«POWER, MONEY, AND SEX(UALITY): THE BLACK MASCULINE PARADIGM A Dissertation Submitted to the Graduate Faculty of the Louisiana State University and ...»
Often based on the experiences of real men such as Morris Slater, an Alabama Turpetine worker who killed a policeman and escaped arrest by jumping a freight train, the bad man was characterized in toasts, songs, and ballads “by his propensity for gambling, violence, and other acts of lawlessness; by his strength and virility; and by his purely self-interested antagonism toward both the dominant white social order and the oppressed African American” (16). The ideal participant in the life of the toast/ballad “is neither totally trickster or bad-man but a synthesis of two, favoring cleverness, toughness, and [sexual prowess] (Wepman, Newman, and Binderman 214). However, the bad-man does dominate through the visual image of toughness, overt trickery, and the use of degrading language. There are many characteristics that make up the toasts and ballads that the bad-man perform. The actors in these performance narratives are heroes and fools, tricksters and prostitutes, and pimps and hustlers who face some of the same threats and problems of the listener (B. Jackson 123). However, unlike most of the listeners “the narratives’ protagonists deal with these difficulties with style and grace, and when they fail their failures are spectacular” (Jackson 123). Other ballads concern valuable properties that the heroes lose; still others cause losses incurred deliberately by denunciation, trickery or desertion (Wepman, Newman, and Binderman 213).
Of the many bad-men who became legendary in African American folklore, Stackolee, John Hardy, and Railroad Bill (a figure based on the exploits of Morris Slater) are perhaps the most widely recognized.
Folklorists have argued that Stackolee and other bad black men in folk tradition owe their appeal to the African American public’s awe for men who disdain all conventions (Levine 12). So long victimized by the institution of slavery and the second-class citizenship that followed, many African American men developed an attraction for bad men stories.
During the Black Aesthetic/Arts Movement in the early 1960’s to mid-70s, bad-man tropes found a supportive environment as the African American Community was creating new definitions of blackness in terms of food, language, image and other cultural norms. The badman was welcomed with open arms, and his physical and sexual image took hold in the heart of the black power movement. Particularly, the Black Panther Party only accepted men who possessed and performed a masculine and heterosexual presence. So not only did the Black Aesthetic Movement “demonstrate the political benefits of ethnicity,” it created an environment for a more definitive—though problematic— black masculinity (Lowe 447).
These bad-man images are clearly recognized in ballads/toasts like “Shine and the Titanic.” The character Shine epitomizes the extension of trickster qualities into the bad-man figure. In the version recorded as spoken in Philadelphia and published in Roger Abraham’s Deep Down in the Jungle (1964), Shine, a black stoker on the sinking ship, dives over board and swims hundreds, even thousands of miles to New York, leaving the captain, his daughter, and his wife to die. The captain offers to pay Shine because he thinks money will always buy a black man. Shine refuses. The pregnant daughter offers him sex, but again Shine refuses because of her condition. The wife also offers sex, and Shine refuses again but in a peculiar way. She says, “ save me, and I will let you eat pussy like a rat eats cheese.” Liking the offer but not the metaphor, Shine replies, “I like pussy, [but] I ain’t no rat,” so as to maintain his sexual prowess while rejecting the insult. Thus Shine becomes the ultimate trickster/bad-man of physical strength, sexual prowess, and intellect, ready to perform black masculinity.
The new physical image of the bad-man becomes solidified in the films of the 1970’s. Most obviously, a host of movies that star Rudy Ray Moore as Dolemite—which include Dolemite, Human Tornado, and Monkey Hustle—and the movie Shaft, which stars Richard Roundtree, evidence the bad-man’s physical and sexual prowess. “Realizing the need to carve out his own niche from other black comedians of that period--namely Redd Foxx--Moore took a much more shocking approach to his comedy by filling his material with profanity, sex, and several traditional toasts (“Shine and the Great Titanic”, “The Signifying Money,” and of course “Dolemite”), making him the world’s first X-rated comedian” (Murray). In most of his earlier films, Dolemite is an outlaw, a lady’s man, and uses harsh profanity, especially during sexual scenes. Though Moore had wide acceptance for his films, many were offended, especially middle class and upper class blacks; also the films were not able to attract enough white viewers. However, the movie Shaft would accomplish the latter with ease. Shaft possesses some of the qualities of Dolemite -- he is a lady’s man, has physical prowess, but also has more class and the style of a “dandy or pimp,” and he “has the added component of detective and multiculturalist” (McCollum).
Throughout the movie Shaft, the lead character is built up to be a black superman. He refuses to give into the expectations of a largely racist white society that he be a criminal and that he bow to the will of authority (McCollum). Shaft is black and commands the respect of the black community. That respect is gained through his ability to survive without subjugating himself to the white authority figures, as the old trickster figure did during slavery. However, he still acts criminally to solve crimes. Shaft is a black character who is not a street criminal but a detective who often breaks the law. His occupation is the only thing that separates him from other criminals. The criminal flaw disrupts a potentially positive black male character. This is an example of the politicization of the black male body in media. One should not expect all black male portrayals to be perfect, but they all should not be extreme either. Black males in media are either destined criminals or elevated criminals because of how they have been placed in films.
Black and proud of it, Shaft lacks the militant “ chip on his shoulder Dolemite had and is free from the confines of race; he neither bows to nor wants to subvert white society” (McCollum). Thus, Shaft is not positioned to assimilate the norms of the hegemonic institution he works for, nor does he want to overthrow it. It is understood that Shaft goes and comes as he pleases. With the development of electronic media, the Shaft character was glorified and continues to be a constant fixture in media along with more militant black male behavior while active participation in black folk culture has declined (Henry 477).
Though the role and persona that Shaft took on were not negatively racist, they were stereotypical and would become more so in the 1990s when a wave of black films with younger and more militant black male images would emerge. Two such films are Boyz ‘N the Hood (1991), perhaps the first of the so-called “hood” films, and Menace II Society. Though these films point to the reality of race and class as lived categories rather than social constructions and counterpose traditionalist notions of race and racial politics with nihilistic ones, they sent the message to some black youth that the gangster image was cool. As a result, whites and some blacks argued that young black men who perform this image should be treated with great caution.
This is one of the negative fallouts the bad-man left behind.
The trickster/bad-man’s “historical roots in social and political engagement, together with his fluidity of form and transgression of boundaries, make him a compelling figure not only for cultural resistance and survival” (Roberts 23), but also for bringing a clearer understanding of stereotypes of black males. Because this figure cannot be pinned down to any one form, shape or position, and because he continually disrupts the status quo with laughter, outrage, rebellion, intellect, physical and sexual prowess, he acts both as a figure of cultural strength and cultural destruction as young black men shift from the mythic to the real. Today, the bad-man image remains a survival strategy in America. The struggle for a masculine identity begins as black men use tropes of the bad-man to demonstrate and shape their masculinity (badness, style) at the expense of losing social and economic mobility and ill informing their national narrative: the way in which black males are perceived by other groups. The BMP shows how black men, in their current attempts to form a masculine identity, borrow resistance, deception, adaptation, and physical and sexual prowess from the trickster/bad-man figure.
Building the BMP—Points of Analysis Current criticism clearly exposes the complexities of race and masculinity but fails to create a cohesive framework for analyzing the various aspects of black masculine identity. Through the Black Masculine Paradigm, I provide a critical lens for reading black masculinity. Basically, the BMP extricates, from autobiography and film three pivotal moments in the construction of black male identity: (1) politicization of place and space in society, (2) the maintenance of a prescribed masculine identity, and (3) freedom of physical, social, and economic movement. I use this to expose racism’s disruption of black masculinity. In addition to chapter one, which introduces and defines the BMP, this project consists of four chapters that explicate the paradigm’s design, and one which discusses the benefits of a unified paradigm for reading black male identity.
Chapter two, “The Politicized Black Male Consciousness,” presents specific aspects of Frederick Douglass’s The Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, Richard Wright’s Black Boy, Claude Brown’s Manchild in the Promised Land, and Nathan McCall’s Makes Me Wanna Holler in terms of the BMP. Through these texts, I examine autobiography as a genre specifically revealing the evolution of black men’s struggle to claim masculinity. All of these narratives at critical historical moments reveal how racism has historically forced black men to exist within a particular place and space that is usually negative and limited. Using hooks, Fanon, Hutchinson, and Hoch, I argue that black men internalize this racism, affecting social alienation (Fanon, Gates) which leads to a masculine identity that is reactionary and oppositional rather than secure and empowering. This dynamic is contexualized by a defined tension between assimilating society’s norms and by progressing toward what Naim Akbar calls a “vision” of black masculine identity that better aids black male survival.
Exploring how the tension created by social alienation manifests in black male performance of masculinity, chapter three, “Prescriptions for Black Masculinity: Let’s Get Crunk,” reads the trickster as an implied trope through which black men navigate societal expectations and their envisioned masculinity. Building on the notion that gaining and winning the respect of peers requires one to perform masculinity— i.e, being hip, wearing the right clothes, developing the proper strut technique, a smart mouth fused with vulgar language, and an air of hardness with fist-fighting skills to back it up— I continue to explore Douglass, Wright, Brown, and McCall. Also through an analysis of the films Boyz in the Hood and Menace II Society, I use Alexander, Lubiano, and Michelle Wallace, among others, to posit that male representations as authorized by black male actors become ingrained in both the white and black psyches. These performed fictions reinforce existing notions that certain ways of acting or behaving are indeed black and masculine, creating a monolithic and politically problematic male identities that restricts black men to particular social spheres.
The persistence of the struggle outlined in chapter two and the power of the restrictions discussed in chapter three converge in chapter four “My Nigga’ My Brutha’ My Luva’—Black Male Bonding.” This chapter examines the role of heterosexuality as a specific prescription for black masculine performance. Again I select specific moments from Wright, Brown, and McCall where black males function as examples political bodies that must perform masculinity at all times. The competing masculinities in these works highlight the internal struggle of many young black males. Furthermore, this chapter uses James Hardy’s B-Boy Blues to inquire into and critique hyper-masculinity and explore the social compulsions that implicitly authorize heterosexuality as the only appropriate masculinity. Using Hardy’s novel, I examine how black gay men battle for a masculine identity against the feminization of homosexuality and compulsory heterosexuality. Like Chapman and Rutherford, I argue that femininity and homosexuality are both examples of constructs defined through masculinity. I use these texts to demonstrate a resurfacing of alienation as black men negotiate between their self-definition and social demands for heterosexuality.
Chapter 2: The Politicized Black Male Consciousness This chapter analyzes the autobiographical novels of Frederick Douglass, Richard Wright, Claude Brown, and Nathan McCall to trace and position historically how the black male consciousness is politicized due to racism. Here I define politicization as the process through which black skin, as a result of continuous historical and contemporary perpetuation of degrading stereotypes, is positioned as inferior by a hegemonic society. Throughout this project politicization means the distortion of the image and representation of blackness, rather than an indoctrinating process. At the core of this racism is a process that Maurice Wallace refers to as spectragraphia. Into this term, he collapses the racialist representations of black men and a somewhat greater family of signifiers that share etymological roots in the Latin specere : specimen, speculum, specious, suspect—all signifiers of an optically inflected framing of black men within the rigid repertoire of each term’s disreputable and diminishing significations (31).