Separation in Black: A Personal Journey
By Jacqueline Anderson
As published in Lesbian Ethics volume 3 no. 2, Fall 1988
Separatism for me has been both a complex and simple decision. I define myself as a Black Lesbian Separatist because that is an accurate description, but that description describes also the complexity of my decision to embrace separatism as a personal politic.My first experiences with separation were within various Black contexts, i.e., Black nationalisms and Black only organizations. Separation seemed logically to be the first conceptual step to meaningful survival. It was then and remains my view that African-Americans live under continual assault and that that will continue to be the case. The agenda of death that the u.s. has planned for us is directed against a whole people and affects every single facet of our lives. Separation as a people seemed to be the only action that would provide the possibility of both healing and planning—acting and creating. Current data concerning the status of African-Americans in the u.s. has done nothing to change my opinion.
During the years between 1967 and 1976, there was a 246% increase in the enrollment of Black college students.(1) The increase was 6% between 1976 and 1982. It is now virtually at a standstill. For the past 40 years, the unemployment rate for Afro-Americans has consistently been twice that of whites. The median income for intact Black families is $13,598, which is 56% of the white family income of $24, 603. The ratio has declined; in 1969 Black family income was 61% of white. The family income of Black families depends on multiple workers 2/3 of the time while this is true of white families only ½ the time. In 1981 the average income of Black families headed by womyn was $7510 per year, and the projection is that by the 1990s most Afro-American families will be supported by women. It is important to note that Afro-Americans will be the first ethnic group in the country of which this is true.
Within the workforce, womyn of all colors are concentrated in low-paying, female-dominated occupations. For example, in 1982 over 50% of working womyn were employed in only 20% of 427 occupations. However, white womyn are more able to move out of female-dominated jobs. Black womyn are employed 60% of the time in clerical and non-household service occupational groups.
Black women have little access to ways out of poverty; we are born into poor households and we move into poor households. It makes little difference what Black people do, the result will at best be token success. In 1982, young Black people between the ages of 16 and 24 with four or more years of college experienced a 23.9% rate of unemployment as opposed to 8.6% for white young people. So, even ifwe go to college, that does not mean that we will work. During the 125 years since the end of legal slavery in this country, Afro-Americans have continued to be devastated through economic enslavement. Black womyn and children of course have been and still are the more victimized, and many of these Black womyn are or are about to become lesbians.
Minimally, separation as a politic has meant to me separating from that which is destructive to the well-being of the separator. There is overwhelming evidence that white culture is not conducive to the well-being of Afro-Americans, thus the necessity of separation. It is also obvious that our separation can be only a re-action because the white u.s. has already separated from us in all aspects meaningful to survival.
The Black family has been the subject of much study. It has most often been concluded that it was not in conformity with the norm of male as head and all others as essentially chattel. The infamous Moynihan report told everyone that the Black family was pathological and the basis of the pathology was that Black women had too much influence—too much to say. The sapphire image, in other words, was accurate and its truth a problem. We accepted that judgment of ourselves, as we have accepted so many others from outsiders, and Black men began to talk about being emasculated by Black womyn. They could not be men because we would not be proper womyn, i.e., like the stereotyped image of white womyn as soft, idle and totally supportive. Black nationalist organizations of the 70’s were notoriously misogynist and dangerous to Black womyn and false to the very traditions they purported to be re-instituting. Black womyn became the enemy to the extent that we would not conform to an ideal that was false to the culture that ws its source. In recent years, with some frequency, troubled relations between Black womyn and men have been the preoccupation of Black publications.
The issue is phony and moot, however, because Black men have been quite honest concerning their definition of freedom. They want "what the white man has," i.e., a position in heteropatriarchy. One most telling expression of this is present in the choice of mate that advantaged Black men make. Interracial marriage is highest among college educated Black men and occurs at twice the rate for Black womyn. Interestingly, when the Bride is a Black womon, the groom will be Black also 98% of the time. So, many Black womyn can expect today: rejection as womyn by Black men, single parent status, poverty, under or unemployment, and few, if any, resources to fight against male violence.
Kalaamu Ya Salaam, who wrote an article entitled, "We Black Men Must Stop Raping Our Women," stated publicly what many of us knew already: that Black womyn need desperately to come together as womyn in support of each other because nothing positive can be expected from Black men. He was recommending separtism, acknowledging that Black men had already separated from Black womyn. I would further argue that Black womyn must separate, not only for our health and welfare, but also for any chance of success in fighting racism. I believe that Black womyn want to be free and that Black men want to be white men. This fundamental difference in aspiration will defeat us unless we acknowledge it and act accordingly, i.e., separate as womyn and define for ourselves the conditions of our liberation.
The recognition that Black men were willing participants in womon-hating simplified for me acknowledging the truth of lesbian separatism. The logic was simple: If womyn who choose to serve men are hated as womyn, then womyn who choose not to serve men must be doubly hated. But, accompanying my commitment to lesbian separatism was a complexity that continues to haunt me. As a lesbian separatist, I am engaged politically with white lesbians who, as members of white culture, I have defined as enemies of my culture.
Because I am completely committed to Black womyn, the appeal of lesbian first is not possible for me: all Black womyn are not lesbians, but we are all victims of racism. The tragedy in the lives of Black womyn is that racism robs us of the means of self-determination as both womyn and lesbians. So, the zeal and clarity which many of my white separatist friends and colleagues are able to muster is also not possible for me. Most Black lesbians of my acquaintance are under or un-employed because they are Black and female. Many are single parents. For us, the experience that gets in the way of personal autonomy is the economic dependence that racism forces upon us.
Black womyn are more than fleetingly aware of Black male womonhating. It is for most a very personal and palpable experience. But, we may not be willing to acknowledge it in the presence of white womyn. Racism builds barriers of suspicion and distrust. I, like many others, watched adult white womyn spit on little Black children integrating schools. I, like many others, have seen the rabid hatred of white womyn for us. I know that white families picnicked while Black people were lynched. Black and white womyn have a troubled history together in this nation and there is little reason for any of us to believe that our united effort as womyn and lesbians will result in anything greater than more tokenism for Black womyn and Black lesbians. But, I continue to be willing to take the risk and to understand fully why many of my sisters are unwilling to do so.
For me, the risk is necessary because I do not view oppression as a series of discrete events, but rather as a process the success of which depends on the principle of divide and conquer. I cannot choose one part of myself over another. I cannot accept freedom as a Black person and its opposite as a womyn. I cannot accept liberation as a womon and oppression as a lesbian. I am a whole—a unity—and I must be able to live as that tripartite unity able to express all of myself.
The heteropatriarchy oppresses and lesbian separatists have, in my view, constructed the clearest and most accurate analysis of its methods and objectives. But the African part of my history as an Afro-American precedes the power and dominance of the heteropatriarchy. Misogyny has not always been an essential aspect of my culture and I often cringe at the universalizing that states as fact that all cultures at all times have been guilty of womon-hating. Many lesbians of color are aware of its source and know that womon-hating did not begin in our cultures. It is important to me to know the truth of who I am and how and why I now must live as I do.
The history of white and Black contact has always been conditioned by white hatred of dark skin. That hatred is still present and infiltrates my life as a lesbian. But failure to recognize the truth of lesbian separatism will not make racism disappear nor strengthen the fight against it.
Thus, I live with my separatisms because they are necessary responses to the separations that have already occurred. I do not find them to be in contradiction because I do not find my being to be in contradiction.