Fighting Words: Black Feminists Respond to Judge Joe Brown
Yesterday, November 18th, former television personality Judge Joe Brown came under fire for some very unnecessary comments on a recent radio show appearance. When asked for his opinion on the decision to place Harriet Tubman on the $20 bill, he launched into a diatribe against the choice, asserting that it was “disrespectful” to black men. His rant was scattered as he attempted to broach several topics at once, including feminism and the “fraudulent” and “self-hating” women who he claimed were simply jealous of men “cause they got two X chromosomes instead of an XY.” He also attempted to justify his disdain for Tubman by suggesting there were black men who freed “thousands” more slaves than she did who were never recognized for their acts, and even went so far as to make the false claim that only black men were subjected to lynching. Amidst the incoherency however I did manage to discern his core argument, which was that because the men in any society determined the “status” of the race, choosing to honor a black woman over a black man was, in essence, a show of disrespect towards the black race overall. Judge Joe Brown stridently defending patriarchal hierarchies in this way is ironic considering patriarchy’s roots in an anti-black colonial system that historically has reserved the power and respect associated with manhood for white men alone. Historically black men have been exposed to the same violences as black women and non – binary people, in part due to the process of un-gendering that occurred as a consequence of our objectification under slavery – whether one was identified as “biologically” male or not did not supersede one’s status as a slave. Through the process of becoming commodities, all our ancestors were robbed of their bodily autonomy and sense of self. Their lives were ruled by fear: fear that they would be violated, that their partners and children would be taken from them, that they would be denied work, that they would face harassment and violence for simply daring to exist in a black body– this is our shared trauma as their descendants. Yet Brown does not seem to want to acknowledge how much the suffering of black women and non –men mirrors that of black men. And further, he seems to have convinced himself that black women are a far bigger threat to him than the white supremacist state responsible for this trauma in the first place.
Brown’s words are the embodiment of a certain type of black male chauvinism that exists to affirm the desire amongst some men to simply acquire power and influence in an oppressive system rather than overturn it, in spite of whatever faux-revolutionary pretensions they may try to maintain. But while his rant may seem comical in its absurdity, it represents a real danger to the lives of women and non-men. By asserting that any celebration of black women is an affront to the black man he ignores the ways in which patriarchy manifests itself through anti-blackness. The power dynamics of Western gender norms imposed on us via colonialism are such that women are deemed secondary to men and obligated to serve their needs and desires at the expense of their own, or risk disciplinary action in the form of abuse: this is the same dynamic that characterized the relationship between the enslaved and the colonizers. This is the dynamic that still characterizes interrelationships between black and white people, in the classroom, at work, in the home, and all manner of spaces both public and private. Black men who attempt to take advantage of this system of gender oppression will find that the only real “power” they have is the power to abuse, rape, humiliate, or otherwise rob black women and non-men of our autonomy. But this does nothing to shield them from the realities of the anti-black state we currently live in. Black men playing the role of the master doesn’t mean they will be afforded the safety, respect, and care white men enjoy, and no amount of violence against those lower in the social hierarchy than they are will change that. The only real path to freedom is through abolishment of all manifestations of anti-blackness, and this by necessity includes gendered violence against black women, trans, and queer people.
If Judge Joe Brown is so concerned about black men he would do well to examine issues actually affecting them. He should look into, for example, the culture of shame around sexual assault against black men, the harmful fetishization of black male bodies in the media, or the high risk of assault and discrimination faced by black men in the LGBT community. If he was truly invested in black mens’ health and safety he would have mobilized to address the ways black men are harmed through the intertwining of gendered violence and anti-blackness. Instead, he chose to devote his time to ranting about a black woman’s face on the $20 bill. My one hope in all of this is that this recent embarrassing display will discourage others from giving Brown a platform to go on such tirades in the future. But whether he is banned from the airwaves or not, we must remain committed to combating such rhetoric wherever we find it, and to celebrating black women without reservation.