«POWER, MONEY, AND SEX(UALITY): THE BLACK MASCULINE PARADIGM A Dissertation Submitted to the Graduate Faculty of the Louisiana State University and ...»
Physical restraint and abuse were the first weapons used to inferorize slaves. Before arriving to the North American continent, Blacks and blackness had already been given the impression of evil, uncivilized and less than human. When slaves first emerged from slave ships in 1619, this impression was further influenced by the chains and filthiness that they suffered during the middle passage. Although slaves learned to communicate among themselves, they still lacked
understanding of the outside world. The naming of the slave by the slave master further “disempowers and unman black male slaves” (Gibson 95). The slave’s original name was more than a way of calling him: “It was a verbal signal of his whole identity, his being-in-theworld as a distinct person, and it establishes and advertises his relation with kinsmen” (Patterson 55).
The lack of knowledge is one way in which slaves become politicized, particularly the lack of knowledge of parentage. Douglass explains he knew so little of his mother, that when she died “he received the tidings of her death with much the same emotions [he would probably] have felt at the death of a stranger” (Douglass 49).
Douglass also has no clue as to who his father is, except that he is probably a white man. Here, according to Wallace, is the “troubled discovery of social meaninglessness: [Douglass’s ] first awareness of self-as-cipher is caught inconsequentially between black and white, male and man, biology and psychology” (85). Without strong family ties, slaves often felt alienated and the institution of slavery itself took the place of family. “Interwoven into this [replacement] is the economic relationships of African American males [limited] and distinct set of social experiences because their economic roles during slavery was inextricably linked to a limited range of social roles that were able to support, coexist with or survive degradation” (Booker viii).
Douglass rescues the possibilities of his origin from the master’s appropriations in order to gain social meaning (Cunningham 137).
Literacy was also withheld from slaves, leaving them unaware of the environment beyond slavery. Such knowledge was important if slaves were to gain a sense of worth and come to some reconciliation with the binaries Wallace locates. When Douglass learns to read, he understands “what has been to him a most perplexing difficulty—to wit, the white man’s power to enslave the black man” (78). This is key because in order to function as an independent mind in another
conventions. When Douglass reads The Columbian Orator, he learns the power of reasoning, which allows him to recognize that slavery was not a pre-ordained institution for blacks. He also so sees that other people have suffered oppression and fought it. Once he learns the power of reasoning, like many slaves, he has the tools to set his mind free, and once the mind is free, more logical ways become apparent to make the body free.
Though this mental awareness gives Douglass a new sense of place and space, physical abuse becomes the control mechanism for slaves who tried to overcome politicization. Slave masters often gave senseless beatings and work assignments in order to maintain control over the body of slaves. Douglass conveys this best in the following
statement during his stay with Covey:
Mr. Covey succeeded in breaking me. I was broken in body, soul, and sprit. My natural elasticity was crushed, my intellect languished, the disposition to read departed, the cheerful spark that lingered about my eye died; the dark night of slavery closed in upon me; and behold a man transformed into a brute (110)!
This transformation from a man into a brute is very telling of how the politicization process devastated the black consciousness. The spirit of self recognition that Douglass eventually achieved came from a mixture of intellect and anger: intellect because he is aware that the world held a place for him and other blacks beyond slavery, and anger because his status and environment offers very little hope in changing his condition. Slavery acts as a psychological capsule that only literacy can penetrate. Douglass would never recognize that the battle with Covey is a turning point in his career as a slave if he had not been able to break through this capsule with knowledge. He understands that however long he might remain a slave in form after this battle, the day had passed forever when he could be a slave [psychologically] in fact (113).
Despite moments of self-recognition like this among black male slaves, the Reconstruction period restricted them in other ways and emancipation left them without space or status, only a veiled sense of freedom.
discrepancies between African Americans and whites and to give formerly enslaved people access to American Democracy. Federally imposed policies implemented at this time, ordered that African Americans be allowed to own land; have access to better jobs, and education, and generally claim their places in American society. With federal agitation for the rights of blacks and the presence of troops on Southern soil to enforce those rights, some Blacks succeeded in changing their status in positive ways. The struggle to find a voice and consciousness was tied to the larger struggle of Blacks to secure recognition as citizens. Black activists had to be ever vigilant in an environment where forces were constantly at work to return them to slavery. After the Civil War, however, southern governments reenacted black codes in reaction to the federal government’s active intervention in their affairs and to further oppress blacks. The Fourteenth Amendment, adopted in 1868, granted Blacks citizenship, but the reality of that condition was not soon forthcoming. This left a large number of black people physically dislocated. Black men in particular were anxious to determine what their roles in the new society would be and what allies they would have as they assumed those roles, especially in becoming socially men.
After Douglass’s narrative, almost one-hundred years passed by the time Wright’s Black Boy is published, but black males and black people in general had not accomplished much. Wright’s autobiography begins with his boyhood, which allows the reader to witness the making of a politicized black male consciousness that “hungers” for masculinity and further examines the politicization process as black males attempted to mature, obtain jobs, raise a family, and coexist in America. This politicization occurs because Wright’s race, class and gender identity are not the origin of his social status because these identities do not make his social existence empowering, but rather limited.
Indeed, as Black Boy demonstrates, Wright’s environment becomes further restricted as he grows older. During the time Wright focuses on in the novel, most black males find it difficult to find jobs and almost impossible to raise a family. As a result, many black men abandon their families as Wright’s father does early in the novel. To support the family, Wright’s mother cooks for a white family. Wright’s encounter with whites causes his own environment to become politicized, especially when he begins to understand the relationship between whites and blacks. Like most children, Wright discovers the secret of racism that separates blacks and whites. While literacy provides an avenue to understanding his politicized existence, Wright’s self-awareness shapes most acutely when he learns that a black boy is beaten by a white man for no apparent reason. This is the beginning of Wright’s long journey toward understanding the struggles of black masculinity in the midst of white men. He comes to this conclusion at the age of four.
It is when Wright and his mother move in with his grandmother in Jackson, Mississippi that he comes face to face with the nemesis of black males: Jim Crow. Jim Crow informs Wright as to why black and white people never touched each other except in violence. This separation of white and black people in society causes Wright to question his own environment. Hunger is an environmental element that becomes a permanent fixture in his life compared to whites. As a result, anytime there is an abundance of food, as when he’s at his aunt’s house, he hides some to “keep as a bulwark against any possible attack of hunger” (59). Jim Crow attempts to teach Wright the value of black male life, further shaping the black male consciousness. When his Uncle Hoskins is murdered by white men for his flourishing liquor business, Wright does not understand why his mother and Aunt do not fight back. The boldness in Wright provokes fear in Wright’s mother whom she slaps into silence. She is afraid because Wright is on a sure path to death if he acts on his feelings. At the age of nine, he does not understand that black men had no place or status that allows them to take action against white men. It always seemed to him that whites dictated much of his family’s life.
Just like Wright’s grandmother, his mother imparts to him the “gems of Jim Crow wisdom” (60). This aids in the politicization of his consciousness to accept an inferior place and space in society. During his boyhood, there is virtually no chance for his mind to develop freely.
Everything conspires against his personal freedom because of the consequences of race. Wright’s guardians attempt to teach him how to minimize these consequences, even if means losing dignity and respect. He is treated brutally and tyrannically at home in order to prevent his being treated the same way or worse outside the home.
He uses the lessons his mother teaches him while working for an optical company by pronouncing his “sirs” distinctly so that the whites know that he knows his place and that he is addressing white men.
Thus, the Southern codes of conduct are given to his family by the white power structure to enforce upon him the message for black children that echoes in Agelina Grimke’s sentimental social protest play Rachel: black children must never strive to be more than black children; if they do, not only will they suffer a terrible fate, but their family will as well. As Jabari Asim notes in Black Man Standing, similar lessons are taught by African American parents today in reference to police profiling and brutality and the tragedies that
we have provided them [their sons] with a commonsense approach to personal safety that includes avoiding questionable people and staying away from dangerous places. Still they know that we can’t keep them safe once they step outside, that in a world where standing in the doorway of one’s home is seen as reasonably constituting suspicious behavior, all bets are off” (32).
Wright’s lessons, however, do not carry much weight or assurance because of the self-imposed privilege of some whites to accept or reject the lesson, regardless of how well it is learned. He never knows if his “yes sirs” or no sirs” will be good enough to please whites. This is evident when Wright becomes an economic threat while working for an optical company because he wants to learn the trade of the white man and his presumed disrespect for white workers. Racism allows Wright’s white coworkers to rewrite the script by blaming Wright for the problems of their insecurities.
Wright’s mind becomes so politicized because of racism that he questions his own value. This is evident when he tries to sell his dog, Betsy, to a white family for money to buy food. Upon arriving at the chosen home, he marvels at how clean, quiet, and orderly the white world is compared to his chaos, but he also recognizes that this white world is not a place or space that he can occupy. This realization makes him feel threatened, and that his black skin incites the white woman to conclude/suggest that he is a “bad nigger boy.” At this young age, Wright becomes aware that his narrative as a black man has already been written and that “there existed men against whom he is powerless, men who can violate his life at will” (86). This hostility he feels from whites becomes deeply implanted in his mind and feelings and affects every aspect of his daily environment. Wright becomes fully aware of the power and control whites have over blacks when he realizes that “there is but one place where a black boy who knows no trade can get a job, and that’s were the houses and faces are white, and where the trees and hedges are green” (82).
Once politicization is complete, black males bond together as well as whites to follow the racial scripts they are taught. The following passage is very telling of the roles black and white males find themselves in after the instillation of delicate, sensitive controlling mechanisms that instruct their minds and emotions to accept what
each race says is taboo about the other:
We were now large enough for the white boys to fear us and both of us, the white boys and the black boys began to play our traditional racial roles as though we had been born to them, as though it was in our blood, as though we were being guided by instinct [add politicization]. All the frightful descriptions we had heard about each other, all the violent expressions of hate and hostility that had seeped into us from our surroundings, came now to the surface to guide our actions. The roundhouse was the racial boundary of the neighborhood, and it had been tacitly agreed between the white boys and the black boys that the whites were to keep to the far side of the roundhouse and we blacks were to keep to our side.
Whenever we caught a white boy on our side we stoned him; if we strayed to their side, they stoneed us (97).
Clearly, society politicizes Wright to believe that his space and place is very limited. It is during these childhood stone games that Wright becomes aware of his limited environment. He recognizes the vast contrast that can be made between his neighborhood and the white neighborhood across the tracks; nothing green ever grows in his “skimpy paved yard” (97). This difference between the yards is symbolic of the life differences between blacks and whites at the time.