Can a Black Man Be a Feminist?

USF professor explores the role of men as feminists and being sympathetic to women’s issues.


By Barbara Melendez

     USF News


TAMPA, Fla. (April 1, 2011) – University of South Florida English Professor Gary Lemons is all too familiar with the “f” word that can put lots of people on edge – feminism.


He identifies himself as a feminist man and has written a book on the topic, but as a black male, Lemons finds himself a rare specimen – though not altogether alone. In fact, he’s in good company.


Lemons follows in the footsteps of two great men he wrote about in his book Womanist Forefathers: Frederick Douglass and W.E.B. Du Bois (2009) where he traced his philosophical heritage as a man of color sympathetic to women’s issues. He also stands with Cornell West, Manning Marable, Michael Awkward, Mark Anthony Neal and perhaps even President Barack Obama – contemporaries who speak out for women’s equality.  And to hear him tell it, “It’s added years to my life.”


According to The Daily Beast in 2008, registered American voters view feminism very negatively and only 20 percent of women are willing to use the word “feminist” in connection with themselves.  Still other polls indicate many people credit the feminist movement with the progress women have made over the last half century. Regardless, the word always gets a strong reaction.


“It’s tricky for men of color speaking on this topic,” Lemon says. “This goes to the history of politics of gender in communities of color as this issue continues to be identified with white middle class women. The issues surrounding gender relations are exacerbated by racism that continues to exist. The way we talk about gender is conflictive around terminology,” – so conflictive, in fact, that Lemons goes undercover.


“When I’m in audiences with men of color, I don’t ever use the term feminism.  I shy away from it because the history of racial baggage works against those of us who try to discuss the ways that sexism is an ideology internalized by both men and women and the ways that sexism can be an instrument of racism,” said Lemons, whose research and teaching interests focus on 19th and 20th century African American literature, feminist theory and literary criticism, cultural studies and memoir writing. 


But Lemons has gone on the record in his book Black Male Outsider a Memoir: Teaching as a Pro-Feminist Man (2008).  And he doesn’t let the “racial baggage” stop him from talking about men in connection with sexism and feminism.


“I’ve wanted to move theory to life. I know for certain that feminist/womanist (a term popularized by writer Alice Walker) thought is not injurious to Black folk or Black men in particular.  I don’t need feminist as a label to do the work I do. Historical oppression associated with gender has its place across many disciplines.”


Lemons’ conversion – if you will – to feminism began at New York University at a lecture by writer bell hooks when he was a graduate student. This encounter started Lemons on a quest to find other men who like himself were comfortable with the concept. 


“I know it is possible for black men to embrace feminism.  The challenge is in how we make that happen, in a way that does not excuse the history of racism and the exclusion of women of color.”


In relation to health, Lemons says, “We have to begin to talk about what we feel and what we’re going through as men and as women.  Stress causes an attack on our bodies. The internalization of oppression has been shown to affect rates of cancer and heart disease to the point where Black people are at the top of every group. There are benefits to feminist thinking not only physically but also emotionally, psychologically and politically.” 


In addition, Lemons points out that people of color and men in particular hide out from stress through addiction and depression. 


“Black males I know, who have embraced feminist ideas of manhood and masculinity, speak about experiencing a process of self-recovery and self-rediscovery,” Lemons said. “Through a feminist vision of manhood, we find our most vulnerable, likeable and most loving selves. Then we can begin to stop self-destructive, masculinist behaviors rooted in patriarchal and sexist notions of who we are as men. My challenge is finding ways to navigate the politics of being a pro-feminist black male without alienating the very people such ideas can help.”


In the final analysis, perhaps the real story on Lemons’ bona fides as a feminist should be left to his wife, Fanni Green, a playwright and actress who teaches in USF’s College of The Arts School of Theatre and Dance.  


“I observe him daily, as he juggles being a feminist and the over-protective father of a girl-woman, our last child, who will be flying out of his reach to go to college this year,” she said. “Sometimes the feminist loses to the father.”


And does he help around the house?  An emphatic, “Yes.”


“He always has helped around the house. Given the years I spent on the road acting professionally, while the children remained home with Gary, he was a co-bread winner and house-husband. He irons, cooks, washes the dishes, shops for groceries, does the laundry and takes out the garbage.”


Barbara Melendez can be reached at 813-974-4563.