Toxicity vs Divinity: An Exploration of Toxic Masculinity and Femininity
My exploration of Divinity started at a young age. I was raised in a Methodist home with a grandmother who was a staunch Christian. In spite of her religious convictions, Nana was oddly feminist. She believed in birth control and was on The Pill back in the ’60s after having three daughters. She made a pact with her sister-friend and neighbor, Ms. Ernestine; one of them would get a job and the other would take care of the kids. Nana secured employment first, becoming a working wife and mother, while Ms. Ernestine held down the fort. This arrangement guaranteed that the whole crew would be appropriately reared and cared for. From what I heard about Ms. Ernestine from my mom and aunts was that she was just as tough on them as if she was their mother.
Nana also believed in a woman’s right to choose and was the first one to teach me about putting your own interests first in a relationship with a man. She didn’t believe that a woman should stay virginal until marriage. “You gotta try it before you buy it.” That message stuck with me and relieved the pressure society had placed on me to stay “pure”. If Nana said it was cool then who was I to argue with her?
Going to church and listening to The Word became an exercise in mental gymnastics. How could I appreciate being a woman when every story about women in the bible was rife with shame, blame and out and out hostility? The expulsion of mankind from the Garden of Eden? Eve and her apple eatin’ ass. The loss of Samson’s God-given strength? The betrayal of the sneaky and traitorous Delilah. The birth of the Messiah? A miraculous immaculate conception of The Virgin Mary. Nevermind Joseph; Mary and the will of God produced an heir who would carry the salvation of Mankind.
The whole thing seemed a bit skewed. How could we say Man was made in God’s image and then say Woman was made from Adam’s rib? Could God not have made both forms at the same time? Who wrote this book? And why was my value as a woman deemed as less than that of a man’s simply because of an X instead of a Y?
I was a 12-year-old nerd who was not believing the hype. At some point, I discovered ancient Greek and Egyptian mythologies. I had discovered Homer on my Nana's bookshelf and read the Ilead and The Odyssey. I had a few books from the Horrible Histories series that satisfied my thirst for facts and my love of comic books. It was here that I learned about the pantheons of Gods and Goddesses. I learned about the fierceness of Athena, the loving natures of Ma’at and Isis. The sensuality of Aphrodite. The innocence of Persephone. I was enthralled with these feminine faces of God but I was still on the hunt for Blacker manifestations of Divinity.
I was 20 and working at an advertising agency in Manhattan when I found myself poking around a storeroom. On top of a dusty file cabinet is where I found the book “Forever” by Pete Hamil which, well, changed my life forever. It was in this book that I first learned what and who a babalawo was. From there I researched and fell in love with everything I found. I had names and stories about all the feminine faces of God. Yemaya. Ochun. Obba. Oya. I started my ancestor altar a few months later after having constant thoughts about elephants. I even bought a few elephant statues and when my mom heard about my newest obsession she kindly remarked that her grandmother, my Nana’s mother, had a massive collection of elephants back in the day. I put the elephants on the altar alongside a cup of water and a white candle. The first time I sat down at my altar I cried like a baby and felt something that can only be described as peace.
Okay, so what does this have to do with toxic masculinity and femininity? Hold your horses, dammit. We gotta get some backstory to truly understand how and why toxicity of any kind hurts us all. Contrary to popular belief, Black folks of the diaspora had their own connection with the Most High before someone labeled them heathens in need of correction. In my research, I was able to make some connections between the Black Church and the ways of old. Call and response song structure, Bible study in the middle of the week and service on Sundays, and catching the Holy Ghost. All of these things have their origins in a number of Traditional African Religions. I was convinced that the puritanical origins and patriarchal power structure of this new world had no place for the duality that our African spiritual systems required for balance.
So here we are. Black folk of the diaspora desperately trying to stay alive and thrive in a place that had no real intentions of keeping us anywhere but at the bottom of a fucked up system. Christianity had literally been beaten into us and even though we had definitely made our own adaptations there were lots of chinks in the armor. We could not totally be free with our oppressors God. The same God and bible that was used to justify our enslavement would and could never give us the healing we required after the Maafa.
Toxic masculinity is the direct result of the patriarchy. Being that America is patriarchal in its origins and structure the society we were forced into has required us to go along to get along. Black women are far back as Sojourner Truth were asking tough questions about not only the oppression of Black people but of the suppression and hostility towards Black women from damn near everyone.
What does toxic masculinity look like? Rape culture, hypersexuality of males, child marriages, lack of understanding of the feminine body as well as the suppression of women’s thoughts, sexualities and personal choices all are products of toxic masculinity. It’s a total disregard for the value of womanhood of any kind unless it is in the servitude of men. Women being infantilized to the point of being enslaved by their fathers, brothers, and husbands. This type of culture creates an unsafe environment for women to truly thrive and lead full healthy lives. There is always a chance that your womanhood will be violated simply for existing within this paradigm.
During slavery, this toxicity was compounded for Black women. Not only were we worked like mules in the fields, kitchens and the rooms of Massa’s House but we had to deal with the backlash from our own men. Defeated, humiliated and emasculated, lots of Black men imitated the master’s hatred of his own women and projected it on to their own. If Black people were lowest on the totem pole of society then surely the Black Woman was the lower than the Black Man. Nevermind that she suffered the same if not sometimes a worse fate than her male counterpart. She was worked to death like her man. She was raped and bred against her will as her man was farmed out to neighboring plantations to sow more seeds to produce good strong nigger stock. It was a cycle of abuse that created a negative feedback loop between the sexes. Each was resentful of the other and yet they continued to suffer under the same heavy blanket of inescapable oppression.
So what does toxic femininity look like? On social media the term ‘pick me’ gets thrown around a lot and it is defined by a woman’s attitude towards male servitude at the expense of her own desires and needs. Oshun Iyaibeji Shango recognized the term ‘pick me’ was being used to further degrade women by other women and has pushed for a more apt definition: male-centered women. Often times an oppressed group will be split into two distinctive factions: the ones who are the with the shits and the ones who aint. Usually, the ones who are with the shits are just folks who have resigned to the fate of their oppression and internalized it as a way of not receiving the harsh backlash of rebellion. A male-centered woman will try to distance herself from the perceived weakness of her womanhood in an effort to elevate her status within the structure. She will play up the attributes that make her a “good” woman: her cooking skills, her lack of sexual interest outside of a committed monogamous relationship, her ability to withstand and tolerate abuse. This woman does not feel confident in her ability to negotiate the relationship and gender equality she truly desires and will suppress her own interests to the point where you might begin to believe this woman hates herself and anyone who shares the label of ‘woman’ with her. She’s not like the other fast tailed women, she stays home and waits for her man to come home from doing God-knows-what. She doesn’t question a man because his logic supersedes her feminine intuition. She will even claim to think like a man. A lady in the street and a freak in the sheets.
Photo courtesy of The intimacy Blog
Conversely, a woman who aint with the shits might swing the pendulum too far in the other direction. Instead of recognizing that we need a balance of masculine and feminine energies she will be a staunch misandrist. Ready and willing to cut off any and all connections to masculine vibrations. She will even go so far to suggest that we kill male children as they are born to ensure a female-only society. I’m guessing a few males will be required to procreate but aside from their chromosome contribution these men are deemed useless.
Toxicity of any kind is out and out wrong.
Divinity, true Divinity, is the combination of masculine and feminine principles and qualities. The Chinese concept of Yin and Yang highlight the complementary qualities of the light and dark. If men are the sun, women are the moon. If men are hot, women are cold. If men are forceful, women are receptive. For the most part, Abrahamic religions are extremely one-sided in favor of men. Traditional and indigenous spiritual practices almost always stress the importance of both energies.
In the Yoruba tradition of Ifa, the Orisha are intermediaries for God and they all have many lifetimes. The lifetimes, or caminos, reflect a specific ashe or energy that that Orisha carried within that lifetime. In some stories, traditionally masculine energy will have a feminine conflict or realization. Chango was humbled by the power and grace of Yemaya while he was in his womanizer phase. In another story, he came to an understanding with one of his wives, Oya, that her feminine power could not only save his life but rival his own ashe. Obatala has many incarnations where he is presented as a woman. Olokun, residing in the dark depths of the ocean floor, is oftentimes referred to as both male and female. Being that they reside in the part of the sea that is enclosed in darkness, no human has seen their face and therefore cannot confirm or deny that they aren’t both.
So how can we reconcile this toxicity? Right now we are in the midst of a global uprising. Mother nature is sick of our shit. Massive floods, hurricanes, earthquakes and a host of other seemingly natural disasters are coming as a result of mankind's complete disregard for the nurturing energy that feeds and protects us all: the Earth. Women in their physical forms are rebelling en masse: the #metoo movement, the induction of the most diverse group of Senators and states persons in US history and the clusterfuck that is Lifetime’s ‘Surviving R. Kelly’. Women are telling their stories, using their collective power to shine a light on the oppression that is so ingrained in our culture and getting in touch with the Divinity within by returning to the old ways where they were respected instead of oppressed.
We need to start allowing men to show emotions without calling them out of their names and threatening to strip their manhood away. We need to allow women the space and freedom to express themselves and adorn their bodies without tone policing and respectability politics. We need to encourage platonic friendships between men and women without insinuating that the friend zone actually exists. We need to stop telling women to smile and start telling men in that it’s honorable to be loyal and protective of their wives and girlfriends. We need to stop internalizing hateful and distorted messages about what it means to be a man or a woman and understand that we all carry these qualities within us. It took a man and a woman to come together, hopefully in love, and fuse their genetic material to create life. If a woman is to be respected it cannot be contingent on her attractiveness, occupation, style of dress or her proximity to a man. If men are to be cherished it does not have to be because they display the most exaggerated and abusive qualities of unchecked misogyny.
In Zora Neale Hurston’s book ‘Barracoon’ she listens to Cudjoe Kossula Lewis recount the time he first caught a whiff of feminine energy. He was a young man who hadn’t fully come of age when an elder male noticed him noticing a young woman. It was then that the elders decided it was time for Kossula to fully understand what it was to be a man in their society. At no point was he encouraged to overpower a woman with his unbridled masculine energy. In order for Kossula to take his place as a man in the village, he needed to undergo a series of rites and rituals. He tearfully remarked that he was stolen from his home before he was able to complete his rites of passage. Like many Black folks of the Diaspora, the feeling of being culturally disconnected haunts us just like it haunted Kossula and the other men and women who were stripped of their humanity and forced to take part in a power structure that intended to further demonize, diminish and extinguish anything that remotely resembled a cultural identity.
This cycle continues in my controversial Facebook post where I plainly state that Black folks are inherently matriarchal. I have been heavily questioned for my line of thinking. I’ve been called a number of things, including but not limited to: a bed wench, a white supremacist, an extremist, crazy, stupid, a single and bitter woman destined to be alone forever. I’ve been called worse things by better people but the facts stand that I have clearly struck a nerve. While the post is heteronormative and adheres to a traditional binary gender system, in no way am I diminishing the power or contribution of men. I am simply expressing a very complex, and seemingly foreign, concept of Black women having a lot of power within their societies of origin. One thing I didn’t expound on was the need for the protective energy of men. Biologically speaking males are different from females in that they have more physical strength than their feminine counterparts. To fully focus and manifest her magic a woman needs to be protected so that she can concentrate on making things happen.
A lot of philosophical schools of thought lean on the differences between how men and women think, process emotions and express themselves. If we can subscribe to a modality of “boys will be boys” that absolves men of their ability to control themselves then why are we so conflicted when recognizing that each energy has its strengths and weaknesses? As I said, we need both energies but to ignore physiology in the name of culture seems myopic and short-sighted.
The patriarchy hurts everyone in that it limits the power of one sex in favor of the upliftment of the other. Power does not have to mean control or domination. Power is simply power. We all have power and how we choose to exercise that power does not have to be at the expense or the oppression of anyone else.
There is no darkness without light. You don’t know warmth without the memory of cold. There cannot be feminine without masculine. If we want to fix the issue of toxicity we need to embrace both aspects of these natures without reservation. With love. With pride. With a feeling of complete understanding that there is not one without the other.
We were made in God’s image. Let’s stop the BS and start respecting the Divinity in ourselves.
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