SEDUCTIVELY PACKAGED and aggressively promoted, this book deserves all the play it is getting. It is serious, well written, effective in its demystification, valuable as a model of hardheaded but caring analysis, principled in its criticism, important. It is understandable that it has provoked so much controversy in so many quarters -- stirring some to rage, others to exuberant applause, still others to a judicious review of the facts and fictions that characterize the lives of black men and women, all men and women. Its subject matter alone -- sexual politics -- is explosive, and, in the absence of truth-speaking traditions in American life and letters, Wallace's fearless presentation of her analysis quite takes the breath away.
She takes on the myths. More significantly, she takes on the myth makers and also the myth in-takers. She manages to cut sharply through that murky terrain of race/class/sex/caste fictions presented too often either through a glass darkly or through a distorted lens. What we are left with is a clarity, as well as an occasion for fashioning a collective analysis, a collective ideology with which to build, among other things, a coherent Black Woman's Movement.
There are seemingly two arguments to the work, as signaled by the two-toned title and the division within the manuscript itself. One -- that black folks made a serious error in the '60s equating the pursuit of manhood or the public exercise of narcissistic macho with the liberation of a people, with power. Two -- that the perpetuation of the strong black woman image in the black community and in the American mentality (an invention that persists in the teeth of poverty and powerlessness) sets us up for the bogus power-is-manhood equation and predisposes us all to a faulty vision and, consequently, to false steps.
What bridges these seemingly separate discussions is the overall thesis that we, the black community, have been, by and large, uncritical consumers of myth, that we have bought into definitions designed by and in the interest of the oppressor class, and in so doing have lost our grip on the black world view. We are enchanted. We have fallen under the spell, for example, of anxious white American men who have invented Black Macho (or Hipster or Savage Stud, a la Mailer) as an antidote to the feminization of maleness, thus not having to surrender the notion of male supremacy. The white man's obsession with the black man's sexuality, Wallace demonstrates, "turned out to be a communicable disease, and in the sixties black men came down with high fevers." The Black Movement, then, her argument goes, became the vehicle for Black Macho, a departure from the more historic and authentic tradition of resistance. "The most important thing was no longer the welfare of his family, his people, but white racism," or more specifically, white definitions of power-imperatives.
The stereotype of the strong, self-sufficient black woman -- indefatigable, invulnerable, independent, impervious to pain, a wizard at balancing nonexistent budgets, at birthing babies, at keeping on keeping on in the face of systematic treachery (like the tragic mulatto, the mammy, the whore, the brute rapist, the coon, the Tom) -- was originally designed to reinforce economic and psychological roles imposed on a subject people. The one-dimensional, static, highly selective fictions helped to provide a guilt-free climate for racial oppression and sexual exploitation. The concept of the strong black woman -- like that of the pioneer woman and its double, the lovely-lady-as-fragile-image -- is kept virbrant by those looking to exempt herself/himself from the responsibility for changing the material and the subjective conditions -- all the spine-crushing and soul-killing myths and realities -- that give rise to and guarantee the persistence of real pain, real hardship, real loneliness.
To free us up from the Superwoman lie, so intertwined with other facile images that function as substitutes for thinking, is to free us all up. It is this line of argument that makes the book so invaluable to anyone who has intuited the fact that there is a war going on and that it is being waged not only over the issue of turf and resources, but over the issue of the right to self-definition and self-determination.
While it is a fusion of personal and family history, literary and sociological investigation and interviews, this book is also a personal odyssey. It is Wallace's attempt -- as a young woman coming of age in turbulent times -- to make sense out of the orchestrated madness that frequently characterizes race/class/sex arrangements in this country. "The Black Movement," she says, "was unable to provide me with the language I needed to discuss these matters. I had no alternative but to become a feminist."
However, Wallace's own journey and becoming are not private matters. They reflect the experience of any activist woman (or man) who has witnessed the tremendous waste of resources each time "strong woman" or "manhood" is used to beat back activist women. It echoes the warning of anyone who's witnessed the sacrifice of potentially viable organizations on the altar of the male ego. That her journey, her becoming and her research does not seem to have put her in touch with those thousands of black women who did not go for the okeydokey, did not trade off rights for a fraudulent peace, did not instruct the self in an "I'm a superwoman so I don't need liberation or a woman's movement" catechism, is continually apparent in the work. But the omission of that dimension of the Black Movement is, finally, not so much a reflection on Wallace as it is one on the near mute, yet to be realized efforts of formal and informal groups of black women writers, artists, and developers who continually work to forge a network, an ideology and a strategy for sound organizing.It is now the task of these women to tell that story. For, as Wallace makes clear in her discussion and in her public appearances, the literature recording this moment in history must of necessity be a collective endeavor. What she has provided is the beginning of the analysis that can lead to clearheaded thinking. What she has provided is the challenge.