Friday, June 15, 2012

The Men and Women of the Nation

"Elijah Muhammad's views about gender relations would be set out in this 1965 manifesto Message to the Blackman in America. To Muhammad, males and females occupied separate spheres. Black women had been the mothers of civilisation, and they would play a central role in the construction of the world to come. Metaphorically, they were the field in which a mighty Nation would grow; thus it was essential for black men to keep the devil, the white man, away from his "field," because the black woman was far more valuable than any cash crop. There was no question that all women had to be controlled; the question was, who should exercise that control, the white man or the black? He also warned against birth control, a devilish plot to carry out genocide against black babies. It was precisely a woman's ability to produce children that gave the weaker sex its value. "Who wants a sterile wom[a]n?" he asked rhetorically.

What attracted so many intelligent, independent African-American women to such a patriarchal sect? The sexist and racist world of the 1940s and 1950s provides part of the answer. Many African-American women in the paid labour force were private household workers and routinely experienced sexual harassment by their white employers. The [Nation of Islam], by contrast, offered them the protections of private patriarchy. Like their middle-class white counterparts, African-American women in the Nation were not expected to hold full-time jobs, and even if Malcolm's frequent misogynistic statements, especially in his sermons, were extreme even by the sexist standards of the NOI, it offered protection, stability, and a kind of leadership. Malcolm's emphasis on the sanctity of the black home made an explicit promise "that families won't be abandoned, that women will be cherished and protected, [and] that there will be economic stability."

Temple women during those years rarely perceived themselves as being subjugated. The [Muslim Girls Training] was its own center of activity, in which members participated in neighbourhood activities and were encouraged to monitor their children's progress in school. At the Newark NOI temple, not far from Temple No. 7, women were involved in establishing small businesses. They also took an active role in working with their local board of education as well as other community concerns. It is likely that Harlem's women made similar efforts. As with those who were working in civil rights, women in the NOI had in mind the future of the black community. What attracted them to the Nation was the possibility of strong, healthy families, supportive relationships, and personal engagements in building crime-free black neighbourhoods and ultimately an independent black nation."

- Manning Marable, 'Malcolm X'

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