Crunktastic’s article is crossposted from our friends over at The Feminist Wire.
I find myself both intrigued and troubled by Ron Neal’s recent TFW post, “Kanye West Is Not a Feminist, But…” Neal is absolutely spot on that Kanye displays a level of emotional vulnerability and complexity that is rare for Black male hip hop artists. But I would argue that this level of Black male vulnerability, while rare in Hip Hop, is actually a hallmark of serious Black male artists. And I do consider Kanye a serious artist, although I think this gives him a pass sometime to do ridiculous b.s. in the name of being a tortured soul.
I am reminded that as the range of Black creative traditions go, beautifully complex renderings of Black male subjectivity are a hallmark. In this regard, the literary triumvirate of James Baldwin, Ralph Ellison and Richard Wright immediately come to mind. Thinking of them, I am also reminded of the infamous interview between James Baldwin and Audre Lorde in the 1984 issue of Essence magazine – yes, I said Essence—in which Lorde holds his feet to the fire for his own complicity in centering and elevating Black men’s experiences above those of Black women. The thing is, though, that Neal’s argument would have been perfectly compelling if he had simply focused upon the power of Kanye’s art in providing much needed representations of Black male complexity and humanity, without attempting to assess the degree of Kanye’s feminism.
And it is Neal’s near total misreading of feminism that significantly diminishes the power of his reading. As I understand it, the argument is that because Kanye is not a downright misogynist, he isn’t particularly sexist. That’s like saying that the only racists, and the only ones we should worry about, are those who are card carrying members of the KKK. Moreover, Neal’s assertion that “it would be unfair to say that he is anti-women or that women are treated like indentured servants or worse, three fifths of a person, when they appear in his lyrics and videos” is extremely problematic, as it traffics in the age old notion that racism is worse qualitatively than sexism, that the only mode of oppression is declaring someone 3/5 a person or treating them as an indentured servant. The analogy subtly fails to recognize that all these things were done to women as well. Furthermore, if one objectifies women in one’s work, then one has not treated them like a person. So while Kanye cannot be accused of asserting that women are not human beings as the 3/5 compromise did for blacks, both male and female, he arguably could be accused of something worse, namely that given the legacies of blacks and slavery, his rhetoric undermines the hard-fought struggle of Black women to be viewed in their full human complexity, while demanding that we see him in his. In many ways, Neal’s argument abides by the same logic. He recognizes that sexism is wrong, but finds it a legitimate to celebrate Kanye’s artistic rendering of Black masculine emotional complexity, even if diminishing Black women’s struggle against sexism is a prerequisite for doing so. The effect is that Neal reinscribes the very same patriarchal politics that one assumes he’d be against. He asks us as Black women in particular, to lay aside Kanye’s maltreatment of us in his work, on the grounds that a.) he isn’t as bad as the worst of them and b.) at least we get to see Black men be human. Is this not asking us to subordinate our struggle to the Black male quest for the fullest expression of their personhood?
Finally, I find the reading of Joan Morgan’s work largely to be a misreading. While I agree with Neal that Morgan “espoused a very complicated and less than perfect practice of gender progressivism,” unlike Kanye, whom the author points out has not “paid homage to any movement among women, black, white, etc,” Morgan’s text does all that even as she attempts to find a generationally relevant iteration of feminism. Moreover, Morgan does not spend her time in the text going after out right misogynists, though she does call them out. She is absolutely interested in more subtle forms of it, as it plays out in relationships platonic, romantic, and artistic. Neal seems to suggest that what we should conclude from Morgan’s book is that “simplistic binaries such as ‘man against woman’ and ‘woman against man’ only lead to separatism and loneliness.” It sounds as though Neal is suggesting that calling Kanye sexist for videos like the recent and troubling “Monster,” is just another instance of Black women frustrating racial progress and fomenting needless insurrection. Moreover, his argument seems to suggest that such outcries against sexism are not only misguided, but the cause of “separatism and loneliness.” Based on this logic, when it comes to gender rifts in Black communities, feminism is to blame, rather than sexism.
One of the legacies in Black feminism that I am most proud of is the groundbreaking work on Black masculinity that Black feminism’s gender critiques have made room for. This work has given Neal and others the tools and vocabulary to understand and appreciate the kind of masculine performance that West brings to the table. Even so, any proposition which asks Black women to affirm and center Black male complexity while denying and marginalizing our own is everything but feminist.