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Wednesday, April 1, 2015

Ikard and Baldwin on
Black Female Patriarchy


A pivotal moment in James Baldwin’s novel Go Tell It on the Mountain (1952) sees the churchman and patriarch Gabriel being confronted by his sister Florence over a devastating past infidelity.

Upon fathering a child with his mistress Esther, Gabriel
James Baldwin
stole the savings of his first wife Deborah and gave it to Esther to hush up the matter. Deborah wrote a letter to Florence testifying to Gabriel’s ruinous behavior, which left her neglected, isolated, and economically dependent on him.

When Florence musters up the courage to confront Gabriel, ten years after having received the letter, the effect on his psyche is profound:

“It had lived in [Deborah’s] silence, then, all of those years? He could not believe it…And yet, this letter, her witness, spoke, breaking her long silence, now that she was beyond his reach forever” (212).

Confronted with the suffering wrought by his patriarchal authority, Gabriel reels from the memory of Deborah as it is framed by Florence’s criticism of his actions. As if to underscore the power of speech in these women’s intertwined voices, Baldwin has Florence rebut Gabriel’s power over her by uttering,

“When I go, brother, you better tremble, cause I ain’t going to go in silence” (215).


David Ikard
Ikard’s chapter on Go Tell It on the Mountain is exemplary in this regard because it introduces the idea that both men and women have a stake in black patriarchy—a dynamic that underscores the need for genuine intergender dialogue (rather than, say, a feminist critique of male oppression as “ONLY” an issue of men dominating women).

On the one hand, Ikard shows how the novel’s patriarch, Gabriel, consistently shores up his sense of masculine identity by compelling the black women in his life to submit to his religious and familial authority.

When his mistress Esther is left on her own with their unborn child, she is “virtually at Gabriel’s mercy” because she is a “poor pregnant woman of disreputable social standing” (64). Esther might reveal Gabriel’s infidelity to the church, but Ikard understands this as an impossible choice, given the practices of community policing which downplay such infidelity in the name of securing strong black male leaders.

In this way, Gabriel’s sense of himself as “the chief victim of white oppression and the burden-bearer of his family” continues to justify his ill treatment of black women.

Yet in his chapter on Baldwin, Ikard is also keen to show how the novel “disrupts the victimization discourse that allows black men like Jones and Gabriel to explain away their subjection of black women” (50).

                                                                        *    *     *    *   *

Crucial to this narrative disruption, according to Ikard, is black women’s recognition of and rebellion against their complicity with black patriarchy. In the figures of Elizabeth (Gabriel’s current wife) and Gabriel’s mother, Ikard identifies how “women unknowingly support patriarchy in their relationships with men,” particularly through the“internalized…expectation of black female self-sacrifice” (50, 67).

1) Elizabeth buttresses Gabriel’s authority by assuming guilt for being a “bad mother” and having had sex prior to their marriage.

2) Gabriel’s mother is a more resonant example of black female patriarchy in that she “rears him to believe that as a man he should expect black women to cater to his every emotional, physical, and material desire” (55).

In both cases, Ikard outlines a convincing case to extend the study of black patriarchy to women who support its ideological and institutional viability.

Importantly, this perspective does not cast judgment on black women for supporting patriarchy but instead seeks to understand

1) how their stake in it is conditioned by white supremacy, and

2) how a more inclusive politics of resistance would overturn both racists and gendered structures of oppression.

Ikard’s perspective is echoed in the character of Florence, who emerges as the novel’s privileged witness to the range of patriarchy’s harms precisely because she has also suffered from black women’s (her mother’s) investment in patriarchy.



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