(This article was first published in the GC Advocate in November 2007.)
Works discussed in this essay:
- Our Living Manhood: Literature, Black Power and Masculine Ideology by Rolland Murray (U. of Pennsylvania Press, 2007, 168 pages)
- Once You Go Black: Choice, Desire and the Black American Intellectual by Robert F. Reid-Pharr (New York U. Press, 2007, 208 pages)
- Manning the Race: Reforming Black Men in the Jim Crow Era by Marlon B. Ross (New York University Press, 2004, 498 pages)
Back in June, while waiting in O’Hare Airport for a flight back to New York from Chicago, I picked up and thumbed through the pages of the Chicago Sun-Times and I was struck by an editorial titled “Pull up Your Pants, Lift Up Your Head,” by one Bill Maxwell. In the article Maxwell takes aim at the hip-hop fashion phenomenon known as “sagging,” which has been in the news in recent months because several American cities have begun to pass ordinances making the style illegal. Maxwell argues that this particular fashion has its origins in prison, where a low slung waistband is a sign of one’s sexual availability (he cites television’s Judge Greg Mathis as the source of this insightful information). He goes on to suggest that young black men would cease to wear their pants in this style if they knew its origins. In effect, Maxwell’s argument seems to suggest that if only black men embraced a more homophobic ethos all our cultural problems would be solved.
Part of me recognizes this article for what is: just another disposable piece of reactionary conservative armchair sociology. On the other hand, I also find it instructive for its attention to gender in the political discourse on black masculinity, and for its steep, abiding nostalgia for a stable past when, as Archie Bunker would say, “goils were goils and men were men.”
I mention the Maxwell article because it illuminates three particular unifying themes in the books reviewed here. For one thing, all three books reviewed here seek to historicize black manhood to confront precisely this sort of nostalgia that Maxwell produces. Unlike Maxwell, however, Ross, Reid-Pharr, and Murray all demonstrate that ideas about appropriate black manhood (not to mention ideas about authentic blackness itself) have always been in a constant state of negotiation and re-negotiation throughout American history. Secondly, all three books are clearly invested in dismantling homophobic ideology, but they move beyond the simple platitudes about the black homosexual’s exclusion from the black community to examine how same-sex desire is a fundamental part of all masculine ideology and nationalist projects, black or otherwise.
Lastly and most importantly, all three books actively insist on the idea that black men have been more than just passive victims in their own presentation. In making that claim these authors recognize they are tip-toeing through a rhetorical minefield, where conservative ideologues wield ideas about “personal responsibility,” rejecting victim-hood, and “just getting over” injustices of the past as a way of trivializing the structural inequalities of American racism and favoring a pro-corporate, anti-government public policy based on mythical notions of meritocracy and individual achievement. And yet, I find it compelling and inspiring that these intellectuals are willing to take the risk, knowing that any change in the conditions and representations of black manhood must come from the realization that black men have had an active hand in those representations.
While Robert Reid-Pharr is the only one of the three who explicitly (and I believe, appropriately) frames this concept as a philosophically existential matter, the theme of an existential reclamation of agency runs throughout all three books. As Reid-Pharr boldly suggests in the introduction to Once You Go Black: “the Black American has not only had a great hand in the creation of America and thus the world but also and importantly…the Black American, quiet as its kept, has had a substantial role in the creation of himself”.
Manning the Race: Reforming Black Men in the Jim Crow Era is an ambitious intellectual history of black manhood reform in the New Negro Movement, dating roughly from the 1890s to the 1940s. Ross is a professor of literature, but he goes against the disciplinary grains, surveying a broad range of intellectual production in this period including race tracts, photographic race albums, autobiography, novels and sociological studies. Since it covers such a massive amount of ground, Manning the Race can be a dense read at times, but it rewards a patient reading.
Ross examines what he calls the “double paradox of Jim Crow disentitlement,” a concept that explains the particular challenges of New Negro manhood reform, but also resonates in contemporary political discourse on black manhood. He writes:
“The more black men attempt to man the race through a fit masculinity patterned on dominant gender norms, the more they risk emulating the white ruling men whose Jim Crow racial/sexual codes unman them. At the same time, the more that African Americans resist the gender norms set up by the Jim Crow color line, the more they seem to lack the resources of manhood power and influence to man the race for a defeat of the very Jim Crow regime that unmans them.”
According to Ross the work of modernizing the Negro is dominated by three genres of writing in particular: 1) new-century race treatises and anthologies, such as race tracts and race photo albums, 2) New Negro personal narratives, including autobiography and fiction, and 3) professional sociological studies – most significantly W.E.B. DuBois’s pioneering study, The Philadelphia Negro, and the work of sociologists Robert E. Park, E. Franklin Frazier and others of the so-called Chicago School of Sociology based at the University of Chicago.
What sets Ross’s work apart is his attention to matters of sexuality in the construction of black manhood during this era. The spectacle of black sexuality has long been a part of racist discourse in America, and it was often invoked as a sign of inherent difference and racial inferiority. But a curious thing happened around the turn of the century as anthropologists began to embrace ideas of cultural relativism and Freudian concepts began to filter into intellectual artistic and cultural practice, calling into question the sanctity and sanity of bourgeois Victorian sexual mores. This became shaky territory for black intellectuals because it created a space to celebrate the healthy vitality of black sensuality, but it could also reinforce stereotypes of black inferiority. The literary work of the New Negro/Harlem Renaissance certainly illustrated the advantages and pitfalls that a focus on black sexuality could create for the black intellectual. Ross looks at the variety of strategies for black reformers in this era and sees them engaged in what he refers to as “unsexing, desexing or resexing” the race. At times these various strategies would overlap, employed by the same individuals in a simultaneous yet contradictory fashion.
The theme of mobility was among the most important for the New Negro. No longer would the black majority be located in the American South, as urban migration to the industrial North began to happen around the turn of the century. That white supremacist edict that Negroes should “stay in their place” was not just a figure of speech, but spoke to the very real anxieties about the New Negro’s mobility. That anxiety wasn’t just the province of Negrophobic whites, but was also held by black race leaders themselves who were trying to make sense of both the exciting possibilities and potential dangers of this new mobility.
Focusing on the theme of mobility, Ross theorizes from abstractions about race down to the particularities of the black body. For instance, he sees a profound anxiety in the founding of interracial political organizations such as the NAACP where black and white persons, specifically black men and white women, would share the same spaces as equal participants in a racial uplift organization.
Certainly the South has its peculiar history of close proximity paradoxically combined with rigid social strictures, but this New Negro phenomenon of educated, self-determined Negroes sharing space on equal footing with whites, and doing so in mass numbers was something altogether different, and not all were happy about it. Ross cites a passage in the Autobiography of W.E.B. Du Bois where Du Bois writes of his distaste for one of the NAACP’s founders Oswald Garrison Villard, who married a white Southern woman from Georgia, and adopted her stringent racial codes about not allowing any blacks (and probably not any Jews either, Du Bois speculates) to set foot in their home. As DuBois writes, “I knew the reasons for this discrimination, but I could hardly be expected to be happy over them or to be his close friend.”
This is but one example of the cross-gender and cross-racial tensions of the period, and there is much to chew on in Manning the Race. Ross brings fresh analysis to a variety of pivotal moments and statements of the era such as Booker T. Washington’s writings and speeches, Robert Park’s sociological career and his infamous aphorism that the Negro is “the lady of the races.” Ross also makes some interesting comments on philosopher Alain Locke’s self-presentation as an effete high-brow aesthete and how other intellectuals, namely Langston Hughes and Claude McKay, responded to his image by trying to assert their own manhood as artists of “the people.”
Ultimately Ross pays close attention to the self-production of black intellectuals, and this is what sets this work apart as important scholarship on the study of black manhood. He ends by recounting how some colleagues of his questioned why a nearly 400 page book on the topic of black masculinity was necessary when a mere peer-reviewed article might suffice. He also calls into question the over-reliance on contemporary pop culture and scandal in discussions of black manhood. “By insisting on the complexity, intricacy, subtlety and richness of black manhood’s cultural history, I hope – at the least – that this book also resists this long-standing tendency to reduce black manhood identity to the shock of the latest fad in clothing or the prurience of the most recent racial scandal.”
One of the great flashpoints in the history of black American masculinity was the period of the 1960s and 1970s that included the Black Power Movement and the Black Arts Movement. Rolland Murray evaluates the literature of this period in a lean, but scrupulous book, Our Living Manhood: Literature, Black Power and Masculine Ideology. The title is a reference to Ossie Davis’s famous eulogy for Malcolm X, one of black America’s most visible and inspiring symbols of black manhood.
Murray surveys black literature of the 1960s and 1970s paying attention to how the assertion of black manhood became the focal point of the movements of that era. He begins the study with a look at James Baldwin’s The Fire Next Time (1963) and No Name in the Street (1972) in which Baldwin wrote on the Nation of Islam and the Black Panther Party respectively. Baldwin’s relationship to Black Power is of course one of the most vexing parts of his intellectual legacy as many feel he acquiesced to the homophobia of the movement instead of challenging it. However, despite the fact that Murray sees Baldwin’s critique of Black Power as “incomplete” he acknowledges that “Baldwin allows us to begin telling an alternative story about the evolution of nationalism, one in which the instantiation of racial solidarity rooted in the masculine also produced its potential undoing.”
Here Murray’s critique builds upon the controversial and ground-breaking work of Michele Wallace, whose 1978 book Black Macho and the Myth of the Superwoman was a scathing and scandalous airing of dirty laundry. In it Wallace suggested that the black power movement was more about the reclamation of the black man’s rightful place atop the patriarchal black family and the black man’s revenge on the sanctity of white womanhood than it was about the uplift and self-determination of the black community. As she infamously put it, the objective of the male-dominated movement seemed to be “a white woman in every bed and black woman under every heel.”
Murray seeks to add to Wallace’s work by emphasizing that there was perhaps more of a critique of the masculine ideology of mid-century black nationalism going on during the movement than we previously believed. Naturally, Murray had to address Eldridge Cleaver’s nasty depiction of James Baldwin in Soul on Ice. He points to Baldwin’s response to Cleaver in which he tries to distinguish between his own homosexuality and the forced homosexuality of the prison experience. Baldwin wrote in No Name in the Street, “I was confused in his mind with the utter debasement of the male – with all those faggots, punks and sissies, the sight and sound of whom, in prison must have made him vomit more than once.” Murray sees Baldwin’s formulation here as an attempt to reassert his own masculine authority to speak for the race, albeit a faulty and evasive one.
Murray goes on to survey some novels of the 1960s and 1970s that interrogated masculine ideology in Black Nationalist politics. His choice of genre is significant. The Black Arts Movement privileged the genres of drama and poetry as more authentic forms of black resistance and more effective means of getting the message to the people than novels. Thus, Murray finds that some black male writers, particularly John O. Killens, John Edgar Wideman, and Hal Bennett among others, used the longer sustained form of the novel to carry out a critique of the masculine excesses of Black Nationalism. Hal Bennett’s Lord of Dark Places (1970) provides one of the most damning critiques of an overemphasis on patriarchal domination in Black Nationalist politics and the black church, as well as an astonishing critique of the culture of racism in America as a whole. (In fact, I stumbled on to Murray’s book while Googling for more information on Lord of Dark Places.) I was delighted to see that Murray paid attention to what I believe to be one of the more important and underappreciated satirical novels in black literature. The main character of the novel, Joe Market, is the best embodiment of James Baldwin’s idea (quoted earlier in Murray’s discussion of Baldwin and Cleaver) that “straight cats invent faggots so that they can sleep with them and not become faggots themselves.” Market is a hustler in the classical gay sense of the term, pimping himself out to men for money, all the while maintaining his own staunch heterosexuality. The pornographic satire that Hal Bennett creates includes a critique of the sexual hypocrisy and economic corruption of the black church, the condescending fascination of white liberals with black sexuality, and the sexually charged nature of the culture of racial segregation in general. Unfortunately, Murray’s analysis of Lord of Dark Places is too brief (for my tastes at least), but it is encouraging to see the novel slowly being reappraised by literary critics.
Last, but certainly not least, is Once You Go Black: Choice, Desire and the Black American Intellectual by the GC’s own Robert Reid-Pharr. In Imagined Communities, his famous study of nationalism, Benedict Anderson suggested that a “Copernican spirit” is necessary to disrupt and dismantle nationalistic thinking. Reid-Pharr takes up that challenge with Once You Go Black by taking aim at some of the most sacrosanct notions in Black Nationalist thought. Chief among Reid-Pharr’s interventions is a direct confrontation with the idea that modern black Americans are essentially the same persons as those black Americans who were enslaved under chattel slavery. Instead, Reid-Pharr insists upon his own modernity as a black intellectual, as well as the modernity of the contemporary black American community as a whole. Suffice to say you won’t find appeals to reparations or “post-traumatic slave disorder” in this book.
One of the most provocative chapters in the book is “Saint Huey” an evaluation of the life and career of Huey Newton, co-founder of the Black Panther Party. The cover of Once You Go Black is adorned with a striking domestic photo of Huey Newton standing in his apartment, shirtless and looking well-chiseled and buff, wearing white pants, holding a copy of Bob Dylan’s Highway 61 Revisited. The photo is meant to be a jarring juxtaposition to the more famous image of Huey Newton (one that has adorned many a black college dorm-room wall) seated on a huge wicker chair decked out in black leather jacket and beret with a spear in one hand and a rifle in the other. In the chapter Reid-Pharr effectively argues that any serious analysis of the Black Panther Party’s significance must take into account the carefully crafted self-presentation and images of the organization. Newton’s dashing good looks were a cultural currency utilized by the Party, as were their famous images of defiant blackness represented by black sunglasses, black berets, black leather jackets and afros.
This emphasis on “style” in Black Nationalist politics became even more prevalent in the 1970s when “black consciousness” entered the American mainstream. Nowhere was the power of style seen more clearly than in the so-called blaxploitation films of the 1970s. In the last chapter, “Queer Sweetback,” Reid-Pharr analyzes Melvin Van Peebles’s groundbreaking film Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song (1971). This film, like much of the blaxploitation cinema that followed it, was all about style and spectacle, and Reid-Pharr makes much of the fact that the main character, Sweetback, only speaks six lines throughout the whole movie. While Reid-Pharr doesn’t spend much time discussing contemporary hip-hop, one can see how hip-hop’s defiant posture evolved out of blaxploitation era film by way of the black power movement, and thus we end up with a popular cultural art-form that is almost all style and emptied of much of its political substance. Perhaps my favorite representation of this phenomenon was Public Enemy’s quick-stepping drill team which adopted the look of the Panthers (sunglasses and berets) and the intimidating pose of the Nation’s Fruit of Islam, but with none of the actual self-defense skills and training. They are clearly trained dancers on stage for show. While I find some genuine creativity in Public Enemy’s sound and I respect Chuck D’s political sincerity in recent years, it’s hard to take “Fight the Power” seriously when one knows the rights to such a song are owned and distributed by some multinational media conglomerate. (And, needless to say, the embarrassment that is Flavor Flav pretty much speaks for itself these days.)
It is worth noting that two of the reviewed authors here, Reid-Pharr and Ross, are self-identified gay men who have announced themselves as such in their work. (I can assume that Rolland Murray is straight, from the acknowledgements to his wife and children in the book, but that is only an assumption.) Readers familiar with other works on black masculinity studies will notice a preponderance of works in the field by and about gay men. The GCs Africana Studies Group recently hosted a successful conference on Black Masculinity in 2005, and I heard through the gossip grapevine that the overwhelming presence of openly gay men in the conference did not go unnoticed by some detractors. This brings up one of my own pet peeves about the political discourse around black masculinity, that it seems no black achievement is considered legitimate unless it is carried out by heterosexual black men. Sure, there is concern when we see high incarceration rates and lackadaisical attitudes toward black fatherhood. But too much of the rhetoric around the statistics that more black women graduate from college than black men strikes me as so much Moynihanism, and it unfortunately trivializes the genuine achievements of black women. Likewise, we would also do well to acknowledge that the black pool of genius has been populated with many lesbians and gay men and that their contributions shouldn’t be marked with an asterisk.
Near the end of Once You Go Black, Robert Reid-Pharr writes, “We should not continue with the logic in which there is no distinction between the enslaved body and the body that now participates in the writing of these lines.” Clearly, such a statement is fraught with troubling implications and I suspect it will be met with a great deal of resistance as the book makes its way through academic circles. One of the real challenges of the book is that Reid-Pharr’s rejection of victim-hood sounds dangerously similar to the rhetoric of cultural conservatism. (Case in point, the title of Bill Cosby’s latest screed: Come On People: On the Path from Victims to Victors.) Yet, what I find most compelling about Once You Go Black is that it is a deeply local and deeply ethical book and Reid-Pharr is willing to risk the misunderstanding in order to insist on the importance of black political agency. There is a refreshing honesty in the way Reid-Pharr directs his comments toward readers who are most likely to pick up the book – academic and non-academic intellectuals who are concerned with black and queer studies – rather than posturing toward some mythical mass audience of street-corner readers. Likewise, Reid-Pharr is concerned with announcing his own position – as a professional academic intellectual, as a black gay man, as an American citizen – as honestly as possible. Reid-Pharr uses the particularities of the black American intellectual condition to suggest possibilities for a more progressive intellectual practice at this critical political moment. Once You Go Black is very much a post-9/11 book, particularly in Reid-Pharr’s analysis of “innocence” in political discourse, considering that “America’s fascination with its own presumed innocence has become part and parcel of the many apparatuses with which our country justifies and enacts its dominance and violence.” What is at stake in his book, and in the others reviewed in this essay, is a reevaluation not just of the history of black masculinity and Black Nationalist politics, but of the ethics of intellectual practice itself.