When I left home at age seventeen, an adult male family member advised me simply, “In any and all things, just be a man.” However, the extent of his advice stopped there; I was left to determine just what a man was.
Over the years that followed, I attempted to define manhood for myself. It was a hit or miss proposition; usually I took one step forward and two steps back. But I evolved and am continuing to evolve.
Perhaps the time of my greatest growth was my first year of graduate school and ironically, under the tutelage of a woman. I took a seminar entitled “Womanist Principles” from Professor Debra Walker King of the University of Florida, and as with any good teacher, she forced me to confront and evaluate many of my long-held beliefs and convictions. Later I served with her as a TA as well.
But I know what you are going to say. One seminar and a semester as a TA does not a womanist make. Even further, perhaps as a man, I cannot claim the label of womanist. I’ve already had that argument. But as a man, I can adopt and adapt womanist principals to guide me in the moral and ethical choices I must make. And I have endeavored to do that. However, in a recent incident I fell very short.
I was assigned to go on an out-of-town day trip with a female colleague for my job. Perhaps I should also add that this female colleague is subordinate to me.
Well, of course I volunteered to drive. And I was a perfect gentleman the whole day. Perhaps this was the source of the problem.
I opened doors for her. I pulled out chairs for her. I even purchased lunch for her. However, the nicer I was, the more I acquiesced, the testier she got. In fact, by the time we began the long drive home, she was hardly speaking to me. And then I did it. I asked about her children. She looked at me in horror and disgust and shut down completely. She still hasn’t spoken to me except when our jobs required us to speak. Needless to say, the whole incident puzzled me.
I took my conundrum to a few close friends with the hope that they would be able to show me where I went wrong. Well, you can pretty much guess what the fellows said. And most of the ladies I asked didn’t have a clue either. But finally my good friend, the one who rocks the fly afro puffs, clued me in.
The problem, she informed me, was that I allowed gender to enter into an arena in which it had no place. To put it more succinctly, instead of treating her like a competent and able colleague, I treated her like a delicate, helpless creature.
My friend continued:
“Would I have volunteered to drive had she been a man?” No.
“Would I have spent the day opening doors and pulling out chairs had she been a man?” No.
And the big one.
“Had she been a man of a certain age, would I have assumed she had children?” Perhaps, but probably no.
In my zeal to prove myself a gentleman, I only succeeded in exposing the last remnants of a learned sexism and patriarchal worldview.
But I think she was a bit too hard on me. Perhaps she was insulted by my behavior, but in another era, I would have been applauded for the same behavior. Even now I would be applauded and appreciated in some circles.
Had she just taken the time to just talk to me, politely tell me of my ineptitude, my shortcomings, I would have, I could have taken the time to repair. But now there is a seemingly irreparable breach between the two of us that I do not know how to mend.
Maybe I’m reading too much into it when I think that perhaps this could be a metaphor for African American male and female relationships overall. Both genders have varied expectations of the other, and without effective and affective dialogue, the misunderstandings will only escalate.
Sistas, I am trying, I really am. But if I and my other brothers who too are really trying are too succeed, we need your input.
Tomorrow: Ain't I a Womanist: Part II--Just What Is a Strong Black Woman?