Michele Wallace, the black feminist who has dared to open the private doors of distrust, hatred, submission and misunderstanding between black men and women in a new book, "Black Macho and the Myth of the Superwoman," was on the hot seat again.
Not even the klieg lights warmed the television studio like the heat from the ongoing exorcism of the audience and Wallace. "How can black women form a group while the black man has not come along?" asked Keith Greenidge, a 17-year-old student at Wilson High. Shot back Wallace quietly, "You see black women asserting themselves as a threat. You have been programmed."
In a moment Malik Edwards was up on his feet. "It sounded at first that you were one of these people being used to keep black men down," said artist Edwards, one of 100 people invited to attend Wallace's appearance yesterday on "The Morning Break" on Channel 9. "But I don't understand how you can say the civil rights movement oppressed women."
Wallace moistened her dark lips. "Black women cannot be liberated without black men, that's a given. But the black movement of the 1960s didn't deal with black women in juvenile homes, in prisons," she said. "Bull," was Edwards' retort.
The questioners had hit the thorny parts of Wallace's thesis, that the black power movement was sexist, that black feminism is divisive. Though some of her viewpoints are contradictory, Wallace never wavered, though at times she nervously paused to keep herself on the right track.
"Criticism is an act of love," she said, her throaty New York City accent animated from the discussion. She moved from the studio to the waiting limousine, a sexy swagger in a pink knit skirt and top. "I look forward to the doubters."
It's not exactly a love-in but a bold-face debate swirling around Wallace, 27, the first feminist to write a book of sexual and political history. Her book, a personal analysis of how white-created myths of the black stud and the black matriarch have mixed up, demoralized and held back black people, and made them hate one another, has created quite a stir.
Part of the phenomenon, and the praise, comes from the originality of her ideas and her unique departure point as a black feminist, an allegiance widely viewed as suspicious by many blacks. Newsweek magazine, citing "a striking debut," called "Black Macho" a "rude, witty polemic."
Gloria Steinem said Wallace made "every reader understand the political and intimate truths of growing up black and female in America."
And the acerbic writer, Ishmael Reed, noted Wallace's approach as "a cool clarity to a subject about which so much frenetic and feverish nonsense has been written... [Wallace] can surely be placed in the front ranks of New Black Intellectuals."
A few of Wallace's observations are very personal -- she doesn't exclude herself from the political and psychological mess she views -- and have caused her mother, Faith Ringgold, a well-known artist, to stop speaking to her.
Yet, smelling the winds of a controversy, television host Phil Donahue, and legions of interviewers, are.
"I was horrified in the beginning. The publicity frightened me," Wallace says, settling in the limousine and dragging slowly on an everpresent True cigarette. The furor began around Dec. 15, when an issue of Ms. with her unsmiling picture on the cover and a teaser that said "the book that will shape the 1980s" hit the stands. "To do all of this I had to get in touch with the part of me that is a performer. One of the reasons I write is because I like to control things, but once the book was finished I didn't have the control. I couldn't shape my own image anymore."
Her eyes, pools of dim onyx, do not move from her listener's face. She smoothes down the knit skirt her boyfriend picked out and asks for an assessment of her appearance. Then she summarizes her views. The black man has been under unrelenting pressure, she feels, to achieve in the white patriarchic model, even being convinced that part of freedom was accessibility to the white woman. When that imitation wasn't possible, he turned to self-hatred. And he resented his mate.
Half of "Black Macho" explores the myth of black women's strength, chastises the women who believe those myths, and, finally, puts down young black women who turn to motherhood as a link with other black women.
Yet, in the 177-page book published by Dial Press, her strongest criticism is reserved for the 1960s black leadership. The influence of black women was crushed, she says, citing Rev. Paul Murray, an author and black episcopalian priest, on the issue. When Rep. Shirley Chisholm (D-N.Y.) ran for U.S. president, the attitude of males toward female political force grew worse, Chisholm was mocked, and now, Wallace says, "As far as I have been able to tell, black women have no status at all in the black community, particularly since the '60s. Their presence there is at best good-humoredly tolerated."
Those conclusions, because of Wallace's age, are interpretations based on research, not first-hand knowledge. When the Montgomery Bus Boycott, the beginning of the direct-action phase of the civil rights movement, started, Wallace was 3 years old. Her parents, the late Earl Wallace, a Juilliard-educated jazz pianist, and Ringgold, a teacher and artist, provided a comfortable home in Harlem's exclusive "Sugar Hill" neighborhood.
Her political and intellectual influence remains her estranged mother. "My mother drilled in us, more than any thing, the higher you rise, the more your responsibility to the black community," says Wallace. "I wasn't allowed to join Jack 'n' Jill (a largely middle-class club), my mother wouldn't allow me to debut. Yes, we wore corduroys from Best and Co., but I saw my mother insist that Fannie Lou Hamer be invited to my grandmother's fashion show to speak. She took us to see 'The Blacks,' when I was 5 or 6. And when the black students took over CCNY, she went up and asked what they needed, sent us back with two grocery bags and told us to sit in with the students."
When Malcolm X, the black leader she most admires, was emerging as a national spokesman, Wallace was an elementary student at a Lutheran school in the Bronx. But her age didn't spare her from racial encounters. In front of the class, Wallace recalls bitterly, "A teacher said, 'Michele got an A, I would expect her to get a D.'" Her mother pulled her out. The next school, a small, private one near Spanish Harlem, was no improvement. "One of the teachers told my mother the other kids were scared of me. Now I was never a fighter and I was scared. But I stuck it out, studied dance so I could be a ballerina," says Wallace. "But I was very withdrawn, reluctant to participate in my class. I was into dates and clothes, anxious to be average and inconspicuous."
When the tenets and rhetoric of Black Power began to penetrate her girlish, middle-class world. Wallace rejected any outward signs of matriarchy or assimilation in her own background.
"By the time I was 15 there was nothing I dreaded more than being like the women in my family. I had been taught to avoid women who wore men's trousers and smoked cigars," she wrote. Her conversion to nationalism was slow, even superficial."I stopped having permanents, got an Afro, wore no make-up, began to experiment with African clothes. Then I read Franz Fanon, Eldridge Cleaver, [Le Roi] Jones and Malcolm X," she says, ticking off the steps.
In the summer of 1969, when the civil rights movement was suffering a general inertia and many black-power advocates were leaving the country, Michele Wallace had her pivotal experience. As a graduation present, she and her sister went to Mexico. They joined a revolutionary commune, only to end up in a juvenile delinquent home in New York when her mother forced them to return.
"I met a lot of young women in the home from different backgrounds than mine. Some of them were younger than me, had had to deal with drugs, other kinds of abuse. But I found we had a lot in common, we were male-identified, looking for an authority beyond our mothers," said Wallace. "These were problems that each generation of black women was facing, but each generation was facing it like it had never happened. The answers weren't in the black movement, so I decided to become a feminist."
Her mother disputed this incident. "She did not become a feminist because I put her in a home. She learned her feminism within her family. I am the spirit, if not the source of her ideas," says Ringgold. "Michele has sort of attacked me and some people have to step on people to grow and get what they want. I just tell some stories differently from her."
For the next eight years, Wallace prepared for her present role as a feminist theorist. "Since that day I have been working to create a career, a master plan. I started writing, I learned how to write, I read," says Wallace, who studied at Howard University for one term, and finished her college education at the City College of New York. She is currently on leave from teaching journalism at New York University.
The black feminist is still a minority voice within a minority. "The theory of feminism says we deal with personal needs, work on self-worth, and then take it up to a political level," says Wallace. "I am not going to provide a solution or form a group. I just want to get us talking."