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Incidences de l'événement

Hélène Le Dantec-Lowry
Claudine Raynaud

IV. Événement(s) entre continuité et rupture/event(s) between continuity and rupture

“Don't Give a Damn if They Held a Thousand Pistols at your Skull. You Shouldn't Have Done it”: Revolutionary Black Theater and Women

Alice Mills


Cet essai examine la représentation de la femme noire dans un corpus de pièces écrites au cours des années soixante et soixante-dix par de jeunes dramaturges noirs militants influencés par LeRoi Jones/Imamu Baraka et Ed Bullins. Les dramaturges révolutionnaires, tout en proclamant leur volonté de s’opposer au discours dominant, ne remirent pas en question la théorie du rôle castrateur de la femme noire. Plusieurs femmes dramaturges, et en particulier Sonia Sanchez et Alice Childress, sensibles aux contradictions entre le discours affiché du théâtre noir militant et sa propension à incriminer des personnages féminins qui n’allaient guère au delà de la caricature, lui opposèrent des figures originales, propres à dénoncer une pensée machiste de convention. Peut-être cet aspect particulier du théâtre de combat contribua-t-il à donner une impulsion au mouvement féministe noir.

Texte intégral

  • 1 William Branch in "Black Thunder”, 182.

1In this paper, I use the terms “revolutionary black theater” and “militant black theater” interchangeably to refer to the body of plays published in the 1960s and early 1970s by younger black playwrights who were enraged by mainstream American theatre, the assassinations of black leaders, and the dismantling of black revolutionary groups. LeRoi Jones/Imamu Amiri Baraka, who founded the Black Arts Repertory Theater and School in Harlem and the Spirit House, a Newark community arts center, was at the head of these militant playwrights. Often referred to as the cultural and spiritual leader of the Revolutionary Black Arts and Black Theater Movements of the 1960s,1 Jones/Baraka argued that “the play that will split the heavens for us will be called the destruction of America” (Black Drama Anthology, viii).

2In his introduction to the 1969 anthology New Plays From the Black Theater, Ed Bullins, the other major writer at the time, who publicly acknowledged his debt to Jones/Baraka, declared that revolutionary playwrights wanted to have their plays “done in black theaters in the black community for black people” (Bullins, 1969, vii). Woodie King and Ron Milner prefaced their 1972 Black Drama Anthology with the following statement:

Broadway does not want our blackness, wasn't designed or intended for it, definitely does not want any strange new forms inspired by that very blackness. She is a contented fat white cow. If you can slip in and milk her for a minute-well, then, more black power to you, brother. But we're telling you-it's a weird price she is asking. She wants you to be a singing hyena, dancing on the graves of yourself and everyone you know. (Serious plays, dramas, are things that come from some other country, some other century, and even then are best set in a mad house. And “Black comedy” has nothing to do with Afro Americans!) And dig it, closely brother, there is no longer any such thing as off Broadway: it, like all recognized New York theater, is in the Great White Way.

  • 2 Paula Giddings, whose work I draw on abundantly in this article, called the 1960s “the masculine de (...)

3Black Drama Anthology is a collection of 23 plays, including 21 authored by men. The fact that the book's introduction is repeatedly addressed to a “brother” and not a “sister” was characteristic of the black theater of the 1960s, whose ideology was predominantly defined by men and linked the concepts of Blackness and virility2; hence my interest in the way black women were represented in the revolutionary theater.

4One of the first tasks that the black militant theater assigned to itself was to separate the true revolutionaries from the traitors. Broadly speaking, traitors were defined as blacks associated in any way with white people or white ideology, which was itself generally associated with capitalism and Christianity. The leading playwrights either adopted a Muslim name (e.g., Le Roi Jones became Imamu Baraka) or claimed ties to communism (e.g., Ed Bullins referred to “Brother Mao” in interviews). Black revolutionary theater often used the stage as a tribunal to indict the alleged traitors. The servant, the mammy, the prostitute and the woman from the bourgeoisie, or for that matter any black woman who had ever straightened her hair, were considered figures of betrayal.

  • 3 This article raises the issue of revolutionary theatre, which was developed in my doctoral thesis b (...)

5Logically, the characters portraying strong black women should have been spared, if only because they did not emulate the image of the archetypical white woman based on the white southern lady of the 19th century, “a genteel, elegant, gracious figure theoretically ordained to represent the pure and spiritual side of life and to occupy a pedestal from which she was forbidden to move” (Chafe, 1999, 231). “The white man”, said Eldridge Cleaver, had “turned the white woman into a weak minded, weak bodied, delicate freak…” (Cleaver, 1968, 162). The strong black woman certainly did not correspond to either of these definitions, yet she was among the first indicted by the black playwrights on the grounds that in real life strong black women emasculated black men. Mainstream sociologists and politicians—Frazier and Moynihan in particular—had clearly designated black women's economic independence as a source of excessive personal strength leading to imbalance, trouble and confusion in the black community. In this particular case, rather than “destroying” the “Great White Way” of thinking, black revolutionary theater internalized the theories of the major sociologists and politicians, and added strength to their theories3.

6The militant playwrights'initial impulse was to agitate for the elimination of these women traitors from their plays. In Jimmy Garrett's “And We Own the Night”, a street fighter shoots his own mother who is employed by whites. In Jones/Baraka's “Experimental Death Unit”, a young black prostitute caught with white clients is shot by a group of young black militants. In “Death List” by Ed Bullins, a young militant leader draws up a list of the blacks he considers antiblack and whom he must kill; three of them are upper class black women. In other plays, female traitors are insulted even after they have died. In William Wellington Mackay's “Family Meeting”, Brother Love, a very light-skinned youth, berates the corpse of his grandmother:

You gotta burn Girl. Yessiree you gotta burn. Don't give a damn if they held a thousand pistols at your skull. You shouldn t have done it. (Bitterly) There are Heavenly Heights all over this goddamn world now because of bitches like you; Mother Whores! (Mackay, 1968, 258)

7Militant black theater recognized no extenuating circumstances, and such an implacable position, even if only theoretical, must obviously have caused a problem because if servants, prostitutes, upper middle-class women and women who were strong or straightened their hair were to be executed, it meant eliminating – even only symbolically – half the black community. In Jones/Baraka's “Madheart”, a stunned male character asks the question: “My mother, my sister, all of them?” (Baraka, 1969, 79).

8The militant playwrights eventually revised their strategy and made the following compromise: their plays simply demanded that the black female characters acknowledge their crimes against the community, ask for forgiveness, and show evidence of their submission to black men. Since Jones/Baraka “infused into most of the activities he was associated with in the period the idea that ‘Nature had made women submissive, she must submit to man’s creation in order for it to exist ’” (Giddings, 1984, 318), his theatre naturally reflected this conviction. His male characters stopped executing black women in “Experimental Death Unit” and simply subjected them to being hosed violently with water in “Madheart”. The women were thus punished for their alleged sins against the black community, and purified. Once redeemed, they could be reintegrated.

9Other revolutionary practices promoted by the theater for the redemption of black women included slapping them and knocking them unconscious, and even occasionally dragging them by their hair. As a rule, the female characters created by male playwrights understood and approved of these practices, and when a black man showed no intention of being brutal, his female partner would remind him of his duties. Black Woman in Jones/Baraka's “Madheart” was a case in point.

I am the black woman. The one who disappeared. The sleepwalker. The one who runs through your dreams with your life and seed. I am the black woman. The one you need. You know this. Now you must discover a way to get me back, Black Man. (Baraka, 1969, 81)

10Black Man responded by repeatedly demanding that she submit. “Weeping, turning her head from side to side,” she begged him, “please, don't hit me, please.” Black Man slapped her, dragged her to him, kissed her forcefully and demanded again that she submit. Black Woman’s answered “Oh love, please, stay with me”, then (going down weeping): “I submit. I submit for love” (Id., 81, 82).

11A woman's submission to her male partner seemed to be the basis for what the revolutionary theater considered to be sound relationships. Even less radical playwrights such as Val Ferdinand (“Black Love Song”) and Ron Zuber (“Three X Love”) followed the lead of Baraka and Bullins in this matter.

  • 4 While it seems unlikely that any group of people, male or female, enjoys being brutalized, some bla (...)

12Apart from the fact that the actual black women in the audiences might not have been as charmed as their counterparts on stage by the idea of submission4 (thus raising the issue of Jones/Baraka and Bullins's implicit definition of black audiences as male), claiming that black men brutalizing black women was something new and revolutionary, and was surprising since the battering of on-stage women had existed long before the 1960s.

13There did not seem to be much difference between Black Man's position in “Madheart” and the attitude of Buddy in Langston Hughes's play “Tambourines to Glory”. Buddy's motto was: “Beat a woman till she cries, then kiss her till she laughs” (243). However, there was a difference in that Hughes presented the abuser of woman as the villain while Baraka used Black Man as a role model for the black community. In Richard Wright's Native Son, there was also the case of Bigger Thomas treating his lover roughly albeit with no didactic dimension to his gesture, which was presented as the release of pent-up violence on an innocent person who happened to be weaker. As a result, what the theater of the 1960s did was essentially to justify brutality against women as an indispensable stage in the psychological liberation of the black people. Instead of being viewed as a shameful, cowardly act, beating women became a revolutionary duty, a ritual necessary to the repositioning of one's manliness, which in turn gave strength to the entire community.

14Such was the case in Archie Shepp's “Junebug Graduates Tonight”, Ron Milner's “Who's Got His Own”, Edgar White's “The Crucificado”, and in most of Ed Bullins's revolutionary plays. Bullins's later plays were not didactic and their male characters did not bother justifying their attitudes. Their brutality against women simply became part of their authenticity and the women seemed to thrive on this violence, whether or not it had a revolutionary purpose.

15The official reason given by black men for punishing women and subjecting them to their control was that they had been associated with whites either by working for them, being raped by them or trying to resemble them. However, when a black woman who was clearly above such suspicions showed total commitment to the black cause, she was still not welcomed. Revolutionary zeal in a woman seemed to upset the militant writers. In Bullins's “Night of the Beast”, two allied black street fighters, Sister and Leader, meet. Sister, the female militant has just captured an enemy:

Sister: I command you to execute this… this… this Negro.
Leader: Stop!
Sister: Kill him… Kill him now, that's an order!
Leader: (commands) Quiet sister, I am in command here. Only I give orders.
Sister: (protests) But I am of equal rank as you brother You have no right to interfere with my orders.
Leader: Woman… if you don't remember your place… it will be you that will get put down. And I mean totally. Do you understand?
Sister: (submits) Yes, brother.
Leader: If you say another word sister… I am going to break your skull, these are revolutionary time… I will not allow you, a woman, to challenge a Blackman's authority. (Bullins, 1972, 133)

  • 5 The character’s lines are in accordance with the teachings of Elijah Muhamad, the leader of the Bla (...)

16Generally speaking, the attitude of the street fighters towards the women of their group was ambiguous. Ideally all sisters were “beautiful black women”, the “Ethiopian Queens” for whom the brothers were willing to die. But if the brothers were willing to die, their traditional negative male opinions on women were not. “El Hajj Malick” by N.R. Davidson was a case in point:5

Actor 4: there are no creatures on the face of this planet more wanton in their desire, more tricky, deceitful and unworthy in their flesh and with their flesh than women. Any woman [….] They are hungry sucking animals who crave only full bellies [….] There is nothing more devastating to a man and his work. (Davidson, 1969, 233)

17In the revolutionary theater, black women, for all their beauty and queenly appearance, were asked to clean and cook while the men thought and fought. Although the vast majority of women agreed, once in a while a female character serving as a foil emitted serious doubts. In “Black Love Song” by Val Ferdinand, Peaches, a young black woman, refused to open her eyes to the wonders of black male superiority in spite of Black Man's and Black Woman s attempt to educate her:

Black Woman: My sister, a man is a wondrous creation, a dawn, a deep night, a whole world. A man is a life force born, a giver, a keeper, a seeker. A man is our hope.
Peaches: The day I hope for a nigger to…
Black Man: Submit!
Peaches: Submit shit! Submit to what, to your overblown talk you call manhood? Submit to a man? Never. For what? Man, I can do everything you can do and most things better. I can be everything you can be.
Black man: Can you be a man?
Peaches: For what I have seen men be for most of my life I can be that and more. (Ferdinand, 1974, 871)

  • 6 Peaches’s wit is in the tradition of Sojourner Truth. At a women’s rights meeting in Toronto in 185 (...)

18Since Peaches's function in the play was to serve as the example of a hopeless case, she was quickly dismissed. Still, her wit and conviction, her sense of repartee, were fairly rare for a character created by a male playwright of that period.6

19In the 1960s however, a few women playwrights such as Sonia Sanchez and Alice Childress responded to the depiction of gender roles in the militant theater by creating heroines who seriously challenged them. Sanchez’s and Childress's characters were not silenced or “disappeared”. In fact, they often ended up teaching their “educators” a lesson. In Sanchez's “The Bronx is Next”, Black Bitch, a prostitute and a mother, laughed at the militants who demanded from women the loyalty and righteousness they were unable to give themselves. Her stubborn refusal to admit guilt, and even less to submit, puzzled and shook the young street fighters, who tormented her.

20In her play “Sister Son J.”, Sanchez's female protagonist reminded the militants that regardless of whether a man called himself a revolutionary, if he did not come home at night to his partner and children he was not any better than those men of the previous generation whom revolutionaries called irresponsible. The character did see one distinction, however, “the one calls it retaining their manhood while the other called it just plain don't care about family/hood” (Sanchez, 1969, 103).

  • 7 Frantz Fanon wrote at the time “By loving me [the white woman] proves I am worthy of white love. I (...)

21Sanchez's heroine also pointed out certain contradictions among the militants, namely the fact that, for all their righteous hatred of white men, black male revolutionaries were not about to reject white women.7 Sister Son J asked:

  • 8 William H. Chafe remarks in The Unfinished Journey (1999, 330) that Betty Friedan’s The Feminine My (...)

What about our teachings? Have we forgotten so soon that we hate devils [Whites]. That we are in a death/struggle with the beasts. If she [the white woman] is so good, so liberal, send her back to her own kind. Let her liberalize them. (Sanchez, 1969, 106)8

22The last part of Sanchez's “Uh Uh How Do It Free Us” showed that the white mistress who had been briefly denounced and rejected by Jones/Baraka in “Dutchman” might become the permanent, if secret, companion of the black man whose personal promotion she served. Whereas before the black power movement black men tended to make a display of their relationships with white women, they now attempted to conceal these relationships from their black wives and companions. The result of this new atmosphere of secrecy, of this double talk by black male revolutionaries was that it was more difficult for black women to identify what the real problems were. Black women often felt responsible for troubles whose origins were external to them. For instance, Sister was convinced that it was the lightness of her skin that led her militant lover to look for other women whom she presumed had darker skin. Little did she imagine that her lover's mistress was white.

23In Sanchez's theater black male intellectuals, ill at ease with themselves, resented the honesty of their female companions and made them pay for it. The revolutionary ideology, according to Sanchez’s plays, had substantially worsened the position of black women. Its discourse, which had internalized the white discourse on black women as overpowering, castrating matriarchs, had laden black women with guilt. Fear of emasculating their companions made the female characters of the militant theater put up with a type of male abuse that Hughes's heroines would not have tolerated. The mother of “Sister Son J”, a Hughesian type who fought to make her husband work, marry her and become responsible, could not believe that their pregnant daughter willingly supported a man who slapped her on account of his commitment to the black revolution. She suspected him of being just another worthless, lazy womanizer. The play ended on a warning note for revolutionary black women involved in relationships with black men.

24In “Wine in the Wilderness”, Alice Childress's heroine, Tommy, also observed and commented on the paradoxical behavior of black male revolutionary intellectuals. Tommy, an ordinary-looking poor young woman whose apartment had just burnt down in a riot, was thrown together with Bill, a painter who immediately criticized her for wearing a wig, which he found an insult to African beauty. He said to her: “Black, black, black is bee-oo-tee-ful. Got it? Black is beautiful.” Tommy simply looked at him and asked: “Then how come it is that I don't feel beautiful when you look at me?”, pointing at the portraits of his white girl friends that he kept in his apartment for the sake of art.

25Whereas Sanchez's theater faced the gender problems inherent to black revolutionary ideology with a sense of urgent commitment, Childress's treatment was more lighthearted and amused. The contrast between her heroine's plain words and biting common sense and the obscure jargon and shaky arguments of the revolutionary intellectuals was often quite humorous. However, emotional appeal could also blend in with humor, and Childress's discourse had depth and poignancy.

Ain't a one a us you like that's alive and walking by you on the street… You don't like flesh and blood niggers [….] if a black somebody is in a history book or printed on a picture or drawed on a painting… Or if they're a statue… dead and outta the way and can't talk back then you dig them and [….] talk about our history. But when you run into us livin and breathin ones with the life blood still pumping through us, then you comin on 'bout how we ain't never together. You hate us. That's what. You hate black me [….] Maybe I look too much like the mother that gave birth to you. […] And if my hair is straight or if it is natural, or if I wear a wig or take it off, that's all right because wigs, shoes, hats, bags and everything they're just what you call accessories. (Childress, 1974, 753)

26Whether in theater or in real life many black women of the 1960s felt that the rights of black men had to be secured before black women could assert theirs (just as Frances Ellen Harper had militated in favor of the 15th amendment in the previous century), but others, for all their loyalty to black men and the black cause, felt that putting more power in the hands of black men while not increasing that of black women would only add to their own oppression (as did Sojourner Truth, who took the position of not supporting the 15th amendment). The arrogant attitude of black male activists towards their female companions may paradoxically have given a new impetus to black feminism. The black women of the 1960s and 1970s sensed the contradictions between the theories on which black male revolutionaries based their action and the way they treated the women of their group. At a Waveland Conference in 1964, a paper was ridiculed because it questioned SNCC on its treatment of women, particularly on excluding women from the decision-making process. Stokely Carmichael famously declared at the time, “ the only position for women in SNCC is prone” (Giddings, 1984, 302).

27Among the prominent black women involved in the Black Movement, Angela Davis and Kathleen Cleaver (an officer in the Black Panther Party and the wife of Eldridge Cleaver) told of their disheartening experiences with black male activists. “I was tired of men who measured their sexual height by women's intellectual genuflexion,” said Davis (Davis, 1974, 187) and Kathleen Cleaver remarked “It seemed throughout the history of my working with the [Black Panther] Party, I always had to struggle with […] the fact that a suggestion coming from a woman gave it lesser value. And it seemed it had something to do with the egos of the men involved” (Cleaver, 1971,56).

28Some disenchanted Black women left the black revolutionary movement and, as did Davis, became communists. Others joined existing black women’s organizations or started new ones. In the 1970s and 1980s, black female voices rose to express their own ideas of revolution, ideas which included defining for themselves their own roles, their own identities, and freeing themselves from the burden of official male theories. Cases in point include Toni Cade’s The Black Woman (1970), Joyce Ladner’s Tomorrow’s Tomorrow (1972), Gerda Lerner’s Black Women in White America (1973), Michelle Wallace’s Black Macho and the Myth of the Superwoman (1978), Angela Davis’s Women, Race and Class (4981), Patricia Bell Scott, Gloria T. Hull and Barbara Smith’s All the Women are White, All the Blacks are Men, but Some of Us are Brave (1982) and Paula Giddings’s When and Where I Enter (1984). Reading Black, Reading Feminist (1990), edited by Henry Louis Gates Jr., and Theorizing Black Feminisms (1993), edited by Stanlie M. James and Abena P. A. Busia brought together many essays written by leading African American women intellectuals.

29Males playwrights may eventually have heard their “sisters” and reconsidered their position. Some twenty years after the publication of “Madheart”, Jones/Baraka wrote “Song”, a play in which the male hero, Old Man, has become lonely and vulnerable. His solitude is such that he hopes for any kind of mail, even “circulars and posters and coupons and give-aways” (Baraka, 1989, 3) and admits “My wife was driven away from me by my own craziness” (Baraka, 1989, 10). He confesses to her “I was a fool… abstract, silly, vainglorious…” “The same things I said”, his wife answers, “exactly, the very same things” (Id., 15). The play ends as they laugh and embrace.


Works cited

Baraka, Amiri (Jones, LeRoi). 1969. “Experimental Death Unit.” In Four Black Revolutionary Plays. Indianapolis: Bobbs-Merrill.

— 1969. “Madheart.” In Four Black Revolutionary Plays. Indianapolis: Bobbs-Merrill.

— 1989. “Song.” In New Plays from the Black Theater. Ed. Woodie King, Jr. Chicago: Third World Press.

Beal, Frances. M. 1970. “Double Jeopardy, To be Black and Female.” In Sisterhood is Powerful, An Anthology of Writings from the Women's Liberation Movement. Ed Robin Morgan. New York: Vintage Books.

Bell Scott, Patricia, Gloria T. Hull & Barbara Smith, Eds. 1982. All the Women are White, All the Blacks are Men, but Some of Us are Brave. New York: The Feminist Press.

Branch, William, Ed. 1992. Black Thunder, An Anthology of Contemporary African American Drama. New York: Mentor.

Bullins, Ed, Ed. 1969. New Plays from the Black Theater. New York: Bantam Books.

— 1972. “Death List.” In Four Dynamite Plays. New York: William Morrow.

— 1972. “Night of the Beast.” In Four Dynamite Plays. New York: William Morrow.

Busia, Abena, see JAMES, Stanlie.

Cade, Toni, Ed. 1970. The Black Woman, An Anthology. New York: New American Library.

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Cleaver, Eldridge. 1968. Soul On Ice. New York: McGraw Hill.

Cleaver Kathleen, see Herve, Julia.

Childress, Alice. 1974. “Wine in the Wilderness.” In Black Theater, USA, 45 Plays by Black Americans. Ed James V. Hatch. New York: Free Press.

Davidson, N.R. 1969. “El Hajj J Malick.” In Bullins, Ed. New Plays from the Black Theater. New York: Bantam Books.

Davis, Angela. 1974. Angela Davis: An Autobiography. New York: Random House.

— 1981. Women, Race and Class, New York: Random House.

Evans, Sarah. 1980. Personal Politics: The Roots of Women's Liberation in the Civil Rights Movement and the New Left. New York: Vintage Books.

Fanon, Franz. 1967. Black Skins, White Masks. New York: Grove Press.

Ferdinand, Val. 1974. “Black Love Song.” In Black Theater, USA. 45 Plays by Black Americans. Ed James V. Hatch. New York: Free Press.

Frazier, Franklin. 1939. The Negro Family in the United States. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Gates, Henry Louis Jr. 1990. Reading Black, Reading Feminist. New York: Bentam.

Glddings, Paula. 1984. When and Where I Enter, The Impact on Race and Sex in America. New York: Bentam Books.

Grier, William H. &, Price M. Cobbs. 1968. Black Rage. New York: Bentam.

Hall, Jacquelyn Dowd. 1979, Revolt Against Chivalry: Jessie Daniel Ames and the Women's Campaign Against Lynching. New York: Columbia University Press.

Hernton, Calvin C. 1965. Sex and Racism in America. Doubleday reprint in 1966, New York: Grove Press.

Herve, Julia. 1971. “Black Scholar Interviews Kathleen Cleaver.” Black Scholar December.

Hughes, Langston. 1968. “Tambourines to Glory.” In Five Plays by Langston Hughes. Ed Smalley Webster. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.

Hull, Gloria, T., see Bell-Scott, Patricia.

Garrett, Jimmy. 1968. “And We Own the Night.” In Black Theater, Summer.

James, Stanlie M. & Abena P. Busia, Eds. 1993. Theorizing Black Feminisms, The Visionary Pragmatism of Black Women: New York: Routledge.

Ladner, Joyce. 1972. Tomorrow's Tomorrow. New York: Anchor. La Rue, Linda J. 1970. “Black Liberation and Woman's Lib.” Trans-Action November-December.

Lerner, Gerda, ed. 1973. Black Women in White America, A Documentary History. New York: Vintage.

Mackay, William W. 1968. “Lamily Meeting.” In New Black Playwrights. Ed William Couch, Jr. Baton Rouge: Louisiana University Press.

Mills, Alice. 1984. Le Personnage de la femme noire dans le théâtre afro-américain, Unpublished Dissertation directed by Genevieve Fabre, Université de Paris 7.

— 1997. “Signifyin’ Ole Woman: American Theatre and African Tradition.” In University of Missouri Columbia and Pennsylvania State University Publication of the Afro-Latin/American Research Association. Ed Martin Lewis. Fall.

— 2002. “Black Woman Power in Afro-American Theater.” In Cross-Cultural Transactions in Multi Ethnic Literatures of the US. Eds Anil Raina and Manju Jaidka. New Dehli: Prestige Books.

Milner, Ron. 1972. “Who's Got His Own.” In Black Drama Anthology. Eds Woodie Kin and Ron Milner. New York: Columbia University Press.

Morrison, Toni. 1971. “What the Black Woman thinks about Women s Lib.” The New York Times Magazine. August 22.

Moynihan, D. Patrick. 1965. The Negro Family, A Case for National Action. Washington DC: Government Printing Office.

Sanchez, Sonia. 1968. “The Bronx is Next.” Black Theater, Summer.

— 1969. “Sister Son J.” In New Plays from the Black Theater. Ed Ed BullinsNew York: Bantam Books.

Shepp, Archie. 1972. “Junebug Graduates Tonight.” In Black Drama Anthology. Eds Woodie King and Ron Milner. New York: Columbia University Press.

Sizemore, Barbara A. 1973. “Sexism and the Black Male.” Black Scholar, March-April.

Smith, Barbara, See Bell Scott, Patricia.

Wallace, Michelle. 1978. Black Macho and the Myth of the Superwoman. New York: Dial.

White, Edgar. 1973. “The Crucificado.” In The Crucificado: Two Plays by Edgar White. New York: William Morrow.

Wright, Richard. 1974. “Native Son.” In Black Theater, USA. 45 Plays by Black Americans. Ed James V. Hatch. New York: Free Press.

Zuber, Ron. 1972. “Three X Love.” In Black Drama Anthology. Eds Woodie King and Ron Milner. New York: Columbia University Press.


1 William Branch in "Black Thunder”, 182.

2 Paula Giddings, whose work I draw on abundantly in this article, called the 1960s “the masculine decade” (When and Where I Enter, 314). Giddings's work was published the same year, 1984. I presented my own doctoral dissertation. If it had been available to me at that time, I would undoubtedly have used it in my chapter on black revolutionary theatre.

3 This article raises the issue of revolutionary theatre, which was developed in my doctoral thesis but only alluded to briefly in “Signifyin’ Ole Woman: American Theatre and African Tradition” (1997) and “Black Woman Power in Afro American Theater” (2002). My comment in those articles about the influence of major scholars and politicians on the negative perception of black women by the black community is thus relevant to the present discussion. In The Negro Family in the United States (1939), Franklin Frazier strove to show how slavery, migration to the cities, fathers’ desertion of their families, and simple habituation to the fact of illegitimacy had generated truncated family structures, which were totally dependent on maternal authority and thus a source of imbalance for the black community. Frazier’s intent was not to incriminate the black woman, but both intellectuals and politicians subsequently used his work to back their own theories of her castrating tendencies. In Beyond the Melting Pot (1963), Nathan Glazier and Daniel Patrick Moynihan took up Frazier’s thesis, in particular the idea of the black woman’s extraordinary authority and its negative consequences for the black couple, the black family and, most importantly, the black man. In 1965, during the Johnson presidency, the subject was brought to the front of the national political scene with Moynihan’s study, “The Negro Family: A case for National Action”, commissioned by the Labor Department. Paula Giddings observed that Moynihan was less severe in his evaluation of non traditional black family structure than Frazier had been and that, “as far as matriarchy was concerned, Moynihan’s report stated there was nothing wrong or pathological about a woman-headed household, only that it was not the norm in the society and thus subject to disadvantage”, but that the report was particularly untimely, leaving Blacks with no option but to challenge it” (When and Where I Enter, 1984, 328). The castration issue was also postulated by the black sociologist Calvin Hernton in Sex and Racism in America (1965) and by the black psychologists William Grier and Price Cobbs in Black Rage (1968).

4 While it seems unlikely that any group of people, male or female, enjoys being brutalized, some black women may have internalized a long tradition of brutality. After the Civil War, The Mobile Daily Register reported that there was an alarming increase of wife-beating among blacks in the city and that “the negro women seem to labor under the impression that their husbands have a perfect right to beat them on every occasion” (Kolchin, July 2, 1868).

5 The character’s lines are in accordance with the teachings of Elijah Muhamad, the leader of the Black Muslim organization, who stated in his “Message to the Black Man” that men must keep women from the streets because they are “given to evil and sin while men are noble and given to righteousness”. See Barbara A. Sizemore, 1973

6 Peaches’s wit is in the tradition of Sojourner Truth. At a women’s rights meeting in Toronto in 1851, Truth told a preacher who was using the gender of Jesus to counter the women’s arguments that Jesus came from “God and a woman – man had nothing to do with it” (Jacquelvn Dowd Hall. 1979, 132).

7 Frantz Fanon wrote at the time “By loving me [the white woman] proves I am worthy of white love. I am loved like a white man. I am a white man. Her love takes me onto the noble road that leads to total realization” (Fanon, 1967, 63).

8 William H. Chafe remarks in The Unfinished Journey (1999, 330) that Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique was published in 1963, the same year as the March on Washington, and that the two events must have reinforced each other since the civil rights movement also emphasized the extent to which groups of people were oppressed on the basis of cultural and physical characters. However, says Giddings in Where and When I Enter, organizations such as the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) were undergoing an identity crisis, and hence were in no position to incubate the development of whites. One could add that student organizations were not in a position to incubate the development of women either: “In 1965, the year Malcolm X was assassinated and the Watts riot set off a chain reaction of major urban uprisings, the concept of ‘Women’s Liberation’ [....] was first presented at a Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) conference. It was laughed off the floor” (Giddings, 1984, 303). Tensions also occurred because of the interracial liaisons between white women and black activists (Id., 301). Sara Evans, a white activist, said in Personal Politics: “For Black men, sexual access to White women challenged the culture s ultimate symbol of their denied manhood. And some of the middle-class women whose attention they sought had experienced a denial of their womanhood in failing to achieve the cheerleader standards of high school beauty and popularity so prevalent in the fifties and early sixties” (Evans, 1980, 79). The National Organization for Women (NOW), presided by Betty Friedan in the 1960s and by Aileen Hernandez (a black activist) in 1970. also experienced and provoked identity crises. The official purpose of NOW was to function as the equivalent of an NAACP for women. The fact that NOW joined relatively radical leftist groups to ensure the enforcement of the Civil Rights Acts worried black women in the sense that they feared being outnumbered by white middle-class women with no experience of racism. The idea that middle-class women, predominantly white, would take advantage of the benefits won by radical women, predominantly black, not to mention white women wielding power over the lives of black women, was highly distressing to many (for example Linda La Rue, Toni Morrison, and Frances Beal). The issues were several and interlocked but in the end it seems that most black women resented less the power of black male chauvinists over their lives than the power of white women, particularly when the latter, as individuals, were not above acting like submissive females in order to attract black males.


Chercheur au Dubois Institute de l’Université de Harvard (automne 2006), Alice Mills est Maître de conférences à l’Université de Caen. Son travail porte sur divers aspects de la littérature et de l’histoire de la communauté africaine américaine : théâtre (Langston Hughes, August Wilson), romans policiers (Walter Mosley, Barbara Neely), romans haïtiens américains (Edwidge Danticat), histoire des militaires noirs américains pendant la seconde guerre mondiale.
A Visiting Fellow at the Dubois Institute at Harvard University during the Fall semester of 2006, she is an Associate Professor at the University of Caen. She is conducting research on several aspects of African-American literature and history: theatre (Langston Hughes, August Wilson), detective novels (Walter Mosley, Barbara Neely), Haitian-American novels (Edwidge Danticat), and the history of black soldiers during WWII.

© Presses universitaires François-Rabelais, 2007

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