«POWER, MONEY, AND SEX(UALITY): THE BLACK MASCULINE PARADIGM A Dissertation Submitted to the Graduate Faculty of the Louisiana State University and ...»
Heterosexuality as the dominant structure of control and authority for masculinity remains somehow uncontested. Rutherford’s “Who’s That Man” posits that heterosexual men have inherited a language that readily defines the lives and sexualities of others but fails when helping these men deal with their own masculine identities (22). The BMP utilizes Chapman and Rutherford’s analysis of power to remove heterosexual masculinity from the “natural” hierarchy and slowly expose it for what it is: a construct that makes other masculine constructs inferior. Such exposure allows black men to untangle themselves from the web of hegemonic masculinity that is white heterosexuality. The BMP explores hysteria and homophobia to reveal how hegemonic masculinity characterizes anything feminine as weak, and how homosexuality becomes problematic for black men who do not posses feminine attributes. Femininity and homosexuality are both examples of constructions defined through hegemonic masculinity.
Arthur Saint-Aubin’s “Testeria: The Dis-ease of Black Men in White Supremacist, Patriarchal Culture” recuperates the notion of hysteria, as a male symptom, by divesting it of its female origins in order to reconnect it to the black male body (1055). As a result, Fanon’s notion of alienation resurfaces, as black men’s sexual identities are restricted to heterosexuality.
Though sexuality plays an important role in the construction of black masculinity, the black male identity becomes even more complex when one examines the unfair treatment of black men in the justice
sentencing. Such treatment causes black men to mistrust the justice system, perceiving it as maintaining a double standard when upholding and administering justice. One only needs to look at alarming prison statistics to see this standard. According to the Justice Policy Institute, there are more young black men in prison than in college. In 1980, there were 463,700 black men in university, three times as many as the 143,000 in custody. By 2004 there were 791,600 black men behind bars and only 603,032 enrolled in higher education, the institute reports.
Obviously, imprisonment limits black men’s physical mobility;
however, the scarlet label of criminality affects their social mobility, even if it’s a first offense. Both Patricia J. Williams’ “Meditations on Masculinity,” and George M. Fredrickson’s “The Black Image in the White Mind: The Debate on Afro-American Character and Destiny,” support hooks’ and Black’s argument that white models of masculinity will not provide the same benefits to black men as they do white men.
Both Williams and Fredrickson argue that white masculinity becomes a conceptual cloak that makes any white criminal anomalous in relation to the mass of decent white citizens (12), but any black criminal becomes all black men, and the fear of all black men becomes the rallying point for controlling all black people.
This inverted conceptual cloak, William and Fredrickson posit, stigmatizes black males by constructing them collectively as criminal, violent, lascivious, and irresponsible. The BMP reveals that these stigmas are refined by certain representations of black men. Stories, films, editorials and other social media provide images that enable society to subordinate and marginalize black men. Here, Williams, Fredrickson, and hooks employ Wallace’s notion of black male specularity in society. Collectively these critics’ analyses imply that counter-images are insufficient for dispelling negative images of black males because positive images are usually dismissed as humorless, political, or extreme, and must contend with a set of “agreed upon truths and presuppositions” about black men (Delagado and Stefancic 212). These truths and presuppositions create an existential paranoia that positions black men “between limiting historical archetypes” (Preston 16). This research is intriguing because it looks at the
available black male characters presented in the national narrative:
the shadow lurking in the corner, the hulking athlete, and the exotic singer and dancer. These characters set social and economic limits on black men and black people in general. The BMP exposes these false archetypes as problematic identities impeding social and economic mobility.
The existential paranoia that Rohan Preston identifies feeds tension between black men and the police. Interestingly, R.M. Johnson analyzes media crime coverage and illustrates that black crimes are dramatized disproportionately to white ones, presenting black males as habitual criminals. When you have two entities that mistrust one another, each side forms ways of dealing with the other: the police resort to extensive profiling and brutality; black men resort to insubordination and following the codes of the street. Christopher Cooper’s “Mediation in Black and White: Unequal Distribution of Empowerment by Police” clarifies the mistrust analogy. Because black men are viewed as habitual criminals, police fail to empower them compared to whites when settling disputes. Cooper maintains that when whites are involved in interpersonal disputes that prompt police attention, overwhelmingly police officers empower the disputants to help themselves or mediate for them (126). By offering black men no such option, police create the idea of a legal double standard.
Like Cooper, Brian Gilmore’s “Twisted Street Logic” examines the double standard that exists in mandatory minimum sentencing laws.
These laws are an insidious form of racism that has survived the
nonviolent drug offenses and other crimes. As Ellis Cose suggests, serving time becomes a rite of passage for many black men (105). The BMP describes how the justice system and extended prison time further impedes black males’ ability to construct a positive masculine identity.
Further relating the tension between black men and the police, R.M.
Johnson reveals that black men from childhood to adulthood become fearful of the blue uniform and are reluctant to request assistance from the law (12). Fear of the blue uniform is especially prevalent in black male street culture. In “What I Learned in School,” Mat Johnson’s exploration of street culture shows how aggressiveness rules, and violence becomes key to power and identity. Thus black men who are a part of the street culture do not have the necessary/requisite tools to navigate societal tensions and boundaries, and they do not trust society’s ability to see them clearly without all
importantly, the BMP explains how these males form their own tools— borrowed from the trickster and bad-man figure—of resistance, deception, and adaptation to navigate through society and acquire and maintain a masculine identity.
Synthesizing the Trickster/Bad-man Figure(s)
representation and masculinity discussed above. Crafty, witty, highspirited and as old as human culture itself, tricksters are masters of disguise and consummate survivors, skillfully outmaneuvering their foes with guile, and charm (White-Parks 4). African American trickster tales, derived largely from West African antecedents, flourished during slavery and reconstruction and can be traced throughout African American culture/literature, serving multiple roles and having both negative and positive consequences that reflect on African-Americans today, specifically black men. The trickster/ bad-man figure is a primary trope used by the BMP to explore the dichotomy it reinforces.
While the trickster primarily developed as a survival strategy, during slavery it still manifests itself in the performance of black masculinity.
As a result, black men find themselves in a web of confusion because trickster characteristics simultaneously aid and impede black men’s social and economic movement.
Borrowing selectively from the trickster traditions of Africa (where tricksters took on human, divine, or animal form), African Americans particularly valued tales involving animal trickster figures. Fearing reprisal if they freely conveyed their own human grievances, slaves told tales that employed animal characters; the animals represented specific human actions and generalized patterns of human behavior.
According to Lawrence Levine, in his study Black Culture and Black Consciousness, “the primary trickster figures of animal tales were weak, relatively powerless creatures that attain[ed] their ends through the application of native wit and guile rather than power or authority.” (12) The ultimate goal of the trickster was to subvert the corrupt and divisive moral conventions and the established order that originally enforced those morals.
The best-known African American trickster figure was Brer Rabbit, who embodied idealized human qualities valued by socially restrained African Americans (slaves). With didactic as well as figurative dimensions, Brer Rabbit and similar tales offered slaves both positive and negative examples of human behavior, which ultimately helped them better understand their world. Though the tales are humorous, they demonstrate the power of intellect, a power that slaves recognized they needed in order to free themselves from the mental and physical chains of slavery. The BMP relies upon the various forms freedom takes in these tales and connects these variations to the formation of black masculine identity. The ownership of materials that represent wealth and status is one freedom of movement that the BMP maps.
African American trickster tales, while preserving the humor and vitality of African tales, added weapons of subversive masking and gave the trickster signifying skills, which helped the slaves to meet the conditions of slavery. For example, the slave narratives of Henry “Box” Brown, and Henry and Ellen Craft both use trickster motifs, especially deception, to facilitate escape from bondage. Today’s black males continue to use this tradition in their performance and maintenance of masculinity. The humorous trickster, who presented himself in the Brer Rabbit tales, was present throughout slavery, as evident in the narrative Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl by Harriet Jacobs. Jacobs recounts an incident in which she happens to meet another slave, Luke, who tricked the relatives of his dead master into giving him trousers that he had filled with the master’s money. This example may cause one to question the ethics of the trickster; his reputation as a dissembling swindler has led to a stereotyped view of him as a selfish, unprincipled fraud. Yet the trickster’s easy manipulation of appearances also insures his survival. When a man has his wages stolen from him year after year, and the laws sanction and enforce the theft, he cannot be expected to have more regard for honesty than the man who robs him. As a trickster, Luke was able to survive and deal with the laws of society during his time. Maintaining any sort of cultural identity under slavery demanded an acceptance of a covert resistance to the dehumanizing racial myths of slavery, a tactic at which the trickster excels (Levine 14). Likewise, one understands that maintaining a black masculine identity still requires resistance under a construed political narrative. In African American life, the trickster emerges not simply as a greedy, amoral clown but also as a folk hero whose subversive behavior helps to upset an unequal balance of power (Roberts 12). When placed within the context of contemporary American life, the trickster’s challenge to established order represents a revolutionary stance against oppression.
One such resistance figure was High John De Conquer. According to Zora Neale Hurston, John was a powerful mystical figure that came from Africa with the slaves. Through his strength and humor, he gave the slaves hope until freedom came. Hurston states, High John de Conquer came to be a man, a mighty man at that. But he was a whisper, a will to hope, a wish to find something worthy of laughter and song. Then the whisper put on flesh. His footsteps sounded across the world in a low but musical rhythm as if the world he walked on was a singing-drum. Black people had an irresistible impulse to laugh. High John de Conquer was a man in full, and had come to live and work on the plantations, and all the slave folks knew him in the flesh.
As the “great human culture hero in Negro folk-lore” and “the wishfulfillment hero of the race,” John symbolizes the capacity of Black people to resist, endure and prevail with our humanity intact” (Byrd 3). Byrd states that Hurston’s John “is a poetic distillation of the principal attributes of John celebrated in the tales in which he emerges as a redemptive and transgressive figure” (4).
The O.J. Simpson trial is an example of challenging order. Many were shocked at some African-Americans’ pleasure when O.J. was found not guilty. Much of this pleasure, however, had to do with the ability of a black man to beat the system, regardless of his presumed guilt or innocence, especially since a white female was involved. O.J.
functions within the BMP as a trickster, for his ability to outwit “the master.” With the veil of physical slavery gone, black men would need a stronger image to define their masculinity. So the trickster, who performed his tactics in the dark or in secrecy because of the institution of slavery, becomes the bad-man figure who retains elements of trickery but employs an obvious physical and more visual prowess. The bad-man figure emerged during the years following Reconstruction and gained wide recognition, especially in the Deep South, during the last decade of the nineteenth century (Roberts 13).
The trickster figure of slave days could not have survived in its current form; therefore, African Americans combined traits of the trickster and the conjuring figures to create the bad man, “a figure whose acts of lawlessness, particularly gambling, secured some of the benefits that the white social order systematically denied African Americans” (Roberts 14).