Black Men &Amp; Black Women

Normally white men don't presume (to borrow James Baldwin's phrase) that the world has "prepared no place" for them. Black men, however, have never had the luxury of assuming the world's congeniality. More than any other group of American males, black men have kindled society's contempt. That scorn has exacted a price--on black men's self-image, on black men's aspirations, and particularly on black male-female relationships.

Among the many informants for "a man's world" with strong opinions on the state of those relationships was a black woman with a thriving career and a Ph.D. whose complicated and conflicted thoughts were both provocative and revealing.

"I never ran across a lot of black men who liked women, who really liked women and appreciated women," she said. She recalled something a physician friend of hers had said: "'Black men punish you for the ills of society. They punish women.' And

I've felt that way with black men."

She recalled a business meeting she had attended with some black senior executives. "After the meeting, we were walking out of this conference room, and one of them turned and said, 'Excuse me.' He was going to the men's room. And ne turned and looked at me and this other black woman who was with me and he grabbed his crotch and said, 'This is one place that you can't follow me'."

Her unpleasant experiences, she insisted, had nothing to do with her decision to marry a white man. "I mean I didn't get up and go and decide that I'm not going to marry somebody black. It wasn't a conscious decision. It's also sort of who you have access to in the course of work every day-who it is that you interact with. And it sort of happened. I think the impression sometimes, especially for black women married to white men, is that we made a decision to do that. You know that, 'based, on my experience, I'm not going to marry a black man.' And that just isn't true."

She was not sure whether white men, in general, were less sexist than their black counterparts. "I think that's so individual . . . But white men are different [from blacks] in so far [as] it is their world . . . My husband walks out of the door, and he knows the taxi is going to stop for him. It isn't a thing that he thinks about. I think it's their world."

If there is one thing black men are sure of, it is that this is not their world, Dr. Jean Bonhomme, president of the Atlanta-based National Black Men's Health Network, recalls a meeting with a group of black male professionals during which they shared their boyhood experiences. "We were astounded at how many of us had been told 'Black men ain't [shit] . . .' We're a group of professionals, and this is what we've been told all our lives--negative expectations being pounded into our heads like this. We were shocked. I could understand it if I had been meeting with a group in a prison, but I was meeting with a group of black professionals--guys who drove Mercedes, guys who had houses out in the country, guys who had all of these kinds of things, who were lawyers, doctors . . . We said, "We're the ones who made it, and they've been telling us this." You begin to see why so few of us make it."

Another man, dark brown complected, talked of growing up and seeing lighter boys getting much more attention- especially from girls. "It hurt," he said, "and worse, I bought into the shit." Though handsome by any reasonable standard, he didn't like the way he looked. And when he began to date, he found himself attracted primarily to women who weren't black--white, Asian, Hispanic, they all seemed to treat him better than black women did. Generally when he was with a black woman, he said, emotion creeping into his voice, "I felt a void." "We aren't the way we are because we're vindictive toward black women," he added. "You go where the water flows easier."

The black woman who senses insecurity, anxiety and resentment among black men is probably not imagining the feeling. A nationwide survey in 1993-94 found that 20 percent of blacks believed that black women should eschew positions of political leadership so as not to "undermine" black men. And whereas 65 percent supported black feminists, 29 percent thought that "feminist groups just divide the black community." Michael Dawson, the University of Chicago political scientist who codirected the survey, thought the findings gave insight into "why such events as the Clarence Thomas/Anita Hill hearings are capable of starting a firestorm" among blacks.

The poll certainly underscores the deep conflict many blacks feel over gender issues. Most blacks retlexively support feminist goals of economic and political parity. Many also believe, however, that black men desperately need shoring up--even at women's expense. The hunger for support is palpable - as Washington Post writer Donna Britt demonstrated with her "valentine" to black men, published February 14, 1990, in the Post.

"Statistics suggest they are endangered," Britt wrote. Nonethe-less, "black men manage to amaze." She rhapsodized over Michael Jordan's athleticism and Nelson Mandela's grace. And she praised black men for "surviving so much" and being so splendid. The prose-poem went on for nearly a thousand words. The reaction was phenomenal.

In an article the following month, Britt noted that she had originally considered the piece a challenge to conventional wisdom, but otherwise, "No big deal." "Today 264 phone calls, 85 letters and three bouquets of roses later--it seems this nugget of appreciation was a much bigger deal than I ever imagined," concluded Britt. Her callers and correspondents ran the gamut, but the responses that particularly touched her were those from middle-class, seemingly secure black men. Several "said that they read the piece at their desks, tears rolling down their cheeks." Gratified as she was by the reaction, "it hurt, knowing that any group of men-and particularly this one, whose members had overcome the odds to distinguish themselves-could on some level feel so battered, so needy, that reading a purely positive essay about themselves would elicit a flood of gratitude." The distress, insist some observers, is growing.

In his 1994 book, "The Assassination of the Black Male Image," Earl Ofari Hutchinson says the black male has become a "universal bogeyman." Black women, he acknowledges, are suffering, too. "But . . . white men don't need to wage the same ego war against her as they do against black men. They tell her that she wouldn't be in the mess she's in if HE would just get a job, stay out of jail, stop shooting or snorting, get married, stop making babies and quit dropping dead." To compound matters, says Hutchinson, an array of female authors, from Ntozake Shange to Alice Walker, have made careers denigrating black males.

In a recent edition of "Black Macho and the Myth of the Superwoman" (first published in 1979), Michelle Wallace recants some of her earlier and wholly negative views of black men. "There are many black men who love black women, .and vice versa, although I didn't know it at the time I wrote 'Black Macho'." When she began dating, wrote Wallace, "I expected and found no better men than my father and stepfather had been. I expected and found hostility, anger, competition, violence, dishonesty, misogyny and ignorance. These experiences had a lot to do with my 'theories' about black men and black male/female relationships."

Though Wallace apparently has called a truce, many women have not; and undoubtedly some of their bitterness reflects their experiences with certain black men. As A. L. Reynolds wrote in his provocatively titled book, "Do Black Women Hate Black Men?," "too many black women have been hurt, abused, abandoned, left pregnant, helpless, and homeless by black men who refuse to accept responsibility." Many women have also become fed up with what one woman I interviewed described as the desire of black men to be "treated like kings."

The woman, a lawyer who now dates a blue-collar white man, recalls that in college, black guys were "high on themselves, legitimately, because in many cases they've pulled themselves up . . . But they also expected to be treated . . . like royalty, like they had done something that else could do."

I once was in the company of two black professionals who had been unofficially "fixed up." The man, who had recently exited a relationship-turned-sour, began to bemoan the difficulty of finding a "good" woman. Most black women, he said, were unwilling to give a man the kind of support he needed. His date, turning colder by the second, demanded to know exactly what kind of support he required. He wanted a woman to cherish him, he essentially said, and to harbor him from the blows of a brutally hostile world. She wanted a man, she said, who would do the same thing but who also didn't expect her to defer to his overblown ego. After a few such exchanges, she all but dismissed her companion with the observation that he didn't need an educated woman but maybe a secretary or "a teller." Her tone left little doubt that she could just as easily have told him to go find himserf a whore.

For black female professionals in search of black male professionals, the odds alone can be daunting. More black women than black men graduate from college. For whites, the reverse is true. And more black women than black men work as professionals. An analysis of data from the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission by The Wall Street Journal in 1999. put the ratio at 1.8 to 1. It is because of such numbers that black col-lege-educated women are much more likely than are white col-lege-educated women to marry men without college degrees--that is, assuming that they get married at all.

Many women searching for love among black nonprofessionals find the pickings no better. Not only are black men without a college education at high risk for unemployment, but many (particularly young city dwellers) have adopted an attitude social scientists Richard Majors and Janet Mancini Billson call "cool pose." In their 1992 book named for the syndrome, they write, "Being cool is an ego booster for black males comparable to the kind white males more easily find through attending good schools, landing prestigious jobs, and bringing home decent wages." That pose, they noted, may "condition the black man to suppress and lose touch with all his feelings." In other words, it may prevent black men from achieving any semblance of intimacy.

The most comprehensive survey of American sexual practices yet conducted, the National Health and Social Life Survey, found that 42 percent of black men, compared with 32 percent of white men, held a primarily "recreational" view of sex. In contrast, the team of investigators based at the University of Chicago's National Opinion Research Center discovered that fewer than 9 percent of black women, compared with more than 21 percent of white women, saw pleasure (not necessarily grounded in love or commitment) as the primary purpose of sex.

One black man in his forties surmised that his generation was somewhat to blame for the attitudes displayed by younger men. "I think we . . . have done a very poor job of passing on the lessons we have learned," he said. "So they've literally had to recreate themselves from almost nothing. [For many of them] to show that a woman could even touch them is a sign of weakness. So women are expendable. Women are tissues. You just run through them."

One young man, a former drug dealer who says his hustling days are behind him, looks back with a sense of wonder at how he once was: "I was ruthless." He had no interest in any meaningful relationships with men, and as for women, "I just wanted to go out and bump the girl and keep on stepping."

Samuel Sanchez, a social worker who directs a program providing educational opportunities to young poor people (mostly Latino and black) in New York, sees little evidence that many of his charges realize that gender roles have changed. "They're very isolated . . . in terms of awareness and consciousness, for the most part," he says. The young men often believe that males should "reign supreme in all decisions," says Sanchez. "It's very macho."

Samuel Betances, a sociologist at Northeastern Illinois University, thinks that the "code of machismo" once served a real and productive purpose. It said that if you harmed a man's child, "you'll have to deal with that man"; it also demanded that you work and "meet your obligations."

In today's urban environment, the provider role can be difficult and the show of manliness exaggerated: "When you [don't] have anything else to point to, you point to the size of your fists or other organs in your body to show how big of a man you are," notes Betances.

Whatever its origins, and whatever it is called-the code of the streets, machismo, or cool pose-the attitude can make life difficult for a woman who is interested in being anything other than an accessory to a man. Yet to portray black men as belonging essentially to one of two groups--strutting macho men or self-absorbed professionals-would be grossly misleading.

Certainly these types exist, but so do many others. Millions of black men are neither endangered nor in crisis but are hardworking contributors to society. According to the U.S. Census, more than two thirds of black males 16 and older are in the labor force. The majority of those over 24 are married. Two thirds of all black men over 24 have completed high school, nearly 30 percent have attended college, and 11 percent have earned at least a bachelor's degree.

As Oliver Cromwell, a black college-educated Washingtonian, put it: "There are plenty of decent black men out there who are looking for genuine relationships just like their female counterparts," Yet in this culture, as Betances noted, black and Latino men "are constantly defined by what we would consider our worst element." So, the distorted image of black men as commitmentphobic thugs flourishes--among whites, but also among certain blacks.

But even some of those black men considered most "at risk" are refusing to be boxed in by the stereotype. When I spoke with him in early 1994, 21-year-old Michael Lockett talked about how participating in the Philadelphia Children's Network's Responsive Fathers Program had changed his life. He said the counselors at the program had given him the confidence to marry the mother of his 3-year-old daughter. He was working at a job packing hamburgers and looking into colleges. "I want to be there for my children," he said. ". . . I want them to have the things that I didn't."

Twenty-year-old Brian Thompson, another participant in the program, was also trying to refocus his life. He was touched by the fact that others like him were making the same effort. "It really shocked me because it was like a lot of guys that you see out in the street, that, if you ride by, you would consider them a drug dealer or probably a stick-up [man]. But it was them type guys sitting up in here, really wanting to do something. I said, 'It takes effort to get off of the corner and to come down here and sit up in here for about two or three hours talking, sharing your feelings'."

Certain black men will never "get off of the corner." They have been convinced that the strictures of race and class leave them with nowhere else to go. And some who never succumbed to the streets nonetheless find life as a black man in America to be so debilitating that they require more nurturing than many black women (or women of any color) are willing to give.

It would be a mistake, however, to assume that such problems define or are peculiar to black men, that they are racial traits. Men of all races have fragile egos, blinkered vision, and assorted other problems that get in the way of fig relationships.

The statistics that are worscuing for blacks are worsening for whites as well. Fatherlessness among whites has more than doubled in the past two decades. The number of whites, overwhelmingly males, arrested for violent crimes has roughly tripled since 1965, and the number arrested for aggravated assault has quadrupled.

When first-time father Brian Thompson talks of his need to "be around men and see how men think . . . 'cause I grew up with my main and sister," he is voicing a craving for a more appropriate and more accessible role model than either neighborhood culture or popular culture has provided. Only in the most narrow sense is his a black male problem. It is, more accurately, a problem of a society that has divorced fatherhood from lathering and provided many boys with little guidance in understanding what it means to be a man. The fact that the problems are so much worse among black men makes it harder to see that they are bad among America men of all races.

The vast majority of black men, as noted earlier, are not out pillaging and plundering or abusing black women or living high on the dole. They are working, despite the fact that many employers deem them undesirable, and often are struggling- against a society that frequently finds them threatening and worthless; against expectations of failure on every side; and often against their own intense anger at a world that, in large measure, despises them, even as it insists that they put on a happy face.

When asked what she thought of the bad reputation of black males, Virginia resident Terri Dickerson-Jones would not take the bait: "Black men have it hard enough in this world without having to deal with broad, sweeping generalizations from me." In a more perfect world, more people would refuse to see others as stereotypes. Unfortunately, the politics of gender and the politics of race have made it much harder for any of us to be simply human beings as opposed to being defined, even at our most intimate, by "what we would consider our worst element."

Adapted from "A Man's," by Ellis Cose. Copyright (C) by Ellis Cose, 1995. To be published in June by HarperCollins.