«POWER, MONEY, AND SEX(UALITY): THE BLACK MASCULINE PARADIGM A Dissertation Submitted to the Graduate Faculty of the Louisiana State University and ...»
In other words, through the lens of the dominant society skin color is controlled and defined through stereotypical impressions. But unlike film in a camera, these impressions are not blank but coded with racism to collapse blackness, creating a corrupt gaze of black men.
space/environment in society whenever a white presence dominates social environments that black males come into contact with: teachers, policemen, landlords, or storeowners. Each of the novels I discuss situates along a historical continuum beginning with Douglass’s slave narrative and progressing through Wright’s autobiography around world World War II, Brown’s Civil Rights Movement era novel and
demonstrate the peculiar forces that historically contribute to force black males into creating a concept of masculinity that while empowering is often problematic. Each of the texts demonstrates how racism creates social alienation and internalization that forces the protagonist to create a space and place for his own concept of masculinity to avoid participating in corrupt dominate society.
The politicization process begins with slavery, as Douglass’s 1845 Narrative firmly establishes. To understand the complex roots of racism in America, one must realize that slavery did not begin with the coming of Europeans to the Americas. Its history reaches back to ancient times. It was prevalent in Europe until replaced by serfdom in the Middle Ages, and it continued to exist long after that in parts of Asia and Africa. But for the most part, those slaves were prisoners of war or persons convicted of major crimes. The general attitude was that they were unfortunate, but no widely accepted idea existed connecting the condition of slavery with ethnic, racial, or individual inferiority. Slaves once freed disappeared into the society of those old world cultures. Why did this not happen in the Americas? Why was slavery’s impact on the personalities of blacks and whites in the United States so severe and long lasting? Why did slavery become what historians have called “the peculiar institution?
Slavery in the English North American colonies came about because of the great need on the part of the colonists, once their settlements were established, for labor. There were never enough new colonists or indentured servants arriving, and the availability of free land meant that free men sought their own property and were difficult to keep as laborers. In 1619 when some of the first slaves arrived in the English Colonies they were sold as indentured servants, and as such, were able to obtain their freedom after working out their indenture. But beginning in the 1640s most Africans who arrived in the colonies had no indenture and therefore could not look forward, ever, to receiving their freedom. Clearly the “freedom-loving” colonist—who had at first regarded Africans as merely different and not inferior—needed to rationalize this act of holding men in bondage permanently; had to adopt a philosophy and attitude that would allow them to live with a slave system which existed in all colonies but which proved most profitable in the plantation economy of the South. The philosophy was that black slaves were not human beings and thus not entitled to the considerations due humans.
Slaves were brought out of Africa in increasingly large numbers.
Many died resisting capture, or traveling to the slave factories that lined the African coast, or in the crowed ships that transported them to the New World. Horrors of the crossing and the experiences among hostile people had a major effect on the men, women, and children brought to the Americas. The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano or Gustavus Vassa, the African, Written by Himself is
very telling of this experience. He writes:
I was immediately handled and tossed up to see if I was sound, by some of the crew; and I was no persuaded that I had got into a world of bad spirits, and that they were going to kill me. Their compelsions, too, differing so much from ours, their long hair, and the language they spoke, which was very different from any I had very heard, united to confirm me in this belief…. When I looked around the ship too, and saw a large furnace or copper boiling, and a multitude of black people, of every description, chained together, every one of their countenances expressing dejection and sorrow, I no longer doubted my fate…. I asked… if we were not be eaten by those white men with horrible looks, red faces, and long hair….
I was soon put down under the decks, and their I receive such a salutation to my nostrils as I had never experienced in my life: so that, with the loathsomeness of the stench, and with my crying together, I became so sick and low that was not able to eat. Two of the with men offered me eatables; and, on my refusing to eat, one of them held me fast by the hands, and laid me across, I think, the windlass, and tied my feet, while the other flogged me severely.
The closeness of the place, and the heat of the climate, added to the number in the ship, being so crowded that each had scarcely room to turn himself, almost suffocated us. This deplorable situation was again aggravated by the galling of the chains. The shrieks of the women, and the groans of the dying, rendered it a scene of horror almost inconceivable. Happily, perhaps, for myself, I was soon reduced so low here that it was thought necessary to keep me almost continually on deck; and from my extreme youth, I was not put in fetters (134).
The large percentage of the slaves in the Southern population of North America is often used to explain the fear of a slave uprising, the consequent of harshness of the system, and the hatred of blacks which developed from these. It is generally acknowledged that rationalizing whites hated blacks because they mistreated them—and needed an excuse for doing so—rather than they mistreated them because they hated them. As the system became harsher the need on the part of slaveholders to justify it became greater—as did the difficult of so
logically. Stanely Elkins writes of the South’s philosophical contortions:
….[The] body of thought was governed by the fact that South was talking no longer to the world, or even to the North, but to itself. It is this fact—that fact of internal consensus, and the peculiar lack of true challenge-points at any level of Southern society—that gives the proslavery polemic its special distinction…. The mind could now conceive the enemy in any size or shape it shoes; specters were utterly free to range, thrive, and proliferate.
Only in such a setting of nightmare does it seem plausible, for example, that one of the most nonintellectual of paradoxes should have developed in men’s writing and talk regarding the Negro slave and his present and hypothetical behavior. On the other hand, the ideal picture of Southern life was one of contentment, of plantations teeming with faithful and happy black children—young and old—helpless, purposeless children incapable of sustained and unsupervised initiative. On the other hand was the picture of doom; the hint of freedom, whispered by designing abolitionists would galvanize the sleeping monster in every slave, arouse bloody revolt, and bring hordes of black primitives bent on murder and destruction (87).
Southerners, while often irrational in their fears, could cite the slave revolts that did take place as evidence that their fears were well founded. Gabriel, a blacksmith who lived outside Richmond, Va., led a revolt in 1800; Denmark Vessey was the leading spirit in the 1822 plot at Charleston, S.C.; and Nat Turner struck fear into the hearts of all slaveholders in 1831 when he led an uprising in Virginia that took the lives of 60 whites and fought a pitched battle with state and federal troops before being crushed.
However, the number of blacks and the fear of insurrections fail to explain fully the lasting influence of slavery on institutional life. Major slave revolts in ancient Rome seem to not have had such effects. So for an explanation of U.S. racism one must dig deeper into the American character—strangely enough, into those experiences, ideas,
contributions: for the paradox is that the peculiar institution of American slavery developed side-by-side with institutions which spoke of the dignity of man, government with the consent of the governed, majority rule, and protection of the rights of the individual. Indeed, it may have been because these ideals and institutions were so strongly held and respected that strong feelings had to be marshaled against those persons who were not allowed to share them.
At the core of these institutions that grew along side slavery was power and control, which was to be kept from the slave at all cost.
This repression caused what Orlando Patterson calls in his comparative
analysis a social death. He writes:
because the slave had no socially recognized existence outside of his master he became a social non-person. …He had a past, past is not a heritage. …Slaves differed from other human beings in that they were not allowed freely to integrate the experience of their ancestors into their lies, to inform their understanding of social reality with the inherited meanings of their natural forebears, or to anchor the living present in any conscious community of memory (5).
This power and control was also enforced and strengthened through what Patterson terms as “natal alienation.” One of the most prominent slave narrative conventions is the lack of knowledge concerning one’s pre and post heritage. “It was this alienation of the slave from all formal, legally enforceable ties of blood, and from any attachment to groups or localities other than those chosen for him by the master, that gave the relation of slavery its peculiar value to the master” (7).
For the most part slaves belonged to no community, except for the ones they created among themselves which had little meaning;
therefore, they had no social existence outside of his master. Thus, they were socially dead. This social death took place through the ritual
of enslavement that incorporated one or more of four basic features:
“first, the symbolic rejection by the slave of his past and his former kinsmen; second, a change of name; third, the imposition of some visible mark of servitude; and last, the assumption of a new status in the household or economic organization of the master” (52).
All these developments may be found in the slave narrative. The assertions by many critics that the slave narrative begins the AfricanAmerican literary tradition are repeated so often that they have acquired the force of self-evident truth. Charles Davis makes the argument up front in titling one of his important essays: “The Slave Narrative: First Major Art Form in an Emerging Black Tradition.” James Olney more strongly makes the same conclusion in stating “the undeniable fact is that the Afro-American literary tradition takes its start in theme certainly, but also in content and form from the slave narrative” (168). Making an even bolder assertion, H. Bruce Franklin argues that the slave narrative was the “first genre the United States of American Contributed to the written literature of the world” (27).
According to Deborah McDowell, Douglass’s narrative in particular has been useful and usable to scholars whose approaches “run the gamut from a now-devalued liberal humanism to a currently more valorized post structuralism” (193).
Of particular interest concerning Douglass’s narrative is its function as an autobiography of both identity and historical art. As an autobiography, the narrative occupies the territory between history and art, biography and fiction, memory and imagination, which in turn culminates into identity. Identity, through history and art, according to Albert Stone, is itself the container of meaning to Douglass’s narrative (194). The recovered past, the journey black, represented in
uncertainty (Houston Baker 29). However, Gates suggest that the narrative is a “countergenre, a mediation between the novel of sentiment and the picaresque, oscillating between the two in a bipolar moment, set in motion by the mode of the confession, which spawned its formal negation the plantation novel” (80). So this writing structure has become a recurring narrative technique in African American literature in general, “a structure in which the writer and his subject merge into the stream of language” ( Gates 84) The most infamous phrase of Douglass’s narrative “you have seen how a man was made a slave, you shall see how a slave was made a man” captures the studious focus on making a slave a man according to the cultural norms of masculinity. As a result of such focus, Douglass has become a mythological figure. As Valerie Smith observes, “by mythologizing rugged individuality, physical strength, and geographical mobility, the slave narrative enshrines cultural definitions of masculinity” (34). She further adds that “the plot the standard narrative may thus be seen as not only the journey from slavery to freedom but also the journey from slave hood to manhood” in cultural terms (34).
We need to focus on the lack of knowledge the slaves possessed and physical abuse, which socially reduced them to an inferior “other.” Enslavement, according to George Cunningham, is “the moment of captivity of the body marked first by material displacement and deferrals that recreate themselves as discursive sights of captivity” (137). The captive black body is positioned “to be bid upon in a circuit of linguistic, discursive, and axiological exchange outside the control of its own agency” (137). Thus, slavery controlled the environment and status of slaves, which drastically limited and politicized the slave consciousness by making slaves view themselves as inferior. Sixteenth and seventeenth century Europeans believed that bondage was the natural and proper condition for Africans and that they were morally and mentally inferior, therefore best suited for slavery. Europeans positioned themselves as indispensable saviors of a people who were unable to save themselves.