«POWER, MONEY, AND SEX(UALITY): THE BLACK MASCULINE PARADIGM A Dissertation Submitted to the Graduate Faculty of the Louisiana State University and ...»
and the physical sciences are taught by learning how to endure elements unfit from human consumption. …[The student’s] classroom is his total environment, the alleys, pool halls, taverns, tenements, and the streets on which he lives. By the age of twelve he has usually taken all the required courses which are thrust upon him. His entry into the street culture, as a full-fledged member, is not certified by a diploma but, rather, by his proven ability to operate within the sanctions of his community. Graduation from the Street Institution never comes for most. Instead the black child spends the major portion of his life repeating the same courses, so that by the time he reaches adulthood it is almost impossible for him to change his orientation to life. The ghettocolony child automatically becomes a ghettocolony man (15).
The key reference here is knowledge. Perkins is describing how black male youth is taught the necessary skills to survive in an urban environment. A formal education does not provide these skills that will later be needed in adulthood. Perkins also shows how Brown, like many black males, feels alienated from societal institutions, particularly high school because of their crude environments. This alienation may have resulted from a lack of money needed to by clothes or school supplies which enable one to gain equal status with his peers, that lack of parental and community monitoring or the more complex issue of other social institutions such as prisons and delinquent centers, and others’ failure to address behavior problems adequately and accurately. Black males who lack access or the ability to navigate traditional, legal routes to success are trained by groups like the Buccaneers, “who all have to live for one another” (260).
This bonding pays off by providing Brown with a likely ally during one of his stays at Warwick. Brown establishes the reputation of a “bad nigger,” so anyone who can take him down achieves instant masculine fame. The contender’s name is Black Joe. He grabs Brown by the collar. Brown is ready to defend himself but a friend that he met earlier in his life, K.B., comes to support him. K.B. is already established at Warwick. In a matter of seconds, he knocks Black Joe to the ground. K.B. makes it clear that Brown is his nigger, and “anybody who fucks wit Brown might as well be fucking with him” (135). This act strengthens the bond between K.B. and Brown but can lead to more violence if Black Joe seeks revenge. Brown and other black males spend so much time performing masculinity that they avoid more cultural enriching activities that could help expand their personal, social, and political consciousness (Majors and Billsons 45).
Maintaining one’s reputation sometimes means that black men may have a hard time being down to earth with each other; they have to be cool and hold their own, especially around the fellas. This duality is exposed during a stay at the youth house for delinquent kids when Toto confronts Brown about his bullying. Brown begins disrespecting Toto’s mother. Toto must fight now “because a guy who won’t fight when somebody talks about his mother is the worst kind of punk” (61). This fight is necessary in order to protect Toto’s reputation within the group and the community despite the fact that Brown is one of his best friends. If Toto does not act in this prescribed way, he will be quickly ostracized and labeled as non-masculine, inviting others to further humiliate him.
This type of behavior exhibited by the males relates to the thug image, an image that blends cool and toughness. But more troubling, it disrupts and overshadows the brotherly love they have for each other. This image in some instances affords black males like Toto and Brown some measure of protection when walking the streets late at night in their environments, but the image also carries “ a set of connotations—self-fulfilling prognoses—not a lot of which are either flattering or life preserving” (Cose 5), and the associations produced are likely to get thuggish black males tossed out of restaurants, refused admittance to stores and pulled over by the police, derailing access to the white masculine design. However some black males see their behavior consequential only in the instances that it happens;
therefore, they fail to realize “there associated expectations foretell a future circumscribed by the limits of someone else’s imagination, those self-fulfilling prophecies that will have them [hustling] for pennies instead of reaching for greatness (4).
At a delinquent institution called Warrick, one is informed how premeditated brutality helps maintain one’s masculinity. This is especially relevant to the guys who are afraid somebody would think they were homosexuals. Brown relates how these guys would stab other males or hit them in the head with something while they were asleep to establish themselves as brute men who could never be homosexual, even if they were. Black males are able to survive in Warrick because of the urban lessons they learned on the street. One had to retaliate for any offense, according to Brown, to prevent future
Don’t mess with a man’s money, his woman, or his manhood. This was what gang fights were all about. If somebody messed with your brother, you could just punch him in his mouth, and this was all right. But if anybody was to mess with your sister, you had to really fuck him up—break his leg or stab him in the eye with an ice pick, something vicious (255).
The maintenance of masculinity overrules the adage “that it’s better to
masculinity is being preserved (Madhubuti 17). Brown recalls being beaten up by a group of boys when he refused to give them his quarter, leaving him with a bloody nose. An adult eventually warns the boys off. Brown’s concern is not his bloody nose but the fact that he still has his quarter. His ability to keep the money symbolizes his manhood, his principles.
As Brown grows older, he can not escape the hold-your-ownmentality. He feels soon he would have to kill someone like Rock, Bubba Williams, or Dewdrop, to keep up his reputation, to become a “bad nigger.” This meant that if you were going to be respected in Harlem, you had to be a “bad nigger”; and if you were going to be a “bad nigger,” you had to be ready to die” (122). To maintain your street membership, there are certain things you have to do, according to Brown: “You had to get in this thing with the whores, and sooner or later you had to use drugs, and sooner or later you had to shoot somebody” (122). Brown’s behavior is what Mancin calls “strategic styles.” These styles are distinct coping characteristics that black males may use to manage social, family, and environmental pressures.
Brown isn’t ready to do any of these things but the alternative is to participate in the white mainstream, a place where he is treated like an object no matter how hard he works, a place where he is socially alienated. During Wright’s time, fist fighting ruled the day, but in Brown’s guns were beginning to filter into the black community and are used as weapons of masculinity; their victims would not get the chance to fight another day.
We see that fighting is used as a last resort prescription during the early training in the maintenance in black masculinity, but eventually a prelude to a much more deadly requirement: drugs. Brown comments on how by 1957 the fight thing had gone out and drugs flooded the black community. This is the poison dagger that makes achieving
access to the hegemonic design because now they can afford the nice clothes, cars, and apartments necessary to perform prescribed masculinity. However black males pay a high price for this type of access, because it places them in direct competition with each other.
This access must be protected at all cost. It is at this point that the handgun becomes an essential signifier for “business” for the black male psyche.
When one takes the dynamics of the prescriptions I have discussed so far, especially the tough, vulgar language and ability to fight over any cause, one recognizes the extensive danger black males face while achieving prescribed masculinity. If one adds to this the ways in which the media has disrupted the black male image and has popularized such negative forms of black masculine performance, it becomes clear why black males are in terrible trouble, why they are killing each other, and why so many end up in prison. The economic lure of drugs makes black males unaware of the fact that they may have money and its materialistic counter parts, but they don’t have an empowering identity. The dream they are living, at any moment, can turn into a nightmare or end in death. Hill attributes the problems of black males to what he calls “the western male seasoning process” which has placed black males at risk (29). “The process is related to machoism and a privileged sex image that psychologically cripples black males’ access to a more empowering masculine design” (29). In other words, the sexual objectification of the black male body since slavery has ripped the very fabric of black masculinity.
In McCall’s Holler, one finds that black male bonding becomes more refined in its training in comparison to Wright and Brown.
However, in Holler, one is able to witness the early effects of black
individual. Early in the novel, one finds McCall admiring what he calls the cool boys in high school as “they dragged long and hard on cigarettes in the boy’s bathroom and ceremoniously passed them among themselves while constantly cuffing their crotches. They always have the finest girls, never come to class, and can beat up
anybody. McCall is captivated:
they seemed to have all the self confidence I lack. I was into honor rolls and spelling bees. They were into sock hops and talent shows. I looked all neat and boring, like mama dressed me for school. They wore their hats backward and left their belt buckles unfastened, shoe laces untied, [and sagged their pants] (26).
Here again one witnesses how some black youth turn to peers for confirmation. “The more academic and social failures accumulate in the school setting, the more absorbed and competent they become in the peer setting” (Majors and Gordon 222). McCall admires these prescriptions but feels his current masculine stance is unacceptable at this point. If McCall does not have reinforcement at home that guide and assures him that spellings bees, dressing and talking respectable is an appropriate masculine stance, he will envy and emulate the peer group behavior that he seeks to be apart of. This “cool behavior” that McCall seeks is critical to the black male’s emerging identity as he develops a distinct style. McCall at this young age feels the need to break into the social scene he witnesses or risk being victimized in some way by it. According to Glasgow, young males must prescribe to certain “subcultural expectations for behavior because his developing sense of dignity, confidence, and worth depend on it” (13).
The larger the peer group, the more possibilities for delinquent activity. Most of McCall friends consist of young boys from his neighborhood “that started out as a loosely knit groups of restless adolescents who shared a passion for sandlot sport” (34). They form ties playing football, basketball, and baseball, but continue their friendships off the field. This hanging out together solidifies the bond of black males and gives them power and confidence to participate in delinquent activity. McCall recounts how he and his friends in the eighth grade throw spitballs, pinch girls butts in class, and trip people while they walked down the hall. This is harmless activity that can easily be addressed by watchful administrators and parents. But McCall’s parents, like many, are too busy working and making living to offer correction and administrators are too quick to abruptly suspend rather than deal with the subtle but damaging changes that are taking place in McCall and his friends. McCall makes clear what this group
provides for him:
I discovered strength and solace in camaraderie. It was a confidence booster, a steady support for my fragile selfesteem. Alone, I was afraid of the world and insecure. But I felt cockier and surer of myself when hanging with my boys. I think we all felt more courageous when we hung together. We did things in groups that we’d never try alone. ….There was no fear of standing out, feeling vulnerable, exiled, and exposed. That was a comfort even my family couldn’t provide” (35).
As the peer group places a tighter control on McCall and his friends’ individuality, the purpose of school changes completely: it becomes more like a social arena rather than focusing on getting education. The academic rigors lose their luster and the reward of making the honor roll just isn’t the same: “I felt too self-conscious to join in class discussions. I sat in the back of the room with the hard dudes laughing and playing” (35). It is at this point that black males find themselves expelled more and more often, further putting out flames of hope. Parents begin to wonder why their children can’t seem to stay in school, and begin to punish and yell at them without talking and finding solutions, further alienating themselves from their children and strengthening the power of the peer group. The boundaries at school, however, do limit the amount of delinquent activities of peer groups but summer vacation makes way for more disruptive behavior.
McCall spends the summer with his peer group having parties at his friend’s house, whose parents are not home, in a community that has its eyes closed to the trouble brewing in these boys who will one day become men. Like Brown, McCall steals from a store, but is caught and taken to the police station to wait for his stepfather. He is beaten with a belt and placed on probation, but such actions are often ineffective if the root of the problem is not found. McCall’s parents, like many, do not understand. They make sure he is clothed, fed, and protected, but they do not hold conversations, and love is understood rather than expressed. They fail to understand that his stealing has nothing to do with him being hungry and poor; “ it was another hanging rite, a challenge to take something from somebody else and get away clean” (38).