Don’t ask me how it happened, but channel surfing today landed me on Good Times. I was initially excited…I remembered all the words to the theme song, and even the riff at the end. Thelma is as beautiful as I remember, and with fresh eyes, I realize that the producers dressed JJ like a black Gilligan, from Gilligan’s Island. The show all didn’t shy away from issues related to the black experience–from high blood pressure to busing. While the family wasn’t perfect, you could see the love, and Florida and James where dedicated to each other before they killed him off. Speaking of killing the head of the house off…
Before I get to that part, I want to focus on an episode I watched were Florida went to a women’s feminist group with Willona. The topic of seeking fulfillment outside of the home got Florida feeling very defensive in her role as a homemaker. While the family was clearly poor and living in the projects, James insisted that he be the financial provider. He of course, was a product of his times. Upon discovering that his wife attended a feminist group, he angrily says, “A woman is only good for two rooms–the kitchen and the bedroom!”
This of course, starts a huge fight in which Florida says that she’s reconsidering her initial defensiveness of the feminist group. She wanted a life outside of the home.
When you look at when this sitcom was created, 1974-79, it’s like looking into the past at the exact moment it all went wrong in the black community, and the unintended consequences of the “War on Poverty” blew the already fragile unit to smithereens.
If we would have embraced the basics of feminism–freedom to work, equal pay for equal work, vote, equal education, control our reproductive lives, own property–that would have addressed black women feeling trapped in marriages they didn’t want to be in, for whatever reason. But for many women in Florida’s position or worse, they ditched the husband hunting and traded all that for another type of patriarchal long-term arrangement: Welfare.
It wasn’t feminism that destroyed the black family, but government subsidized husbands. This government husband was a very jealous kind of partner, who always insisted that the recipient never stray from his rules. Her commitment meant she could never marry another. If she “cheated,” she and her family would be cut off from the resources that this new kind of protector and provider gave.
How feminism got embroiled into socialized husbands, I can’t say. If black women of the time were never offered this alternative, but utilized the agency feminism (of the time…not today’s wacky crazy), in time, black women and men might have had a better chance of making it work. Instead, men where encouraged by default to be outside the family unit while the “new kind of husband” continued to made its demands.
To make Florida fit into this “welfare mom” narrative, the producers decided to kill of the family’s patriarch, and force Florida, who had no skills outside the home to seek her “new husband,” on welfare. This new subsidized patriarch had similar demands that James did, minus the conjugal stuff. She couldn’t work, go to an elite school, or escape being in poverty. Nothing really changed, except for which patriarchy the black woman had to answer to.
If poor black women would have never been offered the option of a new kind of husband, but instead took advantage of having more educational and career options, reproductive freedom, took advantage of the gains from the Civil Rights movement, the black community could have been a very different universe than it is today.
Now is this me blaming black women for all the ills of the black community with the poison fruit of a twisted matriarchy, you’re wrong. If you were a poor black woman in an abusive marriage or otherwise feeling trapped, and a reliable outside entity told you that you and your children will always be provided for, never go hungry, and comfortable housing, and would give you MORE money the more children you had, what might you have done?
The idea that some think black women should be blamed and accept responsibility for choosing welfare and feminism over the black men is an outright lie. Poor black women chose stability–food to fill their children’s bellies, money to pay the bills, and a warm home to live in.
But I can’t help but wonder what might have happened in an alternative reality, if welfare had never been an option, but instead there was a concerted effort to TRULY empower poor black women to be independent, and free to choose a husband based on love and shared values, not desperation.
Guess we’ll never know.
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