By Cortez Wright
Right-wing push back on the Affordable Care Act’s expansion of Medicaid and contraceptive coverage, anti-choice billboards like emerging anti-choice leader Ryan Bomberger’s “Too Many Aborted” that target Black women, and a growing number of pregnancy crisis centers in Black communities are just the latest versions of a long history of surveillance and control over Black women’s reproductive health and rights. As Communications Associate at SPARK Reproductive Justice Now, I track this history of discrimination and fight to end it.
I am far from alone in this fight. Across the U.S., Black reproductive justice advocates stand against racist and misogyny-fueled attacks on women’s bodily integrity. By educating and organizing our constituencies towards pro-woman cultural change and progressive social policy, we stand against leaders opposed to reproductive freedom, who would much rather make policy decisions based on their own religious beliefs and imaginations, rather than the lived experiences of women and, frankly, facts. This anti-choice movement, though mostly White men, is also diverse in its efforts to undermine reproductive rights. Black men with media visibility who embrace anti-choice, anti-women positions are among their ranks, including Ryan Bomberger, the founder and Chief Creative officer of Radiance Foundation, Bishop Harry Jackson, a prominent evangelical preacher, and E. W. Jackson, Sr., the current Republican candidate for Lieutenant Governor of Virginia.
In fact, noticeably missing from the public discourse in favor of reproductive justice are the pro-feminist voices of Black men. This is not because we do not exist—instead, it is due to a persistent cultural narrative that dictates that we are few and far between and that male privilege allows many of us to be silent or think that the issue does not apply personally, even if we agree with reproductive justice for women and our communities.
Today’s most visible progressive Black man is President Barack Obama. His pro-woman position is demonstrated in policy initiatives like the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act and his outspoken stance for family planning and abortion access. Yet, even the President has demonstrated legislative acts that are counter to the interests of reproductive justice, such as continuing to push against emergency contraception over the counter without age limits*. This complicated relationship of supporting women’s equality while holding on to male privilege is not new or unique to the President. Black feminist scholar Beverly Guy-Sheftall describes this dichotomy best, “there is a rich history of brilliant Black men who’ve challenged male dominance in a racist country while grappling with and, in some instances, taking advantage of their male privilege.”
This history includes Frederick Douglass and W. E. B. Dubois, both prominent men in the fight for racial justice and also key advocates for women’s rights. Frederick Douglass wrote in an editorial published in the abolitionist paper, The North Star, “we hold woman to be justly entitled to all we claim for man.” Douglass recognized, no doubt, from his experiences of being recently out of the inhumanity and violence of slavery, that all people deserved liberation. Carrying on Douglass’s legacy, W. E. B. Dubois devoted writings that called attention to the specific struggles of Black women best illuminated in his 1920 essay, “The Damnation of Women,” in which he writes: “I shall forgive the white South much in its final judgment day . . . but one thing I shall never forgive, neither in this world nor the world to come: its wanton and continued and persistent insulting of the Black womanhood which it sought and seeks to prostitute to its lust.” Douglass and Dubois understood that men had a responsibility to support women’s rights, yet with clear limits especially for Black women. As Gary L. Lemons writes “what becomes clear in the pro-woman(ist) texts [of Douglass] is that neither ‘woman’ nor ‘Negro’ embodies the position of the Black woman.” Even Dubois’s writings leaned towards an idealized version of Black womanhood/motherhood and the need for a particular Black “respectability” in order for our communities to prosper. Therefore, it is important for Black men to know and embrace our feminist history.
Our feminist forefathers left us a blueprint that allows us to re-conceptualize what it means to be progressive Black men and to be active participants in addressing our own internalized sexism and privilege. This is demonstrated by Morehouse College students who, in 1994, organized Black Men for the Eradication of Sexism in response to a campus sexual assault. As part of their manifesto they wrote, “present Eurocentric notions of manhood and masculinity are damaging to the psyche of Black men and must be replaced with a holistic interpretation of manhood that acknowledges the oneness of women and men.” Furthermore, “we are not perfect. We do not claim to be. As we fight alongside our sisters we struggle to become whole; to deprogram ourselves. We have organized into one body because we know in our hearts and minds that as we hold our sisters back so will we hold ourselves back.”
On Papa’s Day, SPARK honors the proud history of Black men working in solidarity to eradicate gender-based violence, to gain pay and educational equity, and to stand up with Black women for reproductive justice. As we celebrate progressive Black men, we must continue to build towards a more liberatory Black feminist future that rejects the notion that racism is all we confront, where we work in solidarity with Black women against the paternalism of those who would seek to abolish choice and reproductive health access, and where we recognize that, despite what “history” tells us, progressive Black men have always worked for the liberation of women and will continue to do so.
Note: Since this article was written, the Obama administration announced “that the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) will invite the maker of the one-pill version of emergency contraception (EC) to make its product available without a medically unjustified age restriction – to be sold on store shelves without a requirement to show proof of age to buy it.”
Cortez Wright is a Black Queer community organizer, food lover, and Communications Associate at SPARK currently residing in Atlanta, Georgia. His politicization hails from his personal experiences navigating Black class struggle in the South and witnessing the resiliency and power of the Black women who reared him.
This blog post is part of the Strong Families' first Papa's Day celebration. You can read more posts in the series on the Strong Families blog. Strong Families is a national initiative led by Forward Together. Our goal is to change the way people think, act and talk about families.