IT WAS AT TIMES an uncomfortable evening. A small group of people I know had gathered in a city town house to talk about how black men and women do -- or don't -- get along. At times, the voices of the women became raspy with pain or anger and perspiration beaded on the men's foreheads like fresh chicken pox.
Pauline Schneider, 36, a lawyer on the White House staff who is divorced, turned to the men. "I don't need anybody to take care of me or my children," she said. "But I do need somebody to deal with me on an emotional level -- give me love and be somebody whom I can love. w
"You men talk about somebody to come home to. Well, I'd like to have somebody to come home to, too. A woman is looking for exactly the same thing as a man."
She paused a second, then plunged on: "It's the unwillingness, I think, on the part of men even to begin to deal with the woman that is a problem for so many women in this town. They just resist even beginning to deal with meeting the kinds of (emotional) needs that the women have."
In a sense, my acquaintances were grappling with the same changing sex roles that white men and women have written and talked about since the '60s and that have produced such an upheaval in the American family.
But their uneasy debate, fueled by more free-wheeling discussions by black women in books and on the stage, has been different.
In the past, racism has tended to emasculate black men, leaving them unable to protect and support their families. White men, in contrast, were made to feel they had to support their families whether they wanted to or not.
Economic necessity, meanwhile, forced black women into the work force long before white women made the move. Consequently, black women regarded the liberation brigade with suspicion, blaming their problems more on racism than on sexism.
But by the 1970s when black women found themselves lagging behind white men and women and black men on the economic ladder they had to face what they had refused to a decade before: black male chauvinism was alive and well.
Still, it has been hard for black men and women to talk out their differences. For one thing, they have been stung by white-created myths about what "studs" black men were and what domineering matriarchs the women were. Because they could not control the myths, many chose just not to talk at all.
Then there are the social problems black women face because of the shortage of "marriageable" black men.
As sociologist Robert Staples notes: "In the ages 15-30, black men have a mortality rate twice that of black women. Even sadder is the fact that homicide and suicide are two of the top three causes of death among them . . . Almost half-a-million of (the remaining black men) are behind bars; an estimated one-third of black men in the inner city have a drug problem; and 25-50 percent of them are without steady employment."
Psychiatrists attribute these dismal statistics to economics, racism, even an unconscious self-hate. Whatever the cause, one man at the discussion group, Daniel J. Wilks, 30, head of the Grantsmanship Center, said the shortage was so severe locally that he wouldn't like to see his own sister living in Washington. "You go to a disco and you see tables of beautiful women sitting by themselves. It's like a meat market. It's degrading."
Pauline Schneider quietly told the group, "A year ago, I turned 35 and I went to dinner with eight single professional women. Not long ago I went to the theater with 10 single professional women."
Penny Taylor, who attended the session with her husband Ronald, a journalist, said that because of the discrepancy in numbers, many men can avoid having to grapple with their own emotions. When a woman begins to make demands, a man can simply move on to another.
Wilks hesitatingly admitted his own difficulties. I'm embarrassed by trying to deal with my emotions . . . Coming from the kind of political atmosphere that I've come from it just wasn't part of my life. I've never had a lot of time for spending on my emotions."
Ronald Taylor thinks black men in particular "perceive that to gnash your teeth in public is to show that the bastard's got to you. And if you do that then you're admitting you're a failure, you're admitting weakness."
So the session comes full circle -- to the issue of vulnerable masculinity and the unspoken need to get over the fear of white men as a key to getting along with black women.
Yet Taylor and Wilks typify the sensitive black men who are talking intensely rather than laughing or defensively denying a problem exists. They're seeking to locate the problem's roots and come up with answers. "I feel like I'm in the infant stage of understanding and know that talking about it is the first step," Taylor said.
Newsweek legal correspondent Diane Camper remarked: "A good job and salary are fine, but if we cannot come together and talk about our individual relationships, the future of the black family will be bleak and we all may have to pack it in."
At evening's end, it was clear that a good deal of distance still lay between the men and women, but that a deep bond of common struggle, joy and pain united them. They recognized that the relative position of the black family had declined in recent years and therefore the stakes at the end of the debate would be large.
But what is good is that the dialogue was conciliatory, not bitter. And what is healthy is that it -- and other like it -- are taking place at all.