Feministing Reads: Michele Wallace and Vron Ware

Sometimes a book magically hits shelves at just the right moment, landing felicitously for the culture at large. Claudia Rankine’s Citizen was that book last fall, written before the murder of Michael Brown but published in its wake and ceaselessly invoked in our collective efforts to respond adequately. Michele Wallace’s Black Macho and the Myth of the Superwoman and Vron Ware’s Beyond the Pale: White Women, Racism, and History, the inaugural titles of Verso’s new Feminist Classics series, may be those books this summer.

In May the African American Policy Forum published Kimberlé Crenshaw and Andrea Ritchie’s report Say Her Name: Resisting Police Brutality Against Black Women; #SayHerName vigils were organized across the country on May 20 to honor black women murdered by law enforcement. On June 5 a fourteen-year-old black girl was yelled at, assaulted, and sat on by a white police officer in McKinney, Texas after white locals complained about black children daring to attend a pool party in their neighborhood. On June 17 white supremacist Dylann Roof shot and killed six black women and three black men during Bible study at Emmanuel AME Church in Charleston, South Carolina, reportedly telling them, “You rape our women and you’re taking over our country. And you have to go.” On July 13 black woman and anti-racist activist Sandra Bland was found dead in her jail cell in Waller County, Texas after being pulled over for a minor traffic violation. On July 21 twenty-five-year-old black trans woman India Clarke was found dead in a park in Tampa, Florida; she was repeatedly misgendered in the local media.

This string of events no longer feels exceptional. Wallace and Ware’s books remind us they never have been, providing essential context for both these exhaustingly familiar patterns of violence against black women and the long history of white feminist indifference to anti-racist struggle.

Cover of Black Macho and the Myth of the SuperwomanFirst published in 1978, Michele Wallace’s Black Macho and the Myth of the Superwoman made her either a hero or a traitor, depending on whom you ask. For some it landed like a bomb and for others like a life preserver, but all agree that it made waves. This time around, Black Macho’s reception has seemed to be more unequivocally positive. At a packed public conversation between Wallace and Jamilah Lemieux last month at the Malcolm X and Dr. Betty Shabazz Center in Harlem, the crowd was jovial and attentive; multiple people attested to the formative role Black Macho played in their own development as feminists and anti-racist activists.

Wallace begins by analyzing the titular Black Macho, positing the subjugation of black women as both defining motive and consequence of Black Nationalist rhetoric in the 1960s and ‘70s. (Though black men are her primary focus, Wallace argues that patriarchal masculinity was originally conceived and peddled by whites in order to obscure the economic bases of white male power: “[the black man] was conditioned to define his rebellion in terms of the white nightmare.”) Drawing on Wallace’s own experience and conversations with other black women, the book’s second half, of course, articulates the corollary myth of the black Superwoman: “a woman of inordinate strength, with an ability for tolerating an unusual amount of misery and heavy, distasteful work…. Less of a woman in that she is less ‘feminine’ and helpless, she is really more of a woman in that she is the embodiment of Mother Earth, the quintessential mother with infinite sexual, life-giving, and nurturing reserves.” Though superficially flattering, Wallace proceeds to detail the ways in which such stereotyping invalidates black women’s suffering and forecloses the possibility of political redress.

In her foreword to this new edition, Lemieux praises “the importance of [Wallace’s] bravery and the necessary roughness of this book;” in a brilliant and self-critical introduction to the 1990 edition, Wallace herself disowns much of her original analysis—particularly its commitment to the ideal of a more inclusive Black Nationalism, which Wallace now considers to be an inherently heteropatriarchal liberationist strategy—though she hopes people will continue to read and engage with it. Wallace was only twenty-six at the time of Black Macho’s initial publication and had little direct participation in the black liberation movements of which she was so critical, and so she writes primarily against the media (self-)image of Black Power: Eldridge Cleaver, Amiri Baraka, James Baldwin, and Richard Wright are all critiqued at length. I was deeply moved by her admission (offered by way of explanation) that “there are many black men who love black women, and vice versa, although I didn’t know it at the time I wrote Black Macho.”

Black Macho’s prose is authoritative and polemical, a rousing and heady, if inarguably dangerous, mode that always strikes me as distinctly Second Wave: “Come 1966, the black man had two pressing tasks before him: a white woman in every bed and a black woman under every heel. Out of this sense of urgency came a struggle called the Black Movement.” To call such a sentence reductive is to risk misapprehending its purpose. Black Macho was written in that small window, nearly unimaginable to my generation, just after Sula and for colored girls but still before The Color Purple, Ain’t I a Woman, The Salt Eaters, The Women of Brewster Place, and Women, Race, & Class—before, as Wallace notes in her introduction, “the institutionalization of multicultural feminist inquiry.” Wallace’s book helped make that field thinkable. “The black woman needs an analysis,” Wallace urged in 1978. “She belongs to the only group in this country which has not asserted its identity.”

Cover of Beyond the PaleZooming out from the details of her argument, one of the most powerful presumptions of Wallace’s book is its implied insistence that black people can have honest, nuanced, and contentious public conversations of which white people are not the primary subject or addressee. (Of course, white critical attention often distorts this conversation into pathology or spectacle). It has lately become a commonplace assertion within activist circles that white people must also scrutinize their experience of race, rather than assuming racism to be a problem exclusively for and about people of color. In her foreword to the new Verso edition of Vron Ware’s Beyond the Pale: White Women, Racism, and History, originally published in 1992, Mikki Kendall asserts the importance of Ware’s study as a model for white feminists interrogating their complicity in white patriarchy. Explicitly drawing on her experience as a white anti-racist activist in Britain in the 1970s and ‘80s, Ware combines autobiography, history, and visual analysis to better understand both the social construction of white femininity and the relationship between white feminism and Britain’s longer history of imperialism.

Ware’s sketch of the contemporary impasses motivating her project are dispiritingly familiar: “the stresses and strains between the various factions of feminism were becoming so vitriolic and divisive that it was almost impossible to talk about anything…. It seemed that it was invalid to address race as a political problem for white women, as though ‘race’ somehow belonged to black people.” In order to begin filling in the racial lacunae in white feminist analysis, Ware traces white women’s political action back to its origins in the nineteenth century, excavating the varied histories of their participation in abolitionism, anticolonial movements, and U.S. anti-lynching activism “to try to discover how race, class and gender intersected in a period that saw the emergence of a feminist politics.”

The basic symbolic functions played by white femininity in these debates may by now be familiar to many readers: white women as domestic stewards, moral compasses, mothers of Empire, vessels of cultural identity, defenders of racial purity, and so on. But by diving deep into the archive, Ware invaluably unpacks the dynamics through which these discourses developed and how white women themselves embraced or resisted them. Quoting extensively from letters, diaries, newspapers, and pamphlets, Ware’s case studies are as enthralling for their narrative drama—friendships are avowed and betrayed, resources and affections are squandered, publics are moved and scandalized—as for their political lessons about alliance, autonomy, and the relationship between race and gender.

Writing in Salon about the McKinney police violence in June, Brittney Cooper reminded us that the confrontation began with two white women using racist language to harass children. “White women have been some of the worst perpetrators of racial aggression and racial indignity in this country,” she continues, “but their aggressions frequently escape notice, precisely because white womanhood and the need to protect it animates the core of so much white supremacist aggression toward Black people.” And here is where Ware and Wallace converge: the same ideological operations through which femininity is made to mean civilized, sensitive, fragile, and white make it impossible for black women to be recognized as human, vulnerable, and oppressed on the basis of gender as well as race—as anything less or more than Superwomen.

“Just as black women have had to identify and oppose racist definitions of their identity as women in their struggles against racism and female subordination,” Ware writes, “so white women can potentially open up new avenues of political strategy and alliance by refusing racist definitions of white femininity.” Beyond the Pale remains a vital contribution to this effort.

New Haven, CT

Sam Huber is a writer and editor living in New Haven, CT. He is a books columnist for Feministing and a graduate student in English at Yale University.

Writer, editor, queer.

Read more about Sam

Join the Conversation