Michele Wallace (b.1952) is a major force in the Black feminist movement. She is also a writer, philosopher, cultural historian, social critic and teacher. Her work spans forty-five years and has been influential to the generations that followed her. Yet that road has not been easy.
In her first book, Black Macho and the Myth of the Super Woman, published in 1979 when Wallace was only twenty-seven, Wallace calls out the sexism in the Black Power and Civil Rights movements of the 60s and 70s. Black women were relegated to unpaid jobs of support to the men; jobs of receptionist, secretary, cleaning up and creating meals, and not given any true authority, power or leadership. Even worse, speaking up about the imbalance of power between genders in the movement was seen as non-supportive to the men and the movement. This created a huge problem for the women who did not want to be unsupportive of the movement’s efforts but also did not want to be sidelined.
Wallace also exposes how it was hurtful to the Black women of the movement to be treated this way while watching the men take up with white women who were perfectly willing to bow down and accept a position of inferiority.
“It was the Civil Rights Movement, however, that made it clear that a gap was developing between black men and women. Although usually grudgingly respected by men for the contribution they made to the movement’s work, black women were never allowed to rise to the lofty heights of a Martin Luther King or a Roy Wilkins, or even a John Lewis. Not a single black woman was allowed make one of the major speeches or to be part of the delegation of leaders that went to the White House during the March on Washington”(BMSW 157).
In the Black Power movement the men took a position of “macho,” aligning themselves with the sexist behavior of patriarchal white men, creating a rift between the genders in the Black community which, Wallace explains, was not there before.
It was tricky to talk about these issues when the book was published and still is today. Wallace has done her share of apologizing for things she wrote that she now feels could have been said differently but the focus and overall thesis of the book was and is extremely important. Wallace’s voice is strong and eloquent and it leaves one wanting to read more.
“Only as American blacks began to accept the standards for family life, as well as for manhood and womanhood embraced by American whites, did black men and women begin to resent one another. And as time went on their culture, under constant attack from the enemy, became more impoverished and dependent and left with fewer self-regenerating mechanisms”(BMSW 24).
Wallace explores with sensitivity the story of the Black man in America. The creation of the Black man as a fearful person was carried out deliberately by white supremacy culture. Coming into their power, and even their anger, in the movement was important to claim their wholeness and dignity. However, Wallace states, in doing so, many of them turned on Black women asking them to be quiet and submissive to make them look more like men.
“The black man of the 1960s found himself wondering why it had taken him so long to realize he had an old score to settle. Yes, yes, he wanted freedom, equality, all of that. But what he really wanted was to be a man.
America had made one point painfully clear. As long as the black man did not have access to white women, he was not a man. The lynchings, murders, beatings, the miscegenation laws designed to keep the black man and the white women apart while the white man helped himself to black women, created in him a tremendous sense of personal urgency on this matter. America had not allowed him to be a man. He wanted to be one”(BMSW 30).
She takes many powerful men to task including Norman Mailer, Richard Wright, and Stokely Carmichael.
Wallace argues that Black men were always strong men concerned with protecting their family and working hard to that effort even in their time of enslavement. White people benefited from portraying them as weak due to their enslavement and terrifying once they achieved freedom.
“The black man’s tremendous struggle for education, for land, for political rights, for the right to protect his land and his children, can all be taken as signs that the black man was far from a helpless dependent at the time of the Emancipation Proclamation. And for that matter, probably, the infrequency of slave rebellions in the U.S. can be taken in the same way.
As Nathan Huggins suggests in his introduction to Black Odyssey, perhaps we have been too singleminded about discovering and proving the heroism of the minority of slaves who engaged in overt resistance, while devoting too little attention to the dignity and persistence of that majority of slaves who quietly and consistently insisted upon their own humanity in a thousand little ways against enormous odds”(BMSW 76).
In many ways Wallace does a great job of exploring Black male identity in America from a cultural perspective as she examines the causes and conditions that encouraged Black macho to arise. The text investigates with compassion what Black men were put through and what has been projected on them as a population. It is very illuminating on that score. She calls for a feminist reckoning of this dynamic and asks the reader to pay attention to how this rift in the Black community was engineered. Her wish is for the genders to find a way back to one another.
But that message wasn’t heard. Wallace does not have an apologetic voice. Why should she? Her voice is strong, sure and confident. She told the story from her own experience giving voice to a population which at the time had very little. Feminism was not readily accepted by the Black population, in part and understandably, because of negative experiences with many of the white leaders of the movement over time. And again, feminism was also seen as a betrayal to men who needed their support. But even so, Wallace chose to be a feminist and assert her voice. The book became a lightning rod . She was catapulted into the spotlight and raked over the coals. She was often outright condemned.
In a 1989 essay “The Politics of Location,” Wallace writes:
“I still ponder the book I wrote, Black Macho and the Myth of the Superwoman, and the disturbance it caused: how black women are not allowed to establish their own intellectual terrain, to make their own mistakes, to invent their own birthplace in writing. I still ponder my book’s rightness and wrongness and how its reception almost destroyed me so that I vowed never to write political or theoretical statements about feminism again. I ponder the years in which I tried to fictionalize in a novel the story of my publication and of my madness and the rejection by many including my family. I ponder as well that even as I gingerly and carefully proceed to try to recognize and acknowledge all the preexisting and intellectual and territorial boundaries—which never recognize me in turn, my own black feminism—boundaries—my homeland, which I helped to create which still sees me as out of order because I understood that to publish is to communicate willingly and forcefully with whites who, after all, still control the publishing industry and the global production of knowledge in which mainstream and left publishing participates”(DDVC 172).
The Myth of the Superwoman
And then there is the myth of the Black woman as a superwoman which Wallace also tackles in that same book.
“From the intricate web of mythology which surrounds the black woman, a fundamental image emerges. It is of a woman of inordinate strength with an ability for tolerating an unusual amount of misery and heavy, distasteful work. This woman does not have the same fears, weaknesses, and insecurities as other women, but believes herself to be and is, in fact, stronger emotionally than most men. 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. In other words, she is a superwoman.
Through the years this image has remained basically intact, unquestioned even by the occasional black woman writer or politician. In fact, if anything, time has served to reinforce it. Even now I can hear my reader thinking, Of course she is stronger. Look what she’s been through. She would have to be. Of course she’s not like other women. Even for me, it continues to be difficult to let the myth go. Naturally black women want very much to let the myth go. Naturally black women want very much to believe it; in a way, it is all we have”(BMSW 107).
Wallace cites how the 1965 report, “The Negro Family: The Case for National Action” by Daniel Patrick Moynihan created an environment for widespread misunderstanding of the situations of Black families and blamed women for many of the issues that were plaguing them. Rather than focus on the policies of the political body of the U.S. government at large and cultural conditions of racism and racist policy that Black citizens found themselves living in, the report cited the structure of the Black family as being the root cause of the issue and landed the problems squarely on the Black woman. She was too strong and domineering and this was the cause for Black men being out of work.
“Although no one would admit it, Moynihan managed to provide authoritative support for something a lot of black men wanted to believe anyway: that the black woman had substantial advantages over the black man educationally, financially, and in employment”(BMSW 110).
Instead of looking at an issue and trying to understand what conditions and policies were causing it, it was easier to blame the Black woman.
“In a sense he was right. The American family with a black female head is the most impoverished family in the country, because the black female has the lowest earning power. The logical solution to this problem would be to simply increase the earning power of the black woman. But this was not Moynihan’s answer. His argument went as follows: If you increase the black man’s educational and employment opportunities—the implication was that you would ignore the black woman—you will increase the numbers of black status quo families with principle male providers and thus eliminate or substantially diminish the problems of blacks—in other words, unemployment, juvenile delinquency, illiteracy, fatherless households”(BMSW 114).
The myth of the Black woman as a superwoman is dangerous for Black women for many reasons, one being because it means they don’t get to be seen as vulnerable and soft— as people with needs. It also means people, including families, politicians and policy makers, don’t think they need to receive help or care. Anytime a person is seen as strong and resilient, “a trooper,” “a fighter,” and a powerhouse, the vulnerable aspects of their personhood go unnoticed and untended to. Often the person must hold up the veneer of strength even when they don’t feel that way to make others feel better. It’s a set up and it has been thrust upon Black women in this country for too long. It is ultimately dehumanizing and all for the comfort of others. Black women should be seen as human beings with the same needs as everyone else. And more important than that, they should be listened to as individuals with unique experiences of the world.
In a 2013 interview with Tamara Lomax on YouTube, Wallace speaks of how she has been surprised by the longevity of the book and that she is still being asked about it. She didn’t know that she would still be talking about the same issues for so long after. She also comments on how after the media attention and initial celebrity the book brought her died down, it was difficult for her to get a book published again. She felt sort of dropped and subsequently erased.
And yet, she blazed a trail for those who would come after her. Many of the leaders of today’s Black feminist community claim her as their elder and inspiration.
Reflecting on Wallace and her Black Macho and the Myth of the Superwoman in her 2015 piece in The New Republic, “This Black Feminist Classic was a Precursor to Black Lives Matter,” writer and cultural critic Jamilah Lemieux writes:
“I hope that both readers and Wallace alike see the importance of her bravery and the necessary roughness of this book. Wallace publicly walked the walk many Black feminist women do when the weight of recognizing Black patriarchy crashes squarely on our shoulders. She spoke pointedly of what scribe and scholar Moya Bailey has since labeled “misogynoir”—sexism towards Black women; anti- Blackness that can come even from those who are Black, who were raised by Black women and profess to value Black people.”
Lemieux goes on to name people that Wallace has influenced:
“Joan Morgan, dream hampton, Mikki Kendall, Feminista Jones, Mychal Denzel Smith, Trudy, Marc Lamont Hill, R. L’Heureux Lewis-McCoy, Brittney Cooper, Rahiel Testafamariam—and if I am nothing else in this world, I am a daughter of Michele Wallace. Furthermore, the ways in which Black Lives Matter differs from the Black Nationalism that Wallace skewered in 1979 makes it plain, for me at least, that our world is better for the bravery of Black Macho, even if it was ahead of its time”(https://newrepublic.com/article/121925/black-feminism-named-and-celebrated).
Beyond Black Macho
Wallace, the daughter of artist Faith Ringgold, grew up in Harlem in what she came to see as a middle-class upbringing. Her birth father who died when she was two was a musician from Jamaica and her mother’s family was from the south, having moved up to Harlem in the 1910s.
“Becoming a black feminist in the ‘70s had not only to do with the times but it also had everything to do with being the daughter of the ambitious, fiercely militant and driven black artist, Faith Ringgold. My family was made up of women who were either superwomen of one kind of another, or women who just couldn’t cope on almost any level. From an early age, you were expected to declare which one you would be, although I didn’t learn this until much later”(DDVC 101).
Read Nasty Women Writers pieces on Nasty Woman Artist Faith Ringgold.
Wallace, from a long line of teachers, became a professor at CCNY and continued to write and publish articles about current events and cultural issues ranging from the Anita Hill trial to Michael Jackson, her upbringing in Harlem, commentary on the visual arts and film, and of course feminism.
In her essay: “To Hell and Back: On the road with Black Feminism in the ‘60s and 70s’,” she writes about how people are always asking her how she came to be Black feminist. She takes the reader through her upbringing including the schools she went to, moving from a religious Lutheran school to the:
“Ultra-rad boho New Lincoln School, no longer in existence but then located in lovely old building on 110th street on the mutual borders of black Harlem, Spanish Harlem, and the Upper Eastside. My fellow students ranged from the son of Susan Sontag (David Reiff) and the daughter of Harry Belafonte (Shari Belafonte) to the sons and daughters of the likes of Robert Rauschenberg, Maureen O’Sullivan and Zero Mostel”(DDVC 97).
In that school Wallace was exposed to many cultures, left ideologies and to the lives of the super-rich. There she was also introduced to the Civil Rights movement.
She recalls those potent times, the Civil Rights Movement, Vietnam, the assassinations of JFK, Malcom X and Martin Luther, going to the Apollo theater, trying to sign up for the work of political causes but being told she was too young. She was distracted by all of this in high school and her mother, she said, wasn’t paying so much attention. Her mother had a career that was keeping her busy so she sent her daughters to Mexico for the summer. Wallace writes that she, as a mother, would have never done that— knowing how radicalized and wild she, Wallace, was feeling at the time. But her mother did and Wallace ending up joining a commune in Mexico.
Her mother got her out but then, back in New York, put her in a facility for juvenile delinquents. This created tough energy between them for a number of years. However in this facility is where Wallace began to grow her feminism even more, because she was exposed to women from less privilege than herself. She saw how that made them even more vulnerable to exploitation by men and the patriarchal culture in general.
It was exactly this incident that I read about in Michele Wallace’s mother’s autobiography, We Flew Over the Bridge: The Memoirs of Faith Ringgold, that introduced me to Michele Wallace. Faith Ringgold was writing about being a mother and she expressed pain at the way her daughter Michele Wallace described her and an event in their lives in her book Black Macho and the Myth of the Superwoman. I was intrigued by this daughter and got her book. That is what led me to Michele Wallace.
“My recollection has always been that Faith and I came to feminism at the same time, although I now suspect that I was following her lead the way that an offspring can sometimes follow a parental lead without necessarily being aware of it, especially since I was an inveterate Momma’s girl right through my early twenties. Through the early years of the ‘70s, I frequently accompanied and assisted my mother in her various radical forays into the antiwar, anti-imperialist art movement of the times. With Faith’s assistance and support, I founded an organization called Women Students and Artists for Black Art Liberation (WSABAL) as an activist and polemical unit to advocate the kinds of positions in the art world that are now identified with the Guerrilla Girls.
Particular high points were when we participated in raucous art actions at the Museum of Modern Art and the Whitney; when we occupied the offices of Thomas Hoving at the Metropolitan; and when I wrote the words for the poster for the Judson Memorials Flag Show”(DDVC 103-104).
Ultimately, in spite of some bumps along the way, her relationship with her mother Faith Ringgold has been one of reciprocal inspiration, awe and respect for each other and each other’s work.
Wallace has published many other books including Dark Designs and Visual Culture and Invisibility Blues.
About the issues still plaguing humanity, Wallace writes:
“I continue to believe that feminism in all its myriad and contentious incarnations, will always be part of, although not the only, prescription, until somebody comes up with a cure”(DDVC 110).
Michele Wallace is a Nasty Woman Writer and activist.
© Theresa C. Dintino 2023
Featured image by Stacy Long
Lemieux, Jamilah. “This Black Feminist Classic was a Precursor to Black Lives Matter.” June 1, 2015. The New Republic. https://newrepublic.com/article/121925/black-feminism-named-and-celebrated
Wallace, Michele. Dark Designs and Visual Culture. Duke University Press. 2004.
Wallace. Michele. Black Macho and the Myth of the Super Woman. Verso, 2015. First published by The Dial Press in 1978.