One For The Sistas

By the millions they have descended on the malls and multiplexes of America, women who paid their dues, women who have been down hard roads and encountered life at its lowliest. The women laugh and shout and call each other "girl"- as in, "Girl, Whitney still looks good even if she is married to a fool!" And they leave resolved not to make the same mistakes that have screwed up the lives of Whitney Houston and her costars without even slightly mussing their fabulous hairdos. A few months ago, black men had their march; now, in "Waiting to Exhale," the No. 1 box-office hit in America over the Christmas weekend, black women have their movie.

And the great thing is, both come to the same conclusion. If a major theme of the Million Man March was the need for black men to act more responsibly toward their women and families-well, the movie, based on the best-selling novel by Terry McMillan, couldn't agree more. It follows for a year the romantic lives of four women friends in a world full of men who seem to have lived through the last 15 years without any idea how bad their behavior would sound to Oprah Winfrey. Callow, self-centered and clueless-even the ones with $1,000 suits and $50,000 cars-they disappear for years at a time, then show up and announce that, guess what, they're not bisexual anymore, they're gay! Or they string their girlfriends along before heading back to their wives or strike it rich and dump their black wives for Kewpie-doll blondes. The movie even pulls back the curtain on the shocking truth that a chubby black man who looks as if he couldn't be any good in bed -- actually isn't!

Of course, judging from the audiences' knowing laughter, none of this comes as a revelation to black women. "I loved [the movie] because it's what I go through as a black woman trying to find a mate on a daily basis," said 25-year-old Stephanie Burns of Atlanta. "Waiting to Exhale" isn't overtly about race relations; the four girlfriends operate almost entirely within Phoenix's black community and seem to hardly ever interact with white people. McMillan, whose writing has been compared to Danielle Steel's and Jackie Collins's, isn't striving for polemics here. Her tone is the intimate-yet-outraged voice of the "sista circles," the black women's book-club/ confessionals that have spread to dozens of cities in the last three years. "Who [else] can we complain to about black men?" asks the 42-year-old unmarried McMillan. "The same mainstream society that couldn't care less about us as a people?"

But the personal world she deals with mirrors the political concerns of a writer like Rebecca Walker, daughter of novelist Alice Walker and the author of a new collection of essays, "To Be Real: Telling the Truth and Changing the Face of Feminism." Although black women have become mare vocal about their frustrations, Walker thinks they also need their own political agenda, complementary to but distinct from issues such as abortion that motivate white feminists. Julia Boyd, author of "In the Company of My Sisters," thinks because society devalues black women twice --both for their race and for their gender-they suffer from low self-esteem. But all of them agree that one of the biggest problems facing black women is, to be blunt, black men.

This past year has been an unusually tumultuous one on the race and gender fronts. Most black women endorsed the goals of the Million Man March, although McMillan pointedly wondered why black men had to travel all the way to Washington to be reminded to live up to responsibilities right on their own blocks. "I knew men who hadn't paid child support in months but could buy a plane ticket," she says. The year also saw Mike Tyson invited into Harlem as a hero after his release from prison on his 1991 rape conviction, and the arrest of rapper Tupac Shakur on sexual-abuse charges. Assault is a powerful issue among black women, although it was one form of abuse the heroines of "Waiting to Exhale" were spared.

And there was the O. J. Simpson verdict, which divided not only black and white Americans, but, more subtly, black women among and within themselves. Some black women now contend that their solidarity with Simpson was a political act, an expression of support for a black man caught in a racist judicial system. In their minds Simpson is at least guilty of divorcing his black first wife and marrying a white woman. "In that courtroom every day without a doubt were his black female family members," says Yasmine Groines, a 41-year-old schoolteacher from Chicago. "You didn't see the white women he was chasing. His first wife, who I am sure he beat like Nicole, didn't say a mumbling word against him." (O. J. and Marguerite Simpson both deny that he abused her.) "We stay right by our men's side no matter what, and I am not sure if that's good or bad, but it certainly hasn't won us their loyalty in return."

There it is, in a nutshell: the personal and the political inextricably bound up together in the lives of black women. "As an educated black woman in my 30s I am realizing that I may never get married, and that's very painful," says Markita Cheeks, 34, a Los Angeles business-woman. Who is there for young black women to marry? A third of black men in their 20s were in jail, on probation or on parole last year. There are 200,000 more black women in college than black men. "It was a tough decision not to go to graduate school," says 26-year-old Jamie Grimes, a systems analyst from Baltimore, "but my boyfriend only finished two years of college and it bothered him that I had my [bachelor's/ degree. I could tell that graduate school would have sent him packing . . . and with all the sisters out there without men, he would have landed somewhere quickly."

Of the eligible black men remaining, as many as 12 or 13 percent marry white (or Asian) women, according to a 1998 poll by UCLA sociologists--six times the rate at which black women marry outside their race. And if a woman is dark-skinned, her prospects of marrying one of the more successful-and choosy--black men available appear to be even less promising. "I've seen it ever since 1 was in college at Hampton," says Carlita Johnson, 82, a beautiful, successful pharmacist in Atlanta. "Brothers talk the African pride stuff, but when it comes to their girlfriends, if they aren't light, bright and damn-near white . . . they won't date them at all."

This, of course, is an aspect of racism that no government program can solve. And it will be hard for men to change attitudes that have served their selfish interests for so long. "Racism has been really hard on the brothers, but it's been hard on me, too," says 24-year-old Lisa Jacobson, a Los Angeles accountant. "We're told from day one by our parents that black men have it hard so we're supposed to accept whatever they put out there. But how long does that have to go on? '

The message of "Waiting to Exhale" is that maybe there's hope for a change. But millions of black women are tired of holding their breath.