to molest his woman.

We will kill you for our woman.

I’m making it plain, yes. We will kill you for our woman. 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 and place the same penalty over the head of anyone who puts his filthy hands out to put in the direction of our women."

Addressing me after the clip, Frank Stacio noted that Malcolm’s words "do not sound terribly progressive from a feminist point of view, [this idea of] women needing protection, a kind of infantilization; you can read it that way in that context. Also,” Stacio continued, “it rings of the very provocation for lynching which began around the turn of the twentieth century: this idea that we white men must protect our women.”

Stacio’s comments echoed the black feminist critiques of the Nation of Islam and other black power groups, particularly SNCC, the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee. From a feminist perspective, the problem with Malcolm X’s words is that they present men as the ones who control women. Men must control and protect women; and men’s manhood is defined by their ability to do so. Women and their bodies are objectified. They are the symbol of a race’s honor; and the protection of women serves as the justification for violence against men who violate the race. 

As Stacio suggests, the idea that men must protect women provided white men the rationale to lynch African American men for the “protection” of white women, and ultimately, the white race. Not only does Malcolm X borrow from the ideology of the white oppressor, he unapologetically brings attention to white men’s violence in the name of protecting women when he says, “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 and place the same penalty over the head of anyone who puts his filthy hands out to put in the direction of our women."

Indeed, this idea that black men can only be men if they stand up to white men speaks to what visionary civil rights and women’s rights activist Pauli Murray wrote in her 1970 article “The Liberation of Black Women.” 

“For all the rhetoric about self-determination,” she wrote, “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.”

But of course, I did not outline the problems with Malcolm’s words when I responded to Stacio because I was not interested in carrying out a feminist critique of Malcolm X. And Stacio did not ask me to. After suggesting the problems with Malcolm X' s words, he asked, "Heard with this historical distance, how do you place that in context?"

I answered that Malcolm X’s words must be understood in the context of his goal, and that was to highlight the systematic sexual violence against black women. After giving this issue more thought, I would further answer that Malcolm X was not trying to be a feminist. He was a man of his time, when the women’s rights movement had not yet gained the momentum and raised the consciousness that it would in the late 1960s and beyond. The goal of the black freedom movement was to dismantle racism. Given this objective, Malcolm X’s words are remarkable and effective. They profoundly resonated with black women and men, which is clearly demonstrated in the applause of Malcolm’s audience. 

His words are brilliant because they immediately evoke the brutality of white racism and bring attention to two of its devastating practices: 1) the systematic rape of black women during and post slavery, and 2) the lynching of black men.

Malcolm X’s lack of gender consciousness is characteristic of the black freedom fighters of the 1950s and 1960s. Sexism existed in almost all of the civil rights organizations as they denied women formal leadership positions. Johnnie Carr, a member of the Montgomery Improvement Association, remarked: 

"Now of course when you spoke out against things like that, a lot of times you were even criticized by other women that felt like...this is not what we ought to be doing. I think we just accepted the servant role and ...[did] what we could because we felt like togetherness was the point.” 

White women civil rights activists, on the other hand, finding themselves increasingly alienated from the movement, created alternative spheres to protest sexism, which eventually led to the women’s rights movement of the 1960s.

Unlike Pauli Murray, who firmly resisted the idea that black women take the backseat so that black men could reclaim the manhood stolen from them, most black women activists did not concern themselves with the question of women’s rights. Eleanor Holmes Norton, another prominent black woman civil rights activist noted, 

“Pauli resonated with feminism at a time when any young black woman who was in the movement would have been far deeper into civil rights…Black women were fully included in the civil rights movement, so that talk of feminism, in the way Pauli was absorbed in it, seemed remote to where one’s energy and attention had to be.” 

This observation points to two reasons why the emerging feminist movement did not resonate with most black women activists: 1) civil rights was their greater concern and 2) black women did not experience gender discrimination in the same ways as white women.

White women in the movement saw this difference, notes Lynne Olson, author of Freedom’s Daughters. White women, Olson wrote, “Saw that the [black] women in the..movement did not take a backseat to anybody. They were out front, leading with a boldness that [white activists] had rarely seen before in women.” One white SNCC activist noted that “the views of [black women activists]. . .were heeded. ‘Maybe not as much as they should have been, but they were listened to. It was more of an equal society.’”

As white women left SNCC as it grew militant, they turned to organizing for women’s rights. At the same time, the black women of SNCC grew more willing to surrender women’s leadership and let their men lead as they subscribed to the popular belief that black communities could not thrive without the restoration of the black family, and particularly the restoration of the black man’s manhood. 

Marian Wright Edelman, one of the founding members of SNCC, provides an interesting case of women determined to push “black men to the forefront.” After starting the Children’s Defense Fund in the early 1970s, Edelman offered to step down and let a male colleague run it. Her rationale, in her words, was: “Among other things our children need, they need the image of a strong black man running things, changing the course of events.” Her male associate declined, and, as we know, she went on to lead the organization herself.

African American Muslim women too had subscribed to this idea of pushing black men to the forefront as the Nation of Islam focused on reforming the black family through embracing traditional gender roles. But also, like the women of the civil rights movement, Muslim women accepted the ideal of men’s leadership in a context in which black women were always working, organizing, leading, and making sure that they were heard.

It was Janet Saboor, a former Nation woman in Atlanta, whose strong spirit and fighting words made me realize how much alike were the women of the Nation of Islam and the women of the civil rights movement. In an interview with Janet for my new book, when I asked if she found the Nation of Islam oppressive, she answered, “I was not oppressed. And the reason why I wasn’t was because first of all I came into the Nation of Islam when I was 23 so I had pretty much formulated on some level or another who I was, what I was about. And then the training that I got from my mother. My mother was a very strong woman and she raised three children. She was the breadwinner. She took care of us, she nurtured us, [and she taught me to be] my own person. So when I came into the Nation of Islam…if [something they told us to do]...didn’t feel right, I didn’t do it. If it didn’t make sense, I didn’t do it.”

The life experiences that nurtured Janet’s assertive spirit were the same that nurtured the black women activists of the broader black freedom movement. Quite literally, Nation women once were the women of SNCC, of the NAACP, of the Urban League, before converting. And most telling, almost all Nation women had membership or affiliation with the black church, the institution that gave birth to the civil rights movement.

So when black feminist Pauli Murray wrote that “many black women have been led to believe that the restoration of the black male to his lost manhood must take precedence over the claims of black women to equalitarian status,” it was an observation that applied to both Christian and Muslim women who felt that they could afford to continue their focus on race consciousness over gender consciousness.

I am one of the daughters of the black power movement. Both of my parents joined the Nation of Islam in the 1970s. My family or community did not raise me with a feminist consciousness but certainly a race consciousness guided by God consciousness. At the same time, however, my community provided me women role models who were leaders, organizers, and activists, viewed and treated as the equals of men. In my personal life, I saw women generally surpassing men in spirituality and level of education. With this sense of pride and advantage as a black Muslim woman, I can understand why women found the idea of prioritizing men’s leadership important as a race issue that would collectively improve the lives of African American men, women, and children.

My response to Frank Stacio, in which I justified Malcolm X’s words instead of rendering a feminist critique, exemplifies a moment of prioritizing solidarity with male leadership in the movement over feminist consciousness. Following in the legacy of Freedom’s Daughters, I’ve made this choice in my broader reflection on Malcolm X. 


It was at this point in my Howard talk that I explained that upon my invitation to speak on the legacy of Malcolm X at Duke and UNC, I felt compelled to speak on his legacy and women, but without rendering a feminist critique.  

"I strategically prioritized the race struggle over the gender struggle," I said.  "At the same time, I constructed a narrative of gender liberation, similar to the way in which the black women race activist before me raised gender consciousness through their everyday acts of leadership, even though they were not trying to be feminist. The angle from which I argued that Malcolm X provided a platform for women’s leadership and resistance is through Malcolm’s Muhammad Speaks legacy."

I provide a glimpse into my paper describing Muslim women building upon the Muhammad Speaks legacy in an earlier blog postMy ability to align myself with Malcolm X and at the same time highlight and encourage women’s leadership is an example of scholar miriam cooke’s concept "multiple critique," inspired by the negotiations of black feminist scholars. Multiple critique sees women fighting various struggles—race, gender, class, and religion—that often overlap and intersect. At times, they fight in the name of multiple causes, but there are moments in which they strategically prioritize one cause over another, without entirely abandoning any one cause.

I ended both my Howard and Duke talks with a sentimental touch as I highlighted the way in which the late Tayyibah Taylor walked in the Muhammad Speaks legacy. In fact, when what I describe below occurred, it felt like a divine moment, a moment of gratitude for the Muslim men who led during the civil rights era and for the Muslim women who lead today. But first, I share my paper's abstract for a better appreciation of my ending:

Two key factors made Muhammad Speaks thrive from the beginning: 1) the high journalistic quality of the newspaper led by editors who were not members of the organization, and 2) the NOI’s requirement that male members sell a quota of newspapers every week. This paper will consider the ways in which the Muhammad Speaks legacy of quality journalism and men’s dedication to Nation building provided an unexpected platform for women’s leadership, agency, and resistance in the Nation of Islam, especially during women’s transformation to Sunni Islam under the leadership of Imam W.D. Mohammed.

And here's my ending, a very special moment for me:

From the beginning of my consideration of women and the legacy of Malcolm X--before I learned of Malcolm X’s and the Nation of Islam’s role in advancing the black press--I intuitively imagined Tayyibah Taylor and her creation Azizah as following in Malcolm’s Muhammad Speaks Legacy. And then, three weeks ago, as I was casually flipping through the latest Azizah issue, I read this letter to the editor:

"I must say that looking at Azizah Magazine is like looking at the night sky from atop a mountain. It is stunning and hypnotic, or is that just me? Thank you a thousand times, alhamdulillah. May Allah continue to bless you and your staff for going beyond the call of duty. Azizah Magazine is a top quality production done by Muslim women for Allah’s Flowers. Sometimes my mind is stuck on the days when I would stand in the cold for hours just to sell one Muhammad Speaks newspaper. I was so proud of that publication because it was done by us for the benefit of those whom we considered lost and rejected. Now, I am elated with joy. Allah is truly tayyib to His Creation. Thank you." Signed, Muhammad AbdurRahim.

As you can imagine, this former Fruit of Islam’s comments to “Allah’s Flowers” delighted me as they confirmed the connection between Azizah and Muhammad Speaks, both “top quality” productions. During the black freedom era, men were in the forefront doing the early work to present Islam to the American public for the first time. Now to see Muslim women present Islam to the world via their own quality creation, AbduRahim says he is elated. We are too, as women take the lead with grace, wisdom, and beauty.

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