It’s a Man’s World: The Politics of Black Masculinity

(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.

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