To Hell and Back: On The Road with Black Feminism in the 60s & 70s
by Michele Wallace
It gets harder and harder to say why and how I became a black feminist twenty six years ago when I was only 18. Over the years, I feel as though I have passed through at least three or four different lives; I’ve been old, over the hill, in despair, and even nearly dead more than once. I have also been reduced to infancy and total helplessness more times than I care to remember. The girl I was at the chronological age of 18 is only a vague memory to me, someone I once knew and understood a long time ago.
More to the point perhaps, I had no inkling at 18 that I would still be explaining 26 years later why or how I, as a black woman, became a feminist. The necessity of doing so is all the more aggravating as I have come to realize in the past decade that my feminist ethics and my racial pride are no more than the tip of the iceberg so far as my identity goes.
Some unimaginative types, most persistently in the provinces, continue to believe that a black woman must be brainwashed by white culture in order to voluntarily call herself a feminist. In fact, it has never been easier for me to be a black feminist than it is right now. Perhaps because I haven’t been anything else for so many years, I find it difficult to imagine how women who are not feminists stand themselves. Essentially, I’ve given up on most other kinds of speculative political thought or activism anyway so why not go completely futuristic and visionary? You might say that my preferred political perspective has taken on an almost science fiction-type improbability.
Granted I have to admit that part of the security and satisfaction of my present life is inextricably linked to my ten year old relationship with the so called « enemy »–hubby bear Gene, the love of my life and my soulmate. I am also cognizant of the fact that many Americans, maybe particularly black Americans, are laboring under the misapprehension that feminism precludes marriage and/or a satisfactory relationship with a male. But the problem of loneliness and isolation, which is perhaps global, or at least postmodern, hasn’t much to do with feminism, or even with its opposition. The odds are very much against any of us finding and/or remaining with the « right » person (if you still believe in such a thing) for all sorts of substantial socio-economic and cultural reasons. Start with the fact that looking probably doesn’t help, and that nothing in our upbringing, in our culture or our history (aside from the popular notion of romantic love, always unrequited) teaches us to value our own time enough to want to find the « one » that we’re living to mate with, the other half of our solitude. Is it luck or acculturation that renders some of us blissfully settled with what feels like just the right complement, and others of us consigned to roam, or to settle for a restless autonomy? (I don’t believe that shit about a Zen-like isolation, such as Zora Neale gave Janey at the end of Their Eyes Were Watching God.) My observation is that those who really need somebody, find somebody. Those who don’t, wander, enriching the world all the more as they go, as a result. Apart from everything else that has to do with our complex individual psychological development, as social critic Barbara Ehrenreich has said, the social structure of patriarchy in whatever form you choose–from the U.S.Senate to the church–has become increasingly unstable. This means that the economic and political function of the nuclear family is deteriorating beneath our feet. So what are we who are so suddenly orphaned turning into? Nobody quite knows. Basically, you’re on your own when it comes to the conceptualization of a mate, or whether or not you even bother.
As it happens, I am a feminist. I have mated, although I haven’t had any children. All of this has to do with shifts in the patriarchy, which is to say if the patriarchy (and along with it old fashioned capitalism) weren’t on shifting ground, a woman like me probably would have had children. But, as it happens, I find myself frankly relieved that I haven’t dared. Between the needs of my sister’s three, the demands of my vocation as cultural critic and my pleasure at being a perpetual child to my husband’s parent and vice versa, there has never been any space. Sometimes I think of the four children I might have had, or of the four abortions, and the fact that they were for three of the brightest, most interesting men I’ve known. The children would have been fascinating if they had survived their unwilling parents. Which was a risk I still stand unwilling to take. Given that there are so many other unwanted children–visibly grown and otherwise–in need of recognition, courting and nurturance, I prefer the living to the dead.
For the umpteenth time, I find myself reflecting on the myriad factors which led me down the curious path of my feminist persuasion, never satisfied with the answer, wanting to tell a story about it that will finally satisfy everybody, including me. I would have to say I have been inclined to revolutionary politics and radical gestures of one kind or another at least since the seventh grade, perhaps in rebellion against elementary school at the exceedingly dull and pedantic Our Savior Lutheran School in the rural Bronx.
To give you some idea of the extent of the brainwashing in this parochial institution, my typically colored family regarded my sister and me with horror as we plastered our bedroom walls with pro-Nixon stickers during the presidential campaign of 1960, which (no thanks to us) Kennedy finally won. When we started bringing home jokes about Jews and Catholics, my mother thought it high time that we move on. Indeed the pivotal occasion was a run-in with the racism of my sixth grade teacher about which I subsequently wrote a short story (my first, a prize-winner and published three times) in my sophomore year at college. After Our Savior, our next stop was the ultra-progressive, ultra-rad and boho New Lincoln School, no longer in existence but then located in a lovely old building on 110th Street on the mutual borders of black Harlem, Spanish Harlem and the Upper Eastside. My fellow students ranged from the son of Susan Sontag(David Rieff) and the daughter of Harry Belafonte (Shari Belafonte) to the sons and daughters of the likes of Robert Rauschenberg, Maureen O’Sullivan and Zero Mostel.
Other luminaries to be were, Tisa Farrell (sister of Mia), Robin Bartlett and Deborah Offner (actresses), Stanley Nelson (the filmmaker), Jill Nelson (the writer), Adrian Piper (the artist), Billy Boulware (the tv director), Suzanne DePasse (film and tv producer), Thelma Golden (a mere baby) and so on and so forth. This isn’t just a list of the rich and famous but rather is meant to give some idea of how abruptly New Lincoln managed to change my vision of things to come. It was like going from a warm bath to an ice cold shower. Suddenly I was no longer in Dick-and-Jill land but in something like real time. While it may have been the fashion among a certain tier of the well-off and famous to toy with a radical milieu in education, this game didn’t cohere with my mother’s ambitions for me. She was more serious. Thanks to the rise of unionization among both teachers (my mother and my aunt) and General Motors assembly line workers (my stepfather), financially I regarded us as comfortable but no matter how much I fantasized, we still weren’t rich.
As it so happened, just as we were making the momentous change to New Lincoln, everything else in the world was changing as well, which continued to lend my experience at New Lincoln a certain gravity. The first year I was at New Lincoln, in the seventh grade, John F. Kennedy was killed in the streets of Dallas. I can remember trying to explain to my best friend of the moment, the daughter of a soap opera star, why I was unable to cry about it–afterall, what was he to me? In the same school year, under my most beloved teacher Helen Myers, we studied Eastern cultures, from the food (which we prepared in cooking classes) and religions to the history and literature; for my project, I led my class in a day of Buddhist observance. During the year I was in the eighth grade, just as I was getting to know him, Malcolm X was shot down like a dog in the Audobon Ballroom. This event positively rocked Harlem, the community I lived in, and my youngish parents with it. No one uptown was ever quite the same. Meanwhile, I was directing my fellow students in a production of « The Diary of Anne Frank, » a book I adored, along with the memoirs of Helen Keller, and every other book I could find about the growing up of sad little girls. Once I had lost my religious faith amongst all those irreligious leftist Jews at New Lincoln, I never regained it.
Going to New Lincoln was the first of many radicalizing transformations, interior and exterior. Among my classmates were Red Diaper babies and the children of those who had been blacklisted by McCarthy, sometimes overlapping with the rich and/or famous. What may have been happening was that the taint of McCarthy was finally washing away in the blood of the sixties. Our assemblies featured Peace Activist folk singers, speakers from SNCC and the Civil Rights Movement. We listened to the music of Leadbelly and John Cage and we sang the songs of Pete Seeger in our classes. The first anti-Vietnam War demonstration I attended was a class outing in the eighth grade. But the major proof I now have that New Lincoln was exceptional is that it no longer exists in these evil times. It simply vanished, like cheap housing.
Meanwhile, as a full time resident of Harlem, I was going to the Apollo with my neighborhood friends every Saturday afternoon. We watched show after show, as long as they let us, of the Drifters, the Supremes, Jerry Butler, Jackie Wilson, the Temptations, the Marvelettes, Curtis Mayfield and the Impressions, Smokey Robinson and the Miracles, Marvin Gaye, Gladys Knight and the Pips. Schoolmate Jill Nelson and I started a singing group with two other girls at New Lincoln modelled after the Marvelettes and we actually dared to perform at the eighth grade dance our version of « Please Mr. Postman »–a humbling experience. So it should come as no surprise that at the fragile age of 13, and in the midst of a local and international world that seemed convulsed with revolution and upheaval, that I decided that life would no longer be possible without first meeting Smokey Robinson. I was very much a doer and at least this was something I could do. So it was just the most natural thing in the world for me to call the Apollo Theatre while he was featured there and ask to speak to his manager. I told him that I was a reporter for the school newspaper (my school had none), and that I wanted an interview with Smokey.
Having actually gotten an appointment for the next day, somehow arranging to miss school and with my most grown up makeup on, my sister, my best friend and I trotted over to the stage door of the Apollo our hearts in our mouths, and were ushered in to meet not only Smokey Robinson and all the Miracles but also all of the various Temptations, and Wilson Pickett as well. At the time I didn’t even know who Wilson Pickett was. That day I had a preview of something I wasn’t quite ready to know yet about the second class world of black celebrity: the fact that they were so accessible, in comparison to what my white classmates went through to get a peek at the Beatles or other white stars, and that backstage at the Apollo was so unbelievably shabby, killed whatever romantic notion I had previously had of their tier of showbiz.
So at 14, as we were entering the « Soul » period in popular music, I was already disillusioned about the magical powers of rhythm n’ blues. The fan in me was dead. With somewhat more serious political intentions, I took myself alone down to the SNCC office to volunteer to go South on the busrides. The lessons of the 6 o’clock news, bringing bulletins from the front in Mississippi and Vietnam had not been wasted on me. I was genuinely surprised when the workers at the office suggested that I was too young. I have no idea what made me think they needed me but I was hopelessly in love with Stockley Carmichael.
Then at 15, I was sent off to Paris for the summer with my beloved grandmother, Momma Jones, a Harlem fashion designer who called herself Madame Posey, who was most intent on gaining admittance to the showings of the couture collections. My mother Faith Ringgold, the artist, was approaching her mature development as an artist and needed time to paint. It was the summer of 1967, and the revels to come in 1968 were already very much in the air on the Left Bank. At French lessons at the Alliance Francaises on the Boulevard de Raspail, my sister and I rubbed shoulders with an international student clientele, enabling us to escape periodically the protective gaze of Momma Jones.
On those escapades, I was intent on pretending to be older. I have no idea how successful I was, but I remember much of this period as a time when I had no clear boundaries: I had convinced myself that I looked at least 19 or 20 to the young Africans, Caribbeans, Italians and Greeks gathered there. Smoking French cigarettes and drinking espresso helped bolster my courage. I have no idea if I fooled anyone. It seemed as though wherever we travelled, the newstands were always screaming the latest scandal of the Civil Rights Movement in the South. Between that and Vietnam, it didn’t feel like such a great time to be American. After the summer of 1968, when I assistant taught dance at the School of Music and Art, I flopped all over the place during my senior year in high school. I was an extremely indifferent student, my one claim to fame that I managed an incredibly high score on the SATS after two prior attempts. Boyfriends were already comandeering a good portion of my attention.
Having decided somewhat haphazardly to audition for Juilliard, I sabotaged myself by quiting my preparatory work at Arthur Mitchell’s new dance school in Harlem in the middle of a class with the Master Karl Shook because, I told myself, ballet was simply too apolitical. I ended up with Barbara Ann Teer’s New Age National Black Theatre for a spell, where I met the Last Poets, dancers Kimako (Amiri’s sister) and Michele Murray (Albert Murray’s daughter who was with Alvin Ailey then), Duane Hanson(star of that Bill Gunn movie Ganja and Hess).
The National Black Theatre was a cathartic experience for me because of its philosophy that middle class Negroes were brainwashed and in need of debriefing. It held out the promise of a transformative blackness. Working there was a ritual healing; it was a place where you could discard all your inhibitions, of which I had a ton. I was so incredibly self-conscious, it is hard to imagine now. Meanwhile I was getting a lot of attention, mainly because of the way I looked. I had had excema in my early adolescence and been as homely as a flea, but I had been cured by a fancy Fifth avenue dermatologist and now I was beautiful, or so everybody said.
At New Lincoln, since I was seriously getting into my militant and fed-up-with whitey phase, I started a black student organization that never could find much to protest in a private school that was already 25% black. I finally hit on boosting Puerto Rican enrollment as a demand. I’ll never forget that it was Nat Hentoff’s stepdaughter Mara Wolinski (perhaps in a foreshadowing of her father’s subsequent proclivity for anti-black nationalist rants) who seemed to be the only person in the school who considered the students of color organizing themselves as a personal affront.
By graduation, I can only suppose (since I was in a semi-conscious state) the curriculum was in such disarray from keeping pace with the reverberations of JFK’s assassination, the Columbia Riots, SNCC, the Peace Movement, the sexual revolution and the marijuana craze, all of which seemed to come to a head that year, that we hardly managed to produce a yearbook. Classmates Chris Rauchenberg and Tim Lutz took a lot of crazy, lopsided photographs. By June of 1969, our principal was black (Harold Haizlip), our assistant principal was black (Mabel Smythe) and the head of the high school was black (Verne Oliver, the mother of one of the future leaders of the Combahee Collective) and our keynote speaker at graduation was the newly minted Broadway star (Great White Hope) James Earl Jones.
During graduation, I was actually in another zone. I remember that I had begun to wear my hair in an uncombed style, something like the early stages of what we now know as dreadlocks. At the ceremony, Momma Jones complained that the parents looked as bad as the kids. In particular, she pointed out to Faith the tangled hair and blue jeans of Robert Rauschenberg, who was sitting with John Cage just in front of them. « No wonder we can’t get Michele to comb her hair. » Some of the kids had on jeans. Some were barefoot. Some showed clear signs of the fact that they were smoking marijuana with their parents on a nightly basis. The music had been written by students, and was sublimely dissonant and jarring, after Cage.
For me, it was not a sobering moment but the reverse. I had no desire to go to college so far as I knew but wanted to graduate immediately to autonomy and revolution. My guidance counselor, Verne Oliver, had taken the precaution of applying for me to Howard University (my choice) and the City College of New York on my behalf. I guess Faith was busting out all over in her development as an artist and hadn’t the time, energy or fortitude to devote to my situation after having spent so much money on private schools and camps.
Becoming a black feminist in the 70s had not only to do with the times but it also had everything to do with being the daughter of the ambitious, fiercely militant and driven black artist, Faith Ringgold. My family was made up of women who were either superwomen of one kind or another, or women who just couldn’t cope on almost any level. From an early age you were expected to declare which one you would be, although I didn’t learn this until much later.
In retrospect, I imagine that I was driving my mother, who had never wanted children to begin with, crazy. She seemed to have little idea how bad things could get. Remember this was the 60s, which had followed the 50s, 40s and 30s, the latter humbling decade the one in which my mother was born. After so much money on private school, etcetera, how much could go wrong? When Faith sent my sister and me to Mexico for the summer, I can fully understand why she was relieved to finally have us out of her hair for a short time, although in her place, I would not have allowed my girls out of my sight, but then that may also be why I have never had children. I could never stomach the odds.
As for me then, I was 17 and simply mad for revolution; my sixteen year old sister, Barbara, who was nearly fluent in Spanish and French and quick as grease, wasn’t much better. Mexico City, which had been the scene of student revolution the summer before, turned out to be precisely the right place to continue my research. Given my sister’s facility in Spanish, it didn’t take us long to join a commune in the countryside outside of the city. When I told Faith that I had no desire to return to the U.S. but wished to spend the rest of my life in Mexico, I was ordered home not only by her but also by the U.S. government. To make a long story short, I ended up in a facility for juvenile delinquents on 16th Street.
Up until this time, I was no feminist. Rather my thesis had been that I and my generation were reinventing youth, danger, sex, love, blackness and fun. But there had always been just beneath the surface a persistent countermelody, which was becoming a full scale antithesis, what I might also call my mother’s line, a deep suspicion that I was reinventing nothing, but rather making a fool of myself in precisely the manner that untold generations of young women before me had done. The synthesis of the two lines–my mother’s cautionary tales and my own joie de vivre–merged into our joint vision of black feminism, the ground upon which my mother and I could mutually agree long enough for me to grow up. Of course, I am saying this in retrospect. We didn’t just wake up one morning as a black feminist mother-daughter team. The radical feminist protest at the Miss America Pageant had happened in 1969 and had gotten a lot of attention in the press in New York. Although the press coverage was designed to turn people off, it did just the opposite for me. I remember that being my initial moment of interest because I had always deeply resented the institution of the Miss America Pageant and had already figured out that life was possible for a woman without a bra.
In the fall of 1969, after my adventure in Mexico, and my debriefing in the Sisters of the Good Shepard Home for Girls on 16th Street, I went off to Howard University, a place designed to acquaint you with the shortcomings of black female status if ever there was one. Between the fraternities and the Black Power antics, misogyny ran amuck on a daily basis down there. In the spring of 1970, I returned to New York and night school at CCNY. In my absense, New York had become a seething hotbed of all kinds of feminist activity. Faith and I were very shortly radicalized within the frenetic and inclusive goings on of the downtown art scene. A further motivation was the troubles Barbara was having as a runaway and a recalcitrant juvenile. Both she and Faith saw only red when they saw each other. She could no longer live at home but had begun to stay with Momma T, our real father’s mother, in Queens.
A major organizing principle during these times, despite the reluctance of present historians to admit it, was the overarching unity of everybody on the left–feminist, black, hippies, druggies, socialists and Marxists–in opposition to the War in Vietnam. If you are too young to remember it, then try to imagine what it might have been like if the pro-Nicaraquan movement or the anti-Apartheid Movement in regard to South Africa had been 1000 times bigger, then maybe you’ll be close. Remember also that an astonishing array of major leaders, from MLK, Medgar Evers and Malcolm X to both JFK and Robert Kennedy had been taken out, more or less, right in front of our eyes. What with a paranoid and closeted J. Edgar Hoover lurking about and watching us all, no one who had any claims to a position of progressive leadership had any idea when their number might also be up. Baldwin’s melancholy refrain during this period was, « Martin, Malcolm, Medgar and me. »
My recollection has always been that Faith and I came to feminism at the same time although I now suspect that I was following her lead in the way that an offspring can sometimes follow a parental lead without necessarily being aware of it, especially since I was an inveterate Momma’s girl right through my early twenties. Through those early years of the 70s, I frequently accompanied and assisted my mother in her various radical forays into the anti-war, anti-imperialist art movement of the times. With Faith’s assistance and support, I founded an organization called Women Students and Artists for Black Art Liberation (WSABAL) as an activist and polemical unit to advocate the kinds of positions in the art world which are now identified with the Guerrilla Girls. Particular high points were when we participated in raucous art actions at the Museum of Modern Art and the Whitney, when we occupied the offices of Thomas Hoving at the Metropolitan and when I wrote the words for the poster for the Judson Memorial Flag Show, (participants ranged from Carl Andre to Kate Millett) which was ultimately closed by the Attorney General’s office, whereupon Faith, as well as Jean Toche and John Hendricks (now Yoko Ono’s personal curator) of the Guerrilla Art Action Group were arrested and became the Judson Three. Somewhat reluctantly, and with only half my attention, I sometimes collaborated with Faith when she used texts as she did in her « Political Landscapes » series.
In the meanwhile, I also managed to move slowly but steadily toward completion of a Bachelors in English at CCNY, studying creative writing under such notorious enemies of feminist indoctrination as the late Donald Barthelme, Earl Rovit, John Hawkes, Mark Mirsky and Hugh Seidman. At various events around town, I met Audre Lorde, Toni Morrison, Alice Walker, June Jordan, Nikki Giovanni, Sonia Sanchez, Clayton Riley, who all seemed to me stunningly attractive, articulate and bigger than life. They used to say what I now realize were perfectly outrageous, revolutionary things and they were photogenic. Clayton had been my sister’s teacher; I encountered Walker, who seemed shy and retiring, at meetings of black feminists. Even then, to fledgling black women writers, Morrison was a queen. I, myself, wrote and published relatively often, and got the chance once or twice to read my black feminist poetry in the company of such feminist luminaries as Audre.
Among the many thoughtful editors of my writing during this period were Kathie Sarachild at Women’s World for whom I wrote my first black feminist essay « Black Women and White Women » in 1971, Robin Morgan who was associated with Rat, and Theresa Schwartz, editor of The New York Element for whom I covered the Panther Convention in D.C. in 1974 at which Huey Newton and Jane Fonda made a notorious pair. My best feminist buddy and mentor then was Pat Mainardi, now professor of Art History at CUNY and Brooklyn College, with whom I spent the summers in a country house in a one horse town called Craftsbury, Vermont. Together she and I, artists Irene Peslikis and Marjorie Kramer started an ill-fated leftwing publication called Women and Art. I can remember distinctly Shulamith Firestone, the minimal artist Robert Morris, then director of the Museum of Modern Art, Robin Morgan and various New York Panthers visiting our appartment in Harlem. Sometimes I had the sense that we were making history. I certainly thought we were on the verge of a revolution.
In the summer of 1973, Faith and I went to Europe–she to Germany, to Documenta, and I to meet a friend in Madrid where I spent a sybaritic week of dancing all night and sleeping all day. The only touristy thing I did was visit the Prado and that I did every day like clockwork, in order to inhale the dusky magic of their Zurburan paintings. I felt invigorated by the Prado and by Franco’s totalitarian Spain. It was so quiet, so safe and so cheap, unlike the world I’d come from. I made up for the lack of political stimulation by having a passionate affair with a military stranger whom I met in a discotheque. Perhaps a foreshadowing of my future husband, he too was from South Carolina. Nevertheless, as I grew older, I became more and more aware that I was often operating under the shadow of a heavy funk. I was depressed a lot.
Sometimes I look back on the mid seventies and feel as though I spent more time taking cold showers to break through my numbness than anything else. When I finally graduated from CCNY in 1974, it seemed something like a liberation of sorts. I considered myself a veteran feminist by this time. For reasons that now escape me, I was wearing psuedo African apparel, geles, long dresses, sandals, no makeup and so forth. The assumption that was usually made about me was that I was a Muslim, which won me some respect on the street, more than you might get in a mini-skirt. Yet here I was, this very opinionated black feminist, who had real problems with the Black Muslim agenda
. The general idea of the long dresses was to cover as much of my body as possible and thereby impede the course of the various sexual propositions from strangers which followed me everywhere I went. Apparently, it seemed worth being mistaken for a Muslim woman. Meanwhile, I was also occasionally agoraphobic, bulimic and often had a nightmare of inadvertently strolling the streets in the nude.
By the fall of 1974, new friend Margo Jefferson (then a writer at Newsweek) had helped me get a job as a book review researcher at Newsweek, which furnished me with entry to all sorts of magic New York worlds from the Newport Jazz Festival to the Public Theatre to a variety of literary shenanigans and shindigs. I worked on both the Erica Jong and the Toni Morrison cover stories. I first met Ishmael Reed on the telephone. From my spartan office in the Newsweek building on Madison Avenue, in the illuminating company of fellow researcher Robert Miner, and under the mentorship of Senior Editor Jack Kroll, I was able to call anywhere in the world provided I knew the number. Michael Wolff, a white friend, (we were introduced by a mutual black male friend who was gay) worked in a job of similar prestige at the New York Times, and we made a habit of chainsmoking, drinking scotch and crashing high profile New York literary parties together. I kept hoping that I would one day meet Norman Mailer whose antifeminist rants I secretly found hugely entertaining.
It was around this time, I believe, that I became one of the founders of the National Black Feminst Organization along with Faith and a whole bunch of the usual suspects. I was still urgently passionate about a variety of feminist causes in the abstract. Occasionally, I was asked to write sexy short pieces for Ms. I received all sorts of moral support from Margo and Marie Brown (then editor at Doubleday) who never stinted on expense account lunches. As usual, chum since high school Jill Nelson and I continued our protracted commiserations over the fate of black feminism. In particular, I remember Jill, whom I had known since 7th grade in New Lincoln, as somebody whom I thought really understood me. Neither of us had yet turned out the way our parents had expected. Jill already had the cutest baby I’d ever seen, whom I adored, named Misambu. Together with the poet Pat Jones, Faith, Margo and I organized the Sojourner Truth Festival of the Arts in 1976 at the Women’s Interarts Center, at which Ntozake Shange performed something from « For Colored Girls. » This also turned out to be the scene of a major public confrontation between my mother and me, one that resulted in a lot of tears on my part and in my getting my own apartment. About a year later a new group called the Sisterhood began meeting at Alice Walker’s house in Brooklyn to talk about what, if anything, black women writers should do or say about feminism. Also, a little later, around 1978, a black feminist study group, which included Susan McHenry and Barbara Omolade, began to meet to discuss black feminist texts and to ponder what our role should be in the movement.
In 1974, I met Ross Wetzsteon at a party at Mark Mirsky’s house. If I wanted to write for The Village Voice, Ross told me, he would be glad to introduce me there. He took me to a vivacious and saucy Karen Durbin. As feminists, we immediately bonded. I ended up working with her on my first two Voice essays–one about being a black feminist called « Anger in Isolation: a Search for Sisterhood » in which I talk about the difficulty of black feminist movement in that we black women had neither the will nor the means to risk standing together against black men on any issue. The other article explored my experience of growing up a black American princess in the Harlem of the 50s and 60s. Both essays were struggling to articulate the peculiarly paralysing specialness of being one of the few members of an educated, black middle class elite. We were the talented tenth which Dubois imagined but never really got to see.
It was with the articles in The Voice that I first became a public black feminist in New York. Perhaps my greatest hit had been my back cover profile of Frankie Crocker, then and still the program director and head dj at WBLS-FM. It was my luck that James Brown just happened by the studio the day I was visiting. Of course, in my article, I gave them both black feminist hell, as was my style in those days. So much so that when Ntozake first met me when I interviewed her, she said that she was glad that The Voice had chosen me because I was just the person to put an end to all the ridiculous voyeuristic speculation in the mainstream media regarding her various suicide attempts. Of course, it didn’t turn out that way but that’s another story. But I can remember being hungry for the kind of fame she had then. Everybody knew, I thought, that the possibility of radical politics was over. But at least you could be famous and then tell them all to fuck themselves.
The writing for The Voice in the mid-seventies got me my editor, Joyce Johnson, who took me with her to Dial Press, which also published most of Baldwin’s books. (She had previously worked with Eldridge Cleaver on Soul on Ice, Harold Cruse on The Crisis of the Negro Intellectual and Amiri Baraka on Home.) Margo introduced me to Maxine Groffsky, who would become my literary agent. In 1975, Maxine helped me draft a proposal for a book on black women and Joyce got me a modest advance ($12,500), whereupon I immediately quit my job at Newsweek and once again moved away from home uptown with Mom to a mouse ridden apartment on Greene Street.
In a matter of a few months I had whipped up the essential core of what I thought would be a single chapter on black men. But then Joyce argued that it should be the centerpiece of the book and that I needed only another large section on black women. We then began together the laborious process over a period of two years of editing what was called « Black Macho » and constructing the much more difficult to write section of the book that would be called « The Myth of The Superwoman. »
Meanwhile since my money was low, my guardian angel Margo recommended me to her friend Helen Epstein for a job teaching journalism at NYU. At 24, I was suddenly a university professor (actually my rank was lecturer) in a school which had almost no black faculty. It was a common occurence once I moved into the NYU housing in Washington Square Village to be frantically queried by middle aged white women in mink coats whether or not I had any free days for housework. I was always so stunned, I can’t recall what I would say. I wasn’t used to living around white folks.
It was not unusual for my editorial sessions with Joyce to lresult in tears: mine. Frankly, most of her qualms were over my head as a writer. I had the distinct impression that she might have been perfectly comfortable drawing out our revision process for another year or even two but I put my foot down. I needed a book as soon as possible. Talk about waiting to exhale.
What helped me conceptualize both my book and my life, as much as anything else during this time was a book that Helen was working on about children of concentration camp survivors. Helen focused her first book on the riddle of her relationship to her own parents who had survived the Holocaust. She set out to discover what made such people so inscrutable and difficult, and how it effected their children. In the process, she was also learning a great deal about who she really was; in particular (or so I imagine now) how to wake up from the pain that survivors and their descendants sometimes find so crippling. For the first time, I began to realize, through my discussions with Helen, and through therapy, that I too might be considered the adult child of the walking wounded, and that this fact, as well as my feminism and my blackness, had much to do with who I was. As Black Macho and The Myth of The Superwoman approached the galley stage, old friend Robin Morgan submitted my text for review to Gloria Steinem and Alice Walker. Needless to say, they liked it a lot (which isn’t to say they wouldn’t later change their minds) and, through a process of elimination and the ministrations of a new black female editor who would become another best friend (Susan McHenry), I ended up with a double excerpt and a picture of me on the cover of Ms.
Then the whirlwind began over the way I looked and dressed for tv appearances, the way I spoke, what I did and didn’t say. Ms. asked me to take my braids out so they wouldn’t interfere with the cover lines. The Today Show insisted that I be interviewed with someone who could debate my inflamatory positions, a certain Bonnie Boswell, the daughter of the president of the Urban League, who turned out to be as upper crust as her name.
Afterwards, all I can remember hearing from the publicity people at Ms. and Dial was that I was wearing the wrong colors, the wrong accessories and I didn’t smile enough. I am sure I was probably as animated as a piece of wood on camera, so these complaints were merely their best attempts to get through to me. I don’t think anybody ever realized how paralysed with fear I usually was in any kind of public appearance. While Dial Press wondered whether I should be described as a black feminist in their press materials, Ms. wondered whether I was up to snuff as a black feminist spokesperson (I was not). Meanwhile, although I had dedicated the book to her, my relationship with Faith had reached an all time low. Not nearly as famous then as she is now, she didn’t feel as though I had given her sufficient credit for my miraculous feminist rebirth.
I had started therapy with an Adlerian the year I graduated from college. We had put all our eggs in one basket. The theory was that professional success was supposed to cure whatever was ailing me psychologically. Au contraire, I was more a mess than ever. I was drinking and smoking heavily, even doing the occasional illicit drug, and hating myself on a daily basis for not being pretty or smart enough. My boyfriends then are now too excruciating to remember. Then the sniper attacks started rolling in. But what could I expect after not having given any thought at all to allowing Dial to feature the most inflammatory paragraph in the book on the jacket cover. « I am saying. . . there is a profound distrust, if not hatred, » my inner child proclaimed in black type against a white background, « between black men and black women that has been nursed along largely by white racism but also by an almost deliberate ignorance on the part of blacks about the sexual politics of their experience in this country. » In Black Macho and The Myth of The Superwoman I had indiscreetly blurted out that sexism and mysogyny were near epidemic in the black community and that black feminism had the cure. I went from obscurity to celebrity to notoriety overnight. Quite suddenly, I was a frequent guest on The Today Show, Phil Donahue and « the six o’clock news » from Newark to Pomona; I was reviewed, attacked and debated in Essence, The Nation, The New York Times, The Washington Post and The Black Scholar, by my own people more than anyone else, and my photograph was everywhere. At 26 I had written the book from hell and my life would change forever.
When I did readings and talks, black folks came at me with book in hand quoting chapter and verse. Meanwhile I was completely at a loss to explain how the book had actually come about. In a way, I still am. I think now that Black Macho and The Myth of the Superwoman was one of those manuscripts that was never supposed to see print, which, indeed, wouldn’t see print in today’s more competitive and specialized marketplace. The result of an unhappy alliance between a perfectionist unfeminist aesthete and a young, nihilistic, black, feminist, militant half-crazed and sexually frustrated maniac, the text could only hope to crash and burn, which it promptly did after first driving a lot of people crazy, including me. Nevertheless, it documents a crucial stage in my development, and perhaps in yours, in learning the lesson that human perfectibility is not a possibility, that men are people too, and that there aren’t any answers in life yet. While I don’t think of Black Macho as the Holy Grail, I am not dismissive of the book. Indeed, I believe it to be one of those immortal texts destined to be misread and misunderstood in its own time, but to survive whatever onslaughts are hurled at it. Somewhere in the future it will find its home. Or perhaps it will just help make the future. Just because I gave it birth, doesn’t mean I understand it.
Moreover, Black Macho belongs with other celebrated documents of the heady times of the 60s and 70s, most of them not exactly gospel: from Cleaver’s Soul on Ice, George Jackson’s Notes from Soledad, Baraka’s Home and Dutchman, and Angela Davis’s Autobiography to Toni Cade Bambara’s The Black Woman, Robin Morgan’s Sisterhood is Powerful, Ti-Grace Atkinson’s Amazon Odyssey and Jane Alpert’s « Mother Right. »
In the process, I learned a lot of things, many of them impossible for me to verbalize. But one thing I can say is that no matter how you slice it, humanity still has a lot of fixing to do. Although I am hardly dead yet, I am no longer young; nor do I any longer feel as though the burden of change is on my shoulders, or my generation’s shoulder’s, alone. I am prepared to stand aside, to watch others try and, blissfully, to watch the crowd go by. Nevertheless, I continue to believe that feminism, in all its myriad and contentious incarnations, will always be part of, although not the only, prescription, until somebody comes up with a cure.
copyright 1997 Michele Wallace
forthcoming in: Feminist Memoir Project ed. Anne Snitow and Rachel Du Plessis (New York: Crown, 1998)