There are a lot of ways in which men hurt women. There are even more ways in which men hurt Black women.
It is clear that the structures of white supremacy and patriarchy tear Black women down. Black men are not exempt from contributing to the abuse of Black women. Violence grants Black men power. The thing is, white women will cry rape and white men will lynch, imprison, and demean Black men as surely as the sun rises and sets twice a day.
But Black women care about Black men. Even if Black women did not care about Black men enough to protect them at their own expense, society would still ignore the woman’s cries. When it comes down to it, Black men are torn down by the world every day; and they go home and take it out on their wives or girlfriends, or through random spurts of violent tweets, texts, or catcalls.
Black men feel entitled to Black women’s love, support, and emotional labor. It’s not only expected that Black women must love Black men, regardless of the misogynoir that runs rampant in the community, it has become normalized to determine a Black woman’s worth as reflective of the amount of trauma she can endure while still loving on her oppressors.
The first time that I knew that a Black man loved me but didn’t act like it was when I was in fifth grade. My father was around for a good portion of my childhood and I basked in his love, as well as the addition of a loving stepmom and two sisters. I never doubted that love and I still don’t. The world is not easy on Black men, and I saw that firsthand in his experiences. Unfortunately, I bore some of that burden as a result. As I grew older, though, I got over just missing him, and I feel a mix of emotions I still can’t explain, ranging from resentment to sadness.
The term “daddy issues” is tossed around left and right as a way to trivialize the real–life trauma and negative patterns passed on by absent or terrible fathers. It also places blame on the woman, somehow lessening her value because of the way a man decided to treat her. I’ve heard pretty often that girls pursue partners like their father. When I hear this, I get paranoid, trying my best not to confuse words with actions, not to fall into like or love too quickly or even at all. I became resentful of boys who made up a lot of excuses, those who looked to me as their main source of happiness, those who claimed they “needed” me and asked me why I never acted like I “needed” them back. Even as a person who loves love, I began to think to myself, “So what?” whenever I caught myself or other Black women saying, “but I know he loves me” as an excuse for men to disrespect and undervalue us. “So what?” I kept wondering, “Is love worth more than you?”
Tar Baby, a 1981 novel by Toni Morrison, is set in the Caribbean, then Manhattan, then the deep South. In one of their first scenes together, Jadine, a Black, well–traveled fashion model with a white patron and a sealskin coat, and Son, a Black fugitive running away from the States for committing murder, are picnicking at the beach. After he reveals his crime, Jadine is direct in her line of questioning. Oh did you kill a woman, couldn’t think of anything else to do with your life huh, a Black woman, too, of course. She is visibly disgusted. As he gives her more details, Morrison writes, “She is scared, he thought…Suddenly he liked it. Liked her fear. Basked in it like a cat in steam–pipe heat and it made him feel protective and violent at the same time… ‘I won't kill you. I love you.'”
Son is immensely selfish. He feels inflicted by Jadine’s beauty—feels inferior standing beside her—so he does his best to insult and demean her early on. The first time they meet, he is caught as a criminal hiding in her white patron’s wife’s closet. He hasn’t showered for weeks, yet enters Jadine’s room, grabs her by the wrists, and insults her Blackness, or rather the lack thereof, and his assumption that she must be promiscuous. He apologizes later, saying: “You were so clean standing in that pretty room, and I was so dirty. I was ashamed kinda so I got mad and tried to dirty you. That’s all, and I’m sorry.”
Son’s manipulation of Jadine for his own benefit doesn’t stop there, yet she finds herself on the car ride back from the picnic trying to think up reasons in her head that she shouldn’t sleep with him. Reading this, it probably is not a surprise that what ensues is a romance as hot and cold as they come, full of abuse too often mistaken for love, excused by the inevitable—yet often terribly controlled—rush of emotions that come with being a Black man.
Reading Tar Baby, I repeatedly found myself thinking about the wholeness of Jadine’s character—her relationship with Son, an illustration of the pattern of mistreatment when it comes to Black women and love. But some types of pain and abuse should not be normalized under a messed up definition of what Black love should be. If pain is a part of love, and not just “oh my feelings are hurt” pain, but violent abuses of power, and psychological and emotional manipulation, then we need to write ourselves a new definition.
This is not to bash all Black men. As a community, we must be able to talk about these issues in complex ways. Not all Black men are emotionally or physically abusive to Black women. But it is critical to consider the ways you are complicit in the dehumanization of Black women. Colorist preferences, staying friends with sexual abusers, catcalling, even down to the words you use to talk about our bodies. Do you treat the Black women in your life like your personal therapists? Do you stand up for them the way they stand up for you? Do you perpetuate the rhetoric that Black love should go through struggle first, that Black women must go through “ups and downs” with you to deserve your loyalty and affection?
Tar Baby is full of magical realism, weaving a new definition of Black womanhood through the isolation of motherlessness, and a white family’s dirty secret. Morrison deftly reinvents the love story, while simultaneously illustrating the power imbalance between Black and white people, bosses and workers, men and women. It was a trailblazer in 1981, but that was 1981. Now, it’s a reminder of what the hardest edges of romance feel like for Black women, of the tight grip that settling holds on us. Now, it’s a wake up call that misogynoir was an issue then and it still affects the lives of Black women every day. If you haven’t read Morrison yet, or if you have and love her work, pick up a copy of Tar Baby, but don’t use Son and Jadine as standard–bearers for true love. Use them as a cautionary tale.