Wednesday, May 19, 1999

Bitches, hos and strongblackwomen

Essays on rap misogyny and desire by a hip-hop feminist.

Posted By on Wed, May 19, 1999 at 12:00 AM

If a black, male, Gen-X journalist can respectfully say so, it appears that feminist thought in the ’60s and ’70s was more easily defined than it is in the ’90s. For today’s young African-American women, the clarity of feminist-womanist philosophy is clouded by the conflicted doctrines of hip-hop culture.

Feminism, in theory, requires strength and solidarity on the part of women to contend with the hypersexed, male-dominated culture in which we live. African-American feminists are bound to this requirement, yet must also shoulder the responsibility of identifying those cultural differences that often alter the direction of their feminist path. Throw in the generation gap that exists between baby-booming feminists and those identified by the ill-fated labels "Gen-X" or "Hip-Hop generation," and you’ve got a psychological jambalaya that dares to have its ingredients sorted.

In her collection of essays, When Chickenheads Come Home to Roost, Joan Morgan manages to taste, digest and name ingredients in the social soup that is African-American hip-hop feminism. Morgan displays brutal honesty while analyzing the position of the feminist – herself – who grows up immersed in hip-hop culture, loving its potential, but loathing its misogyny and misdirected anger.

"Things were easier when your only enemies were white racism and middle-class black folk," Morgan writes in a letter to hip hop itself, which she refers to as her "homeboy."

"Now your anger is turned inward. And I’ve spent too much time in the crossfire, trying to explain why you find it necessary to hurt even those who look like you. Not to mention a habit called commercialism and multiple performance failures and I got to tell you, at times I’ve found myself scrounging for reasons to stay."

Morgan, a writer who’s held staff positions with the Village Voice and Vibe, is qualified to discuss hip-hop culture from a position of authority. The aforementioned immersion is evident in the way she seamlessly blends the conversational tone of academia with comfortable hood slang. It’s the "spook who sat by the door" style.

But, instead of using this "bilingualism" to condescend, she spends much of her time questioning feminist stereotypes, questioning the moral and legal conflicts between "babymothers" and "babyfathers" – read: single parents – and examining the effects of "chickenhead envy" on gainfully employed black women who live woefully lonely lives.

In an essay dealing with the latter term, Morgan questions whether or not "chickenheads" who use their coochies as tickets to the kept life are onto something the woeful-lonelies might want to consider. The something in question is female flesh as the object of man’s ultimate desire.

Morgan’s writing is strongest when she declares her right to be a feminist and love the culture that shaped her. "Am I no longer down for the cause," she asks, "if I admit that while total gender equality is an interesting intellectual concept, it doesn’t do a damn thing for me erotically? That, truth be told, men with too many ‘feminist’ sensibilities have never made my panties wet, at least not like that reformed thug nigga who can make even the most chauvinistic of ‘wassup, baby’ feel like a sweet, wet tongue darting in and out of your ear." This is a level of honesty that many young black women can feel, but may not be able to articulate.

The potential problem in publishing a collection of essays is the possibility of thought processes contradicting each other. Morgan admittedly had to leave her native New York, at one point, and retreat cross-country to California in order to sort out conflicting thoughts of her own. She wrestles these conflicts by conducting self-analysis in essays like "Strongblackwomen" and "Strongblackwomen-n-endangeredblackmen … this is not a love story." As long – and corny – as the titles are, she makes credible arguments about the unnecessary turmoil some independent women endure by using their success as an emotional shield.

Continuing, she challenges the behavior of men who disregard the significance of nurtured relationships. Quoting a friend who expressed her disgust with the treatment her mother endured from her father, Morgan writes: "You know, brothers spend so much time talking about teaching their sons about being righteous black men. I just wish they could see that they teach their daughters a helluva lot about black manhood, whether they’re around or not."

Morgan does a good job of leaning toward solutions without declaring any of them to be "the way." She appropriately ends with a declaration of allegiance to the struggles of women: "Know that when it comes to sistahood, I am deadly serious about my commitment to you. As long as inequality and oppression remain constants in our lives, sistahood is critical to our mutual survival."

Chickenheads might do well to come home to this book.

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