«POWER, MONEY, AND SEX(UALITY): THE BLACK MASCULINE PARADIGM A Dissertation Submitted to the Graduate Faculty of the Louisiana State University and ...»
Novels like Thomas Dixon’s, The Leopard’s Spots (1902) and The Clansman (1905)—which presented black men as half-human, halfanimal stalkers who sought to rape white women—and The Birth of the Nation and similar films translated the brute image into a fixed visual form. Newspapers perpetuated the brute image through the savage language used to refer to black men. The Arkansas Gazette in 1927 records the following comments about a lynching: “Mob’s Lynching of Negro Brute Starts Trouble. Black Attacks Mother and Daughter West of City. Is Hanged to Pole. Captured After Long Search Through Wooded Region. Confesses He Is Guilty.” Comparatively, the New York Amsterdam News reports the same story: “Little Rock Mob Lynches Youth. Had Been Accused of Attacking a Mother and Her Daughter.” Clearly one can see how negative language and images affect representation. With decades of dehumanizing presentations, negative images found a permanent place in the black male’s consciousness and in America’s national narrative. As a result of internalizing these images, some black men today have become super-masculine to survive certain social environments and/or to gain masculine status;
simultaneously, they become a threat to themselves, black women, and society.
independent film and video to the larger cultural project of redefining masculinity. Nonetheless, these scholars eschew the ways in which cinematic representations of black men often betray a subtext of hostility and misappropriation in their analyses. Elizabeth Alexander’s “We’re Gonna Deconstruct Your Life!: The Making and Un-Making of the Black Bourgeois Patriarch in Ricochet” contends that the film invents a prototypical black bourgeois family of the 1980s and then dismantles it entirely (157). Alexander reveals the fundamental fragility of black economic progress in the film and white male antagonism towards such progress. While Alexander primarily focuses on black men in mainstream Hollywood films, Wahneema Lubiano’s “But Compared to What: Reading Realism, Representation, and Essentialism in School Daze, Do the Right Thing, and the Spike Lee Discourse” focuses on black films as spectacles of African American Cultural Production. The BMP utilizes Lubiano’s analysis to explain how these films are also problematic when portraying black men and to expose the filmmakers’ inability to remain fully aware of the importance of casting various black male representations in the media.
While Alexander and Lubiano argue that these negative depictions of black men make them representative victims of white popular media, Michele Wallace argues that black men, on and off camera, promote negative images about themselves, and that being black politically correct “is precisely the issue when it comes to the general inability of the dominant culture to take black people seriously and to see them as [diverse] human beings” (300). Thus, it becomes imbedded in both the white and black psyches that certain ways of acting or behaving represented in films, are indeed black. As long as the media’s failure to portray diversity among black men reinforces negative images, the identity of black men will always be seen as monolithic and politically problematic. A problematic identity restricts black men to particular social spheres.
Like the representation of black men in film, images of black athletes are also troublesome. Eva Bosenberg and Lindon Barrett
Constructions of Black Masculinity in the NBA” maintains that Shaquille O’Neal, Dennis Rodman, and Michael Jordan embody three different versions of masculinity. Their popularity hinges on the manner in which each responds to stereotypes of black men (682). Shaq represents brute force and physicality due to his size; Rodman is the black chameleon that pushes the performance of masculinity without feeling threatened; and Jordan exists between the two because he is the least aggressive and easier to mold. In regard to athletes, the BMP is not only concerned with physicality but also with how their popularity and wealth/materialism translate into a facet of masculinity that informs economic and social mobility. Specifically, the BMP analyzes the masculine paradox that allows the cultural elevation of Jordan and Shaq to “coexist with the [general] economic and political marginality of [everyday] African-American males” (Gates XV). I contend Jordan and Shaq’s elevated status relies on a preconceived notion about black men. They are performers, objects appealing to and conditioned by the white male gaze—which permits these athletes only a limited function within the current narrative.
At the center of the national narrative is racism, which effectively alienates black men from the social institutions that are designed to prepare them to be productive citizens. Further, because preconceived notions about the capabilities of black men in certain situations permeate these institutions, black men are destined to fail. For example, schools that require uniforms are forced to confront black males who alter the look of the uniform by sagging their pants and clipping their ties to their shirt pockets. Driven by a compulsion to look “cool” and/or definitively black and male, a characteristic that within the student’s cultural environment endows status, the student reinforces the popular conception of young black men as rule breakers/trouble makers. When the institution enforces its rule, as it must, the student is extracted from the institution and possibly loses the opportunity to reap its benefits. The false dichotomy between status and participation in traditional societal structures is reinforced and the negative consequences of the divide result in further black male alienation that restricts social and economic mobility.
These internalized racial notions—and their prescription of failure— cause an alienation, “which entails an immediate recognition by black men of social and economic realities [that support] an inferiority complex” (Fanon 13). Black men’s internalizing of these racist notions makes it difficult for them to conform to societal norms. “The Assassination of the Black Male Image,” by Earl Ofari Hutchinson and Paul Hoch’s White Hero Black Beast: Racism, Sexism and the Mask of
Hutchinson posits that the image of the malevolent black male is based on durable and time-resistant myths, half-truths, and lies. He further explains that this “image was created during the European conquest of Africa, nurtured during slavery, artfully refined during segregation, and revived during the Ronald Reagan—George BushNewt Gingrich years” (15). Thus, many have profited handsomely from the lucrative growth industry America has fashioned out of black-male
education, it may be that African-Americans learn differently and need a more efficient educational design. The same can be said for health care, welfare, and other institutions that aid Americans. Most of these institutions have a hegemonic base and design and have paid little or no attention to the conditioning of African-Americans. Many African Americans have proven that they can adapt to and benefit from these institutions, but many more would if the base of these institutions were redesigned with diversity in mind. Black men and women have always had to situate their existence within white social institutions.
The representations that racism disrupts for them must be decolonized internally in order to decolorize them nationally. Black men in particular need to equip themselves with tools that allow them to navigate within American social institutions in order to increase social and economic mobility.
The BMP locates social alienation, sexual paranoia, and Fanon’s idea of epidermalization at the core of the formation of black masculine identity and examines how these are negotiated in response to social and personal imperatives, responsibilities and problems. In regard to race, the BMP specifically utilizes Maurice Wallace’s notion of identity politics and the burden of black male specularity. Wallace asserts that images of black men are “ideographs for the American propensity to see black men half-blindly as a blank/black page onto which the identity theme of American whiteness imprints itself as onto a photographic negative” (32). This process, spectragraphia, is so
images/representations of the black male body as viewed by society, especially negative ones. Spectragraphia partially explains why black men are not viewed as individuals and why physicality is so important to their masculine identity. The BMP maps the various ways racism affects black males.
When one combines the politics of race, as mentioned earlier, with the politics of sexuality, black men are faced with a double-edged
problematic as race disrupts the quest. Black men often equate masculinity with white men; yet, most of the time black men lack access to that masculine design. Consequently, black men need to assemble a masculine identity that allows unity with black women and that recasts popular media images as individual representations rather than racial and/or cultural ones. Such recasting is necessary, according to bell hooks’s “Doing it For Daddy,” because the drive for white masculinity, presented as an ideal in America, only serves to strengthen white male hegemony, “leaving black males tortured by an unrequited longing for white male love” (98). This torture manifests in
advertising, hooks suggests, socialize black males to see themselves as always lacking, as always subordinated to more powerful white males whose approval they need to survive (99). This socialization process is important to white male patriarchy and essential to its maintenance of masculinity. Thus, the masculinity that black men seek to replicate encourages them to embrace a worldview where white men are all-powerful, forming the “white man keeping me down syndrome.” While hooks suggests that black men’s longing to replicate white masculinity is mostly problematic for black men, Derrick Bell’s “The Race-Charged Relationship of Black Men and Black Women” and Daniel Black’s Dismantling Black Manhood: A Historical and Literary Analysis of the Legacy of Slavery both examine how hooks’s concept of “white male love” affects black women as well. Bell maintains that “racism has exacerbated for blacks the always-difficult social relationship between men and women” (198). That is, black men are so
counterparts that they fail to understand that the legacy of slavery has conditioned black women to need stability from black men rather than their protection. Similarly, Black argues that the institution of slavery
supplementing these with the characteristics of sexual prowess, materialism, and household domination, which disrupt the black family and community. A more desirable option would be that black men recast the whole protective role to a form that allows them to become one with black women in order to effectively confront the common enemy: racism Criticism on the effects of white/ideal masculinity informs the BMP’s exploration of how struggling to achieve ideal masculinity causes more problems for black men then it solves. Relatively, the
masculinity: decolonizing heterosexuality and the recuperation of Afrocentric concepts. Michael Awkward’s “A Black Man’s Place(s) in Black Feminist Criticism” offers feminism as a “fruitful, potentially nonoppressive means of reconceptualizing black masculinity” (21).
Feminism, however, has its own problems with masculinity as it struggles to be recognized as an individual construct. Also, if even some black women have problems with feminism, black men who reconstruct their masculinity through its lens will only be placing themselves into another frame of identity that is not their own.
Black Looks, by bell hooks, provides a more appropriate framework for reconstructing black masculinity. Because ideal masculinity fails black men, hooks calls for black men, and black people in general, to “break with hegemonic modes of seeing, thinking, and being that block their capacity to see [themselves] oppositionally, to imagine, describe, and invent [themselves] in ways that are liberatory” (2). Thus, in order for black men to begin to reconstruct a more representative masculine identity, they need to remove the lens of white hegemony and reconstruct this identity into more diverse versions that they can control. This diversity creates a new black male specularity, that in turn increases social mobility, because the black male identity is no longer a monolithic construct. This act is difficult because black masculinity is a subjectivity that is organized within the structures of control and authority (Chapman and Rutherford 1). Consequently, black men are simultaneously constructing and not constructing their masculinity.
Unlike the above critics who call for a reorganization of ideal masculinity, Nai’im Akbar presents a new “vision” of black men. This vision is conceived within an Afrocentric context. Basically, Akbar calls for black men to recuperate African concepts of masculinity that were lost and destroyed by slavery. However, Akbar’s vision is difficult to achieve because there is no single definition/moment of recognition of manhood or a clear-cut and universal rite of passage in American society, except heterosexuality. Also race complicates any attempt to develop a rite of passage for black men. Positioning heterosexuality as the authorizer of masculinity locks black men into a fixed male identity that needs to be deconstructed.