The Public Humanist

A Black Woman’s Musings on Gender Studies

In my undergraduate studies I always took RACE classes, and by RACE I mean any course that involved the history, situation(s), actions to and by, black folk. That was my thing. At New York University, I pursued the ways in which our fabulous leading entertainment industry and ensuing culture (aka Hollywood) began and remains inextricably linked to another powerful and permeating instrument – race. In the Gallatin School of Individualized Study I took classes with titles like “Migration and American Culture,” “Performativity and the Minority Experience,” and, a personal fave, “Identity in A Multicultural World.” (What I found to be enlightening and exciting my family griped was a waste of time since in their view I was merely learning how to be a black woman in urban America.) My later classes all fell within the same vein leading me to seek entrance in the world of journalism and alarm the world with my theories through the brilliance of the written word.

Of course, entering the real world is nothing if not a crash landing into common sense. While I enjoyed my stints at various publications, I grew increasingly dissatisfied with what I was doing, and especially with what I was helping to print. So I went back to school to get those extra letters after my name that would give me license to say what I thought . . . extra letters that would also make me a doctor of “how to be black.”

My African American studies classes set the stage for my musings on Gender Studies in the university. It may seem to be an odd connection, but to study gender in America is to study race. I find that not entirely unfortunate. Gender itself deserves its own focus and investigation; but, what is unfortunate for the American self and American identity, there is no such thing as gender without race. Nor is there race without gender. Because of the curse or blessing of our sexes and assigned/enforced/enacted genders, the moment one begins to forge, mold, and enforce one’s identity, s/he also begins to define (or discount) the corresponding gender. Among the legacies slavery has left us, its most important is that of an American re-birth. Whoever or whatever America was meant to stand for was lost the moment slavery began; slavery was synonymous with the United States for all intents and purposes, thus everyone both free and enslaved became who they were because of it. Manhood and womanhood are inextricably linked with black and white.


In my only gender-focused course “Bodily Fictions” (great title) there were about twenty female students, a female professor, and one transvestite male. We had just ended our only week on race and we were in the midst of a somewhat heated discussion. I mostly listened as a young white dreadlocked girl yelped about black figures in history and the restrictions they faced, especially black women. She then segued into the role of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and praised his calmer demeanor when it came to obtaining civil rights, claiming that his image challenged the stereotype of the angry black male--such as that of Malcolm X. I, probably rudely, interrupted her with a furrowed brow and in an irritated voice quipped, “What are you talking about? King was angry, he was probably angry all the time. What you’re praising is his ability to prance around like the happy Negro.” My classmate had ceased talking the moment I raised my voice and did not respond to my attack. The professor, picking up on some tension, turned the conversation around to another topic. But I was still seething, not at my classmate, but at myself. I was the only black person in the class. I knew I’d just acted out the role of the “angry black female” (I exaggerate not: at a graduation party later that year, another girl from the class told me that everyone wondered was I was such an “angry girl”) and worse: I knew that the moment I spoke whatever I said would be seen as an expert opinion.

I have to admit I did not like what I perceived to be her “type.” They tended to be white with deliberately tussled or dreadlocked hair, in dirty Birkenstocks, and they tended to take many of the courses I myself took on how to be a black girl in the city. But it wasn’t their personal dress nor their scholastic interests that bothered me, it was their interest in me that bothered me. Anytime I spoke in that class, the classmate in question would look at me wide-eyed as if I were a cow who’d just recited Shakespeare. Rather, she looked at me as if she got to witness blackness up-close-and-personal. I was no longer another classmate speaking my two cents; I was Queen Negro, ruler of all that is black and all must bow down to my Voice. I resented that I could not participate in my course on gender without somehow becoming a topic of inquiry myself. I think this happens more in gender courses than in race courses for reasons I’ll explain below. But suffice to say if women’s studies focus on women (and they rightly do) and gender studies is about performance and role play (also justifiable) then it must acknowledge race. I sat in solidarity with my fellow females, but as the only black girl in the room I become a fascination.

But perhaps I used that fascination to my own benefit as a figure of authority. What my classmate had argued to be a possible fluidity and talent on King’s part I took to be an insult to his black manhood. And so I raised my voice and simply by my tone corrected her rather than disagreed.

When I’m asked about Gender Studies in academia, this is the story that comes to mind immediately: the story of race once again rearing its ugly head when not wanted.

bell hooks once lamented the migration of grassroots feminism into academia. I understood her complaint: what was once a method of connecting, engaging, and empowerment has since become a subject of inquiry and nothing more. Instead of feminists meeting in someone’s home, students meet in the classroom to discuss meetings on feminism. Thus, the entire notion of feminism changes from something in motion to something static – a book, a lecture, a thesis.

In a way I feel that Gender Studies has grown out of that evolution. So obviously I cannot entirely lament that feminism moved from the house to the classroom since it has led to the creation and study of other subjects like gender – in the same way that the civil rights/ black power movements led to the very department in which I am a scholar now.

Maybe it’s the American history of feminism (and gender somewhat) that requires us to incorporate race in its current discipline. To this day we still celebrate Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton for their pivotal roles in the suffrage movement. But to celebrate them is to also celebrate their attempts to divide race, sex, and gender. Sojourner Truth is the most famous of black suffragists who worked with both Anthony and Stanton; and she was tragically alienated once Stanton and Cady were essentially told to lose the blacks and gain the vote.

What needs to be brought back into feminism and especially into Gender Studies is the notion that by their very sex and gender enslaved black women fighting for their freedom were also fighting for the freedom of women. They could not nor would not separate their sex from their race; unfortunately white suffragists were free to do so and I think it has caused a troubling rift or tension ever since.

The documentary “Paris is Burning” symbolizes just what Gender Studies is and should be. When viewing the film one has to take note of the ways in which black men not only expressed femininity but masculinity as well, and all within their black and brown skins. The outfits they chose on the runway were those of bankers, lawyers, traders, and the like – careers that none of these men had access to. They were performing a multitude of identities at once: race, sexuality, sex, gender, and class.

In my own experience studying gender, that was what I found inescapable. We read amazing texts by Freud, Friedan, Bordo, and Kafka on the body as a fictional blank text waiting for its author. Despite the many ways one could debate that dynamic, I found it impossible to not think of race in any discussion. Anorexia, bulimia, drag, sex changes, body building, Paris is burning indeed.

--Linda Chavers, doctoral student in Harvard University's African and African-American Studies department

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