Commencement Speech 2004
I've waited a long time to read this essay, waited because I didn't want to give the impression that I was morally superior to my friends. I am not. I waited for personal and spiritual growth, but the growth is agonizingly slow, and I am getting older; therefore, I'm not waiting any longer. So, at the risk of being a hypocrite, I will begin.
I am a man, of this I feel neither pride nor shame. My maleness was a directive of God or an accident of nature, not my decision or achievement. But let's not be naive, I benefit from being a man. Yes, I do.
In the grocery store men don't pretend that their packages are dropping so that they can brush against me. They don't try to smell my hair. I'm a man. I'm not encouraged to walk with my head held high, with long strides, and keys in my hand, lest I appear vulnerable to some attacker. Men don't follow me, just out of my vision, playing mind games, hoping to scare me -- to entice me. When was the last time you heard a man say he couldn't stay late because he was afraid to walk home after dark? If you are a man you don't need to know all the safe places between your home and work. You can go get potato chips at 3:00 in the morning, well, maybe not in Big Rapids, Michigan. If you are a man who can park in a ramp, you don't worry. I don't worry.
Two million women are battered each year by husbands or boy friends or acquaintances.
Sometimes a wayward soul in a passing car will yell an insult disguised as a compliment. I don't worry about him stopping the car. There is a freedom in not worrying, in not having to worry.
I am a man. My maleness is an ascribed trait; largely determined by the genitalia hidden by these clothes. My manes is what society has taught me to believe about women and men -- and my acceptance or rejection of those beliefs. Well, on this day, I publicly reject much of what I was taught about women and men. This is what I believe.
Women are not the opposite sex. Women are not the opposite of me. The opposite of me is a tree, a dead maple tree. Women are not the opposite sex; they are, for me, the complementary sex.
Women are not girls. My daughters, 12 and 10, are girls; my wife is a woman. As a child, I didn't like it when whites called adult black men boys; today, I don't like it when men called women girls.
Women are not always right; they are not always wrong -- but they are never wrong solely because they are women.
We, men, talk passionately and intelligently about equality, yet frequently talk over, interrupt, and cut off women in conversations.
There are men and women who would never use racist language, yet they call women that word that begins with a B. You know that word. That word has been mainstreamed. It is a slur -- the functional equivalent of darky, sambo, or buckwheat. That word that begins with a B is a dog; a woman is a child of God. There are men who would never use that word, but who treat women that way.
No woman is a bitch. War is a bitch. Poverty is a bitch.
There is a worse word, a word that is as venomous as the word nigger; that word is cunt. I hate both words. I hate saying them. They are words of degradation -- words of hatred and separation. Nigger has unfortunately become mainstreamed: present in popular songs, television shows, movies, and conversations, both private and public. Cunt is not as mainstreamed, thankfully.
Women are not chicks, gals, guls, broads, skeezers, dames, tails, shorties, birds, nags, hags, iron maidens, gold diggers, vamps, tramps, skirts, dumb blondes, traps, femi nazis, skanks, babes, fish, nymphs, floozies, hussies, Lolitas, strumpets, Madonnas, tarts, trollops, vixens, or wenches. Women are, simply, women. And unless there is an existing special relationship, no woman, especially in a work setting, should be referred to as honey, sugar, sweetie, baby, doll, or honey child.
I'm not a woman, but I know what it's like to hurt, to be hurt, to be disrespected, discounted, disparaged; to be treated like an expert on questions related to my special trait, but to have my other ideas viewed with suspicion, or worse, summarily dismissed; to have my qualifications questioned by people with less talent; to be underpaid; to be cornered in social boxes. No, I'm not a woman but I know what it's like to be mistreated.
James Baldwin said that "to be Black in America is to be in a constant state of rage." His mother could have said the same thing about being a woman.
Have you ever been asked if you would vote for a qualified man? Why do cleaners charge more to clean the clothes of women? When's the last time you saw a male bank teller -- I mean, one of the ones standing, not the ones sitting behind the glass? Why are the jobs dominated by women among the lowest paying, with the lowest prestige? When was the last time you heard a presidential candidate run on a platform of eliminating rape? If 20 men, on average, were being sodomized each hour we would do something about rape. Why is Janet Reno's physical appearance an issue with her critics? Does she have to be cute to be taken seriously? In things big and small women are mistreated -- sometimes systematically, sometimes randomly.
One of the few prominent public men of the 19th century to take an unequivocal stand for women's rights was Frederick Douglass. I am proud of him. He knew, like we do, that women were the real workers in the abolitionist movement. W.E.B. DuBois, Douglass's spiritual descendant, was also a forceful supporter of women's rights. I am proud of him.
I am not proud of the way women were treated in the civil rights movement -- women did the work, men gave the speeches, and got the credit for the work done by the women. And the brothers in the Black Power Movement too often viewed black women as warm places to release sexual tension. That was wrong, and it is a wrong that was shared by many of us, including the man in my mirror.
We have to be better.
You share love, you don't make it, and there is a difference between sexual objects and sexual partners. I teach a course in sexual deviance. When I see a pornographic image there are two voices in my head. The first, groomed since childhood, says, hey, that woman is fine. The second, strong and distinct, says, look at that woman, she is somebody's child. She may or may not be somebody's mother, somebody's sister or niece, but she is definitely somebody's child, somebody's baby. That's Jesus' baby you're looking at.
Reverend King said that "injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere." The oppression of women, in Afghanistan, Beijing, Abuja, and Big Rapids, Michigan, is unjust. The hatred and oppression of women is wrong everywhere. Do you hear me? It would be hypocritical of me to fight the oppression of blacks, reds, browns, and poor people while ignoring the injustices heaped upon women. And if I agree that the subjugation of women is wrong then it ought to be reflected in the way I treat women on Mondays, Tuesdays, Wednesdays, Thursdays, Fridays, Saturdays, and Sundays -- otherwise, I'm just talking to hear myself talk.
This is not about guilt -- guilt is useless-not about gaining favor with women, not about being on the right side of history; no, no, none of that. This is about doing right. I think of the way that Jesus treated women -- with dignity and respect -- and I think that's the way I should treat them. It's that simple.
It is supper time and women deserve a place at the big table, not standing and serving, but sitting, eating, laughing, you know, like we, men, have been doing. Know this brother: every man is born of a woman, and every woman is your sister.
Curator, Jim Crow Museum
March 27, 2006