«POWER, MONEY, AND SEX(UALITY): THE BLACK MASCULINE PARADIGM A Dissertation Submitted to the Graduate Faculty of the Louisiana State University and ...»
Chapter 4: Black Male Bonding: My Nigga, My Brutha, My Luva For most black men, male bonding plays a critical role in masculine performance. It has become a deep-seated part of the black male’s personality and an integral part of the face he shows the world and his black counterparts (Major and Billson 45). Most have been part of a black male group or had black male friends during their early years into adulthood. Even in adulthood, “hanging with the boys” becomes a fundamental experience. It’s during the formative years that this bonding experience can become a negative or positive influence on masculine performance and behavior. Through a continued analysis of Wright’s Black Boy, Claude Brown’s Manchild in the Promised Land, and Nathan McCall’s Makes Me Wanna Holler, this chapter articulates the influence that peer groups have on individual males construction of masculinity and demonstrates how this influence is strengthen by the social and structural communication of the family and the community.
That is, how well do the family and community monitor and address issues of masculine behavior that is acted out in the peer group? Also this chapter discusses the struggle some black males face and why they seek an alternative masculinity, which is usually more violent and homophobic, rather than empowering. And finally to show the importance of heterosexuality as defining of masculinity, this chapter, using James Hardy’s B-Boy Blues, briefly explores gay black males who are on the “down low,” and their struggle to maintain a masculine identity.
Though Wright later in during his teen years feel the influence of a peer group, his construction of a masculine identity is influenced early by men at a bar that he frequents while his mother is at work. At the age of six, these men allow Wright to drink and pay him a nickel to recite vulgar language to women. He runs “from person to person, laughing, hiccoughing, and spewing out filth that made them [the men] bend double with glee (24). With a gang of children, Wright roams the streets, begging pennies from passers-by, haunting the doors of saloons, wandering farther and farther away from home each day. His mother beats him but she soon realizes that more parental control is needed to change Wright’s habits. Finally, she places Wright and his brother in the keeping of an elderly black woman who is always aware of their every movement. It is this monitoring that keeps Wright’s influences in check, as compared to that of Brown and McCall.
Though there are universal prescriptions that are present at any given point in black male history, some prescriptions are determined by the current climate of social issues in society. For instance, like many black boys, Wright had to pay admittance into his peer group’s company by subscribing to certain racial sentiments towards whites because racism was one of the biggest issues that confronted black males at the crossroads. These sentiments are expressed in many conversations that Wright and his friends have comically but seriously about whites and racism in America: “White folks set on their asses day and night, but leta nigger do something, and they get every bloodhound that was every born and put e’m on his trail” (93). The reality of these discussions played out in the throwing battles between black and white boys of Wright’s era who had to deal with their place and space in society Preteen black male bonding usually focuses on strengthening the camaraderie among other males, while females are relegated to a remote island of life. To be associated with females at this point is a sign of weakness, but later as puberty sets in, those that do not have a girl are viewed as weak. However, it is at this point that female interaction is most important because it may desensitize the hardcore masculinity that develops in boys at this time. Wright explains this
masculine development as moral schooling:
We had somehow caught the spirit of the role of our sex.
..... We spoke boastfully in bass voice; we used the word “nigger” to prove the tough fiber of our feelings; we spouted excessive profanity as a sign of our coming manhood. We pretended callousness toward the injunction of our parents; and we strove to convince one another that our decisions stemmed from ourselves and ourselves alone. Yet, we frantically concealed how dependent we were upon one another. (91) So here Wright learns the tough language and defiance from his group. If nothing changes, he will approach females in the same fashion which can establish within his consciousness a warped view of female sexuality.
It’s no coincidence that Wright’s first test at his southern school was not on paper but rather with another boy. Wright has to prove that he can take care of himself and that he is someone worth knowing and being around. This fight is fueled by the chanting crowd, and probably would not have occurred if this crowd was not present because then there would be no reward, no witness to spread the news of the victory, with which establishes his masculine toughness.
Here one witnesses how cool pose can be destructive for black males
because it is being used to resolve interpersonal conflicts violently:
To be cool, in terms of presenting one’s self as tough, requires that males structure their behavior to give the impression that they are independent, always in control and emotionally detached. Typically [then] adherence to the toughness norm is symbolically displayed by appearing and remaining cool in social situations perceived as potentially threatening to one’s self-image or physical safety (W. Oliver 15).
Thus, as one notices and continue to witness in the lives of Brown and McCall, sometimes violence is perceived as the only tool for achieving a sense of masculinity, respect, and status, a “form of social achievement” ( G Cazenave, 645).
The need and pressure to be apart of a peer group often forces some black males to create alternate realities for their life. Wright comments on how he conceals his impoverished home life while seeking his peer group’s company, never letting them guess how much he is being kept out of the world in which they lived by his female relatives, valuing their casual friendships but “acutely and selfconsciously hiding the reality of his life with a quick smile and a ready phrase” (148). He practices this technique during lunch time at school by telling others he is never hungry at noon and simultaneously “swallowing his saliva as he saw them split open loaves of bread and line them with juicy sardines” (148). Such disparity between home life and that of other males often leads one to take drastic measures, as one witnesses in Promised and Holler.
Often Wright, Brown, and McCall find themselves “embittered by the social wasteland of neglect and isolation created by centuries of second class status and ghettoization” (Majors and Billison 50).
However, Wright does find a legal but problematic way of earning money to buy lunch and other materials by selling newspaper supplements; this money makes him more presentable to his peer group. But a black man soon informs him that the supplements distort the image of black people. This is a powerful social lesson for Wright.
Socially he learns that some seemingly positive opportunities may have negative underlying aspects. He also learns that to survive you have to work hard, and persist, so pushes on to find another job that provides him with funds, which allows him to participate fully with his peers.
Black male bonding and its effects are somewhat limited in Wright’s world because the physical movement of black males is regulated by racism. Also the type of masculinity that Wright seeks to participate in is rather harmless compared to that of Brown and McCall. These latter protagonists acquire and perform masculine prescriptions that are life threatening rather than empowering, because of the seemingly vast urban and suburban landscapes in which they live. Their frustration develops out of social and economic neglect of black communities (Major and Billson 50).
At the beginning of Promised, Brown’s future is on the line as he faces the court for stealing sheets and garments off clothes lines to sell with his gang. All the members of the gang (Turk, Tito, Bucky and others) are frequently sent to detention centers. Brown is placed at the youth house to wait for the bus to Warrick which arrives a few days later; it is here that he thinks back how his childhood friends and companions lead him to this dismal point in his life.
Brown’s peer group has so much influence on him because their behavior often goes unchecked by adults, who are too busy making a living to notice things are going terrible wrong. Danny, a next door neighbor of Brown’s, clarifies this when he is entrusted to walk Brown to school. Instead, he teaches Brown to play hookey and steal sweet potatoes. Brown misses twenty-one school days that year. The constant beatings he receives do not stop his frequent visits to the children center. His peer group takes the place of his family because he can relate to them. They all are daring, tough, dirty, ragged, curse a lot and have a great love for trouble, like him.
Brown like many black males is part of a community that can not hear the cries of its black men. For black males who have been locked out of the “social and economic mainstream, running with a gang can be a form of social achievement” (Major and Billson 50). His mom is too forgiving and tries to understand his delinquent activity; his father is too busy drinking his problems away to teach him how to be a better man. Pimp, his brother, begins performing the same masculinity ten year-old Brown displayed. Brown’s father does try to talk to him and give him words of wisdom through the pea and nutshell game. Ten times Brown picks the wrong shell. His father’s comment are loaded with a reality that Brown wouldn’t learn until later: “that’s jis what you been doing’ all your life, lookin’ for pea that ain’t there. And I’m might ‘fraid that’s how you gon end your whole life, lookin’ for that pea” (71). However, the challenge for black males is not finding the pea but the right kind of pea and choosing the right path. But politicization never allows for choice, only group commonality. This commonality of urban life is what hood films confirm and what makes them so influential on the black male psyche.
Similar to Wright, Brown also wants to participate in the prescribed masculinity at school. He too only wants money for decent clothes to wear to school, which his father refuses to buy, failing to understand the importance of appearance to teenage males. So Brown sells pot and plays craps with paddy boys for money. Because he lags behind his class counterparts for not attending class and doing his schoolwork and doesn’t have an adequate wardrobe, Brown starts to go to school to sell drugs. He spends most of his time at Tito’s, whose mother is never home, drinking, smoking pot, and having sex. In his mind, it is just something to do. His dad finds out and kicks him out of the house. Brown voluntarily catches a bus back ‘home’ to Warwick to the family that understands him. So far Brown and his friend’s ages allow them to only be sent to delinquent centers but as they approach their late teens and finally manhood, they find the legal systems treatment of black men is far worse than that of black children.
Peer groups are also very influential on black males’ behavior and their view of women. You may recount Johnny’s treatment of Clara on the roof we examined in a previous chapter. Soon after this incident,
Brown is given more ‘wisdom’ on women from Johnny:
he told us never to beg a bitch for her body. So I listened.
I listened to all that stuff he used to tell us about how to pull bitches, how to make them do what you wanted them to do, and how to keep them yours forever. ….It’s easy to believe a guy and listen to what he’s saying when you see he’s doing all the things he’s talking about” (111).
This latter statement reveals the powerful influence that negative media images have on black males when there are very few or misguided alternatives. Clearly one can see the damage this view of women has on black culture; however, “through physical enslavement and the current chains and images of psychological enslavement,
characterized by a confused self-concept” (Hill 19). This confusion is the result of the historical images black males have inherited that continues to sabotage many of their efforts for true manhood (Akbar 12).
Violence, next to heterosexuality, becomes the stabilizer for prescribed masculinity but functions in complex and often deadly ways. This prescription is learned by Brown as it is filtered through the lived experience of his group. At the age of ten, Brown recalls joining a group that call themselves the Buccaneers. His memories of this time in his life demonstrate the powerful influence of black male peer
groups that go unchecked and challenged:
they adopted me, and they started teaching me things. At that time, they were just the street corner hoodlums, the delinquents, the little teenage gangsters of the future.
They were outside of things, but they know the people who were into things, all the older hustlers and the prostitutes, the bootleggers, the pimps, the number runners. They knew the professional thieves, the people who dealt the guns, the stickup artists, and the people that sold reefers.
I was learning how to make homemade drugs and how to steal things. I was learning all the things that I need to know in the streets. The main thing I was learning was our code (260).
In Home Is a Dirty Street, Useni Perkins describes how the street culture Brown relates to teaches black youth to be men because the
street is the one place they can find genuine sympathy to their plight:
the curriculum of this asphalt institution incorporates many of the same courses that are found in the formal school setting. Political science is learned from the unscrupulous exploits of corrupt politicians; history from years of discrimination and economic deprivation; biology from youths smoking marijuana and having sex in dirty alleys;