Michele Wallace on the cover of 'Ms.' magazine, 1979. All photos courtesy of Michele Wallace.
In 1979 Michele Wallace's face was splashed across the cover of Gloria Steinem's historic feminist publication Ms. magazine. A bolded headline, layered over 27-year-old Wallace's afro, hailed the black feminist critic's first book, Black Macho and the Myth of the Superwoman , as "the book that will shape the 1980s."
More than 35 years after the magazine's bold declaration, I saw Wallace for the first time, at the Malcolm X & Betty Shabazz Memorial and Educational Center. I was there to celebrate Verso's recent reissue of her seminal text, as were the 50-or-so other black women, handful of black men, and exactly two white men. All the hot black chicks in the room had their natural hair in full effect, and I happily embraced my curl-blocked view. Wallace had summoned us there on the strength of Black Macho and the Myth of the Superwoman 's enduring critique, well past the 1980s. So much of what Wallace eviscerates in her book —the trope of the strong and/or sassy black woman who is denied her own narrative, the invisibility of black women in black male-dominated movements, the invisibility of black women in general—is only just starting to yield in 2015.
As a physical representation of the generational bridge separating the past and present, Wallace, now 63, got up in front of the crowd alongside Ebony's senior editor Jamilah Lemieux, who started the hashtag #BlackPowerIsForBlackMen. The most notable moment of the night, in my mind, was right then: when Wallace first walked onstage wearing a slinky jumpsuit, took her place on a stool in front of the microphone, and spread her legs, un-self-consciously wide, to keep her balance. I was impressed by her confidence. By the end of the talk it was clear that she got it from her 84-year-old mother, artist Faith Ringgold, who stood up from her seat in the audience during the Q&A period, plugged her own memoir, and then gave an impromptu speech to close out the night.
Black Macho and the Myth of the Superwoman is a bifurcated text that was the first to call out the black patriarchy. It put a name to the unspoken burden that black women bore after the civil rights movement didn't make good on its promise to liberate black women once black men had reified their manhood in the eyes of white society. (" I Am a Man! ") In the first half of the book, Wallace argues that the "black macho" rhetoric of the civil rights movement served to further marginalize black women by positioning the "independent" black woman as an obstacle to the black man's masculinity. The second half is a critique of this image of black womanhood, which is exempt from weakness and pain—the black woman as superwoman, with an inordinate strength that outpaces that of white women and even most men. It's not necessarily a fun read, but it's essential and, sadly, still relevant.
Upon the book's publication in 1978, it caused a firestorm; many prominent black male scholars refused to believe "that the significance of black women as a distinct category is routinely erased by the way in which the Women's Movement and the Black Movement choose to set their goals and recollect their histories." A year after the publication of Black Macho , one of the oldest African American academic journals, The Black Scholar , published its "Black Sexism Debate" issue. In it, critic Robert Staples penned " a response to angry black feminists " that denied sexism's existence for black women. I opened up my phone interview with Wallace using the same question that many of Wallace's initial critics, who dismissed her work as "divisive," had in the 70s and 80s. Substituting "the civil rights movement" for "Black Lives Matter," with a tired sigh: Does talking about the black patriarchy, or misogynoir, distract from the "bigger" issue of fighting white supremacy?
The answer is still of course not. Now a professor at the City College of New York, Wallace tries to sensitively make this point to her students whenever another black man becomes a news item in the worst way.
"There's always a lot of concern about police brutality and black men getting shot or beaten up by the police," she tells me. "But you also have to make it clear that these same things are happening to women. Women are also getting beaten up by the police, and they also end up in prison. I try to talk about that with my students."
"Most of the people who were killed in Charleston were women," she continues. "I do feel a certain hesitation in jumping in anyone's face who wants to interpret this as a predominantly male problem. I know people are grieving and they're upset. They're rightfully upset about things that have happened to these men, but they're just not upset about things that have happened to women." Right now, for instance, activists are tweeting to keep Sandra Bland's name known and visible, the Texas woman who was taken into police custody at a routine traffic stop and later found dead in her jail cell under mysterious circumstances.
Even before Black Macho was published there was controversy. As a black woman publishing a simultaneously personal and academic text at the tail end of feminism's second wave, Wallace was engaged in a struggle against implicit sexism and racism. Her publishers at Dial Press (who also published James Baldwin's The Fire Next Time) were even hesitant to call the book feminist at all.
"There was a pervasive situation that feminism was not viable," Wallace remembers of the months leading up to Black Macho's publication. "When it came time to promote the book, my publishers Dial Press were adamant—despite the content of the book being feminist—that the book, that I, should not be described as feminist because it would doom the book financially."
What could be worse than a feminist? A black feminist, it turns out. "My publishers insisted that feminism is dead, there's no black readers, and the ideal reader is a little old lady from Pasadena. It's hard to imagine now how completely unwilling people were to concede that there was a black reading public or that there could be one. [They thought] anyone who would buy the book would be totally turned off if I were described as a black feminist. I had to insist on that."
Wallace's editors also advised her to gloss over the less "respectable" anecdotes. Throughout the original Black Macho Wallace maintains her status as a middle-class black woman who attended a private school in Harlem and was the daughter of an artist; she never mentions the time she spent at a juvenile home or the fact that her musician father died from a drug overdose, not a car crash. In the book's updated introduction from 1990, "How I Saw It Then, How I See It Now," Wallace writes that her editors "warned" her that it was "risky" to tell those stories and she acquiesced. When I ask Wallace about the ordeal, she speaks with a much more passionate sense of having been wronged, of having been limited by the threat of shame. And despite Wallace's confidence at the Verso event, this five-letter word was the central theme of the rest of our interview. Though when Wallace speaks the word, it's more like she shouts it: SHAME.
"The fact that I gone to Mexico, joined a commune, wouldn't come home, and ended up in a juvenile home was TOO SHAMEFUL," she says. "My agent and a number of people just said, 'You can tell that story later, when you're more successful. You can't afford to tell that right now.' This goes back to SHAME. Shame is a very powerful emotion and a friend of a patriarchy."
"Here I am, I'm 27 years old, I've graduated from college, I'm teaching at a university, I work at Newsweek—who would think that any of that would touch me? There was discussion among the women around me when I was writing the book that it was not safe for me to disclose that kind of information about myself. That that was going to doom me and follow me to the ends of the earth. The feeling was, 'You get one transgression in the book, and we don't even think you should have this one.'"
In the very book in which Wallace argues for the right to her flaws, she was actively denied them. I point out the irony in all of this ("Uh... I feel like that's almost exactly the thesis of The Myth of the Black Superwoman"), and we laugh about it in a depressed way. It was clear that white feminism's rallying cry, "the personal is political," didn't fully apply to the black women of the era, but Wallace remains an optimist and a believer that It Gets Better. "Now there are many young black feminists who are challenging [the politics of respectability]," Wallace says, citing Mikki Kendall, who got the hashtag #SolidarityIsForWhiteWomen to trend and eventually inspire an avalanche of think pieces on the inclusivity of digital feminism. Wallace also mentions Shonda Rhimes and her mission to put multifaceted black women on screen. "I'm hoping that the outcome of this will be that more and more black women are able to transgress these boundaries by calling it out and naming it," she continues. "We need to speak about our own shame. One thing about shame is that it can't survive much light. It grows on the underside, in the dark. Once you shine a light on it, it seems so small."
Gabby Bess is a staff writer at Broadly. Follow her on Twitter.