Let’s begin with a wager. Walk into almost any barbershop in the Black community and start talking about the #metoo movement, and I bet you the atmosphere will change. What was once a lighthearted jovial assembly of Black men will quickly dissolve into an Irish wake because nothing can apparently turn a barbershop into a gathering of mourners silently sitting Shiva than can the advances being made in the women’s movement today. Even with all of the public attention surrounding the movement, few prominent African-American leaders have ventured to express, even in general terms, what the masses of Black men might be feeling about it. But this kind of cultural silence is not a unique phenomenon. Black men are often rendered surprisingly inarticulate in the presence of overwhelming emotion—as most men only talk a lot when we don’t have much to say. The issue here has little to do with the absence of speech. Without question African-American men are privately musing, and to think otherwise would be a gross misinterpretation of our inwardness and demonstrates the collective racial intelligence of a pistachio nut.
Quietly, privately and regrettably only in the presence of one another, Black men are talking. We say things such as “When is this #metoo mess gonna be over?” or “This is a white woman’s situation,” as if Black women have not been the victims of our pathetic emulations of privilege and aggression. For indeed they have.
The Resource Center for Domestic Violence reports that Black women experience intimate partner abuse at a rate 35 percent higher than white women. It is no wonder then that Black men speak of #metoo the way a trial weary coconspirator might whisper his inner thoughts to a seedy lawyer, only to discover that there really is no honor among thieves. In fact, we’ve even turned the hashtag into a verb. Just the other day a friend of mine looked both ways before he murmured to a mutual acquaintance, “don’t get ‘#metooed’ before you have a chance to retire.”
Although such speech is an indirect acknowledgment of the power and necessity of this cultural moment, it is nevertheless emblematic of the strange antagonisms Black men feel whenever we are forced to become both the singer and the song. That is to say, on the one hand African-American men must be held accountable for how we treat women (to say nothing of how we have violated the trust of Black women particularly.) It is additionally no less the case, however, that the #metoo phenomenon would be a cultural impossibility were it not for the Socratic contributions Black men continue to make to the experience of democracy in America. This relation is the tension we feel.
Along with our female comrades, no other group has done more to awaken the American conscience than have the political and social strivings of Black men. From Frederick Douglass to Martin Luther King, Black men have refined the idea of democracy in America. We have, in a phrase, liberated it from existing merely as an organizing political idea, to being more of a system of ethical ideals wherein equality is the only American scripture that matters. And although our efforts are never fully beyond the misogynistic pathologies born of that particular Anglo-fixation with privilege and power, the maladies of African-American masculinity have thankfully not prevented us from pushing America to be more American in our lifetime. The role that Black people play in deepening this nation’s democratic commitments continues to be invaluable, redemptive and indispensable.
But now, ironically, it would seem that the egalitarian sensibilities we helped to legitimize have made Black men (and all men really) the object of their adjudication. In so many ways, the blade of wisdom has turned against the wise, testing to see if our commitment to equality can survive the interrogation of our masculine foolishness even as it continues to compel us to fight for the expansion of opportunity in a nation of great wealth.
All progressive movements in this country owe their genealogy to the spirit of the African-American cause. The rise of the women’s movement, the LGBTQ movement, the #metoo movement, the Occupy movement and whatever else is to come, are only able to do what they achieve because Black people wrestled with the idea of equality until it included more than just rich white men. The fact that sexism is dying in our culture is a good thing. And because white supremacy and male hegemony are both servants of the same lie, we should rejoice at the demise of one—as the other is sure to follow. No Black man of good conscience can seriously be committed to freedom and think otherwise. The task of every African-American man in this era is to maintain his democratic cheerfulness even as he dares to lick the lightening, as it were. Black men must resist the urge to be intimidated by the #metoo phenomenon. We need not see it as a threat, because it is not. It is an opportunity. And perhaps more importantly, the highest compliment a culture can pay to those who have for so long, sacrificed so much, in the effort to push a nation forward.