On Becoming a Feminist

Rudolph P. Byrd
By Rudolph P. Byrd

When I was eleven I ordered my father, at knife point, to leave our home.

The context for this pivotal event was a particularly violent argument between my parents—erupting, it seems, out of the languor of a summer afternoon in Denver. Filled with concern for my mother’s well-being, I left my bedroom and assumed the position of witness at the threshold of my parent’s bedroom, which, on that afternoon, was in chaos. When my father raised his hand and struck my mother’s face, the world as I knew it changed completely. I did not hesitate to protect her. I went to the kitchen and returned with the largest knife I could find and ordered my father to leave our home. To my astonishment and relief, my father stepped around the knife I pointed at his chest and departed in silence. He returned sometime later wary, somewhat contrite, and conscious—perhaps for the first time—of the necessity to contend with his firstborn and namesake. From that day to the last day of his life, I knew that I, in one sense, was at war with my father. I knew and he knew that his abuse of my mother would not go unchallenged. Needless to say, this tacit understanding brought us to an unexpected depth, one that continues to possess, even after his death, tremendous power and meaning.

My commitment to feminism thus began with resistance to the abuse of women. When I ordered my father at knife point to leave our home, asserting “Get out and leave my mother alone,” I was uttering one of the oldest sentences in the world. Other boys had said such things to their fathers. I did not want my father out of our lives because I loved him and needed his protection and guidance; what I wanted out of our lives was the violence. As I would come to realize, it was in that moment that my commitment to gender equality crystallized. Such a commitment placed me, inevitably, in opposition to my father, who held—like many men of his class and generation—deeply flawed, patriarchal views of family and society. Views that he wrongly thought entitled him to abuse, physically and psychologically, my mother and doubtless other women.

My mother, Meardis Cannon, was the first feminist I had the privilege to meet. My mother’s feminist consciousness registered in family life in a variety of ways: in her authoritative use of language, in the dignity of her own person, and most especially in the management of our household.

As the firstborn of five children, I quickly learned that my mother did not take gender into account in the division of labor. In the management of a household where my father was present but selectively involved, she routinely placed us where we needed to be, not where we wished to be or, heaven help us, where we thought we should be. As a male child, I cooked and cleaned as well as mowed the lawn, shoveled and salted the steps in winter, and, when I acquired my driver’s license, did much of the shopping. In other words, there was nothing I did not do and there was nothing she believed I should not do by virtue of my gender. The result is that I grew up able to do many things well. I also did not regard the home as the domestic sphere of women, but as a shared space in which I had, along with my siblings, many responsibilities and a particular investment.

My mother also reared me with a deep sense of egalitarianism. I regarded my siblings as equals in all things while I also fully acknowledged their complexity as individuals. Moving from boyhood to manhood, I valued the insight this rearing produced, especially in relationship to my two sisters who were, like my mother, all women to me. Reconstructing this early period in my life, I understand that my respect for women began with my respect for my mother—an abiding respect born of her feminist consciousness.

I believe that I would have resisted this vital principle, like other men, had it not been for my mother’s instructive, inspiring example and also for my ability to transfer and apply knowledge from the domestic sphere to the public sphere. Always the questions were these: Even though they are strangers, why would you treat women beyond your kinship group any differently from your mother and sisters? Even though they are strangers, why would you not wish these women to have what you wish for your mother and sisters: a life free of male domination and violence? Then and now, I understood that these questions bore the imprint of my mother’s hand, that is, the imprint of her feminist consciousness. And while she did not call herself a feminist, she understood, like all feminists, that the personal is political. For me, this is an insight, born, in part, of family life.

Feminists are made, not born.My development as a feminist was shaped not only by my education at home but also by my education beyond the home. In my college and university training during the 1970s, I was introduced to the work of Virginia Woolf, Toni Morrison, Jean Toomer, and Alice Walker, all of whom—most especially Walker—had a profound impact upon my development as a feminist. In their work, I discovered theories of resistance and oppression that expanded my developing understanding of gender and the dynamics of male domination and male privilege. A vital work from this period is Walker’s The Third Life of Grange Copeland, her first novel, one which I read soon after its publication. The reading of this novel was a moment of self-recognition for myself and all the women in my family. The tragedy of Meme and Brownfield Copeland captured what the poet Robert Hayden called in “Those Winter Sundays” the “chronic angers” of our home. Walker’s novel provided a fictional framework for the pivotal event that constituted my initiation into feminism. Above all, it provided a name for the problem that, as Betty Friedan writes in The Feminist Mystique, “has no name.”

In my education beyond the home, I learned of the existence of an intellectual tradition to which I could declare allegiance and one that nourished my development as a feminist. I learned, in fine, that feminists are made, not born. The knowledge of the existence of such a tradition, and the knowledge that I could choose, through my work, to extend its power and reach had a lasting impact upon my choices and actions.

Of the men in history who have had a marked influence upon my development as a feminist, Frederick Douglass is perhaps the most important. I think of Douglass’s pioneering support of women’s rights at the Seneca Falls Convention of 1848, the lone black male in attendance and the only male to assume a leadership role at this historic convention. I also think of his complex alliance with Elizabeth Cady Stanton over the elective franchise for women, which led to the adoption of the Nineteenth Amendment to the Constitution in 1920. As the founding editor of The North Star, whose epigraph was “Right is of No Sex,” Douglass was keenly aware of the necessity of complementary social movements. “All good causes are mutually helpful,” asserted Douglass in a speech delivered on March 31, 1888, at the International Council of Women in Washington, D.C. “The benefits accruing from this movement for the equal rights of woman are not confined or limited to woman only. They will be shared by every effort to promote the progress and welfare of mankind everywhere and in all ages.”

As I began my career in the academy, I continued to search for ways to develop as a feminist, a process that continued to take place mainly within the meaningful discipline of teaching and scholarship. And this process was enriched by the development of friendships with feminists. Of these friends and colleagues, Beverly Guy Sheftall of Spelman College has had the greatest impact upon my development as a feminist. Our friendship has deepened through the coediting of Traps: African American Men on Gender and Sexuality, an anthology that is a testimony to our shared commitment to antisexist and antihomophobic struggle. Soon after our meeting in the early 1990s, Beverly and I discussed a number of projects; and when I proposed to her that we edit an anthology of writings by  African American men on gender and sexuality, she immediately consented. Through this collaboration with Beverly—who is one of the leading feminists of our generation—I felt welcomed as a male to the transformative and progressive work of feminism, and in the process understood what my place and my work as her comrade in feminist struggle should be as a scholar and activist.

And what, precisely, is a feminist? A feminist is an individual committed to the goals of feminism which, as defined by bell hooks in Feminism Is for Everybody, is “a movement to end sexism, sexist exploitation and oppression.” Significantly, hooks’ definition of feminism underscores the important fact that the goal of feminism is the abolition of all forms of male domination, not the hatred of men.

Of the many things I feel called to do as a feminist, chief among them is the creation of a corpus that inspires knowledge of and disloyalty to patriarchy. Traps and, more recently, I Am Your Sister: Collected and Unpublished Writings of Audre Lorde (written with Beverly Guy Sheftall and Johnnetta B. Cole) perform this strong function. Moreover, I understand that this fulfilling and subversive work must be done with and apart from women who are committed to the goals of feminism. In this regard, the example of Douglass within the context of the first wave of American feminism is most instructive.

Patriarchy is a bankrupt ideologyAs a feminist, I urge all men to embrace this progressive tradition that was advanced by Douglass. Why? Because we cannot, to paraphrase the black lesbian feminist Audre Lorde, dismantle the master’s house with the master’s tools. Notwithstanding its appeal of privilege and power, patriarchy is a bankrupt ideology. Based upon the ideology of male superiority and domination, it is antithetical to the historic goals of the black freedom struggle and the story of freedom told in all periods of African American history and literature, most powerfully in the slave narratives. Further, patriarchy blocks the process of self-actualization in men as well as women. It imposes upon men an identity based upon male domination. As an ideology based in privilege and violence, it is corrosive of relationships between men and women, and also those between men. Finally, because of its intolerance of difference, patriarchy is one of the greatest threats to the creation and development of communities, as Toni Morrison has warned us, with her customary acumen and eloquence, in her novel Paradise. The sobering truth at the novel’s center is that if women do not conform to the expectations of men, if they do not submit to the rule of men, the men will kill them. By contrast, feminism is a means of liberating women and men from the ideological trap of patriarchy through the choice of a politics that nurtures a vision of mutuality, equality, democracy, and nonviolence.

As a feminist, I stand on the watch tower of freedom with Douglass and his spiritual descendants. I am positioned here not only because I regard myself as a spiritual descendant of Douglass but, more important, because I am a direct descendant of Meardis Cannon whose feminist consciousness, even in death, continues to influence, to summon the language of James Weldon Johnson, “my forms of habit, behavior, and conduct as a man.” I urge all men and women to join us here and live fully, mindfully, in the present as we prepare for a livable future. As Lorde reminds us, there is no separate survival.

Rudolph P. Byrd is Goodrich C. White Professor of American Studies in the Department of African American Studies and the Graduate Institute of the LIberal Arts. He is also the founding director of the James Weldon Johnson Institute for Advanced Interdisciplinary Studies and a founding officer of the Alice Walker Literary Society.