The Masculinity Project addresses the complexities of masculinity in the African American community; how young brothas are represented and perceived; their struggles, as well as their contributions. The National Black Programming Consortium asked for essays relating to this on-going discussion. Here's a full transcript of the piece I submitted--
“What does it mean to be a man?” is the question NBPC posed;
and the way I answer that question is by first considering the Americanization of the African male from the very first slave auction to our current condition. It’s futile to have any form of critical discussion about Black masculinity—American Black masculinity—without beginning with the beginning. That is, the sexualization of the African male slave, along with his female counterpart, and White America’s on-going preoccupation with the Black man as a sexual object. Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man addressed the plight of the American Black man in his efforts to become recognized as a human being. Yet it was, and still is, his sexuality that we somehow find more interesting. Without being too academic or too lengthy, I approach the question of Black maleness in America in five ways: 1) the Americanization of the Black Man, 2) the stifling of the Black man’s spirit, 3) hyper-masculinity, 4) homosexuality and Black homophobia, and 5) solutions.
The Americanization of the Black Man
No other country but the U.S. places so much emphasis on machismo. Not even Latin America where double standards may be the rule, but the obsession with acting tough, prison tough, is virtually non-existent. If you’ve been paying any attention, you’ll notice that young male immigrants, including those from the Caribbean, come to the States bright-eyed with a sensitivity to others and themselves that quickly vanishes once they learn to ‘toughen up’. I call it ‘the American way’. Because it’s not merely an inner-city phenomenon but an American standard for males to be so careful about showing affection to one another, perfecting the art of unemotionality, making sure to dress in a way that supports street culture, and adopting questionable definitions of Black maleness, since the prerequisite to becoming 'American' is not only U.S. citizenship but inner-city know-how. Know how to swagger. Know how to keep your pants low enough to show your buttocks. Know how to wear your do-rag. Know how to hold your crotch when speaking. Know how to wear the kinds of accessories that help you claim your place on your block. All the paraphernalia that have absolutely nothing whatsoever to do with authentic Black male hood. And yet this know-how has become essential for any young man, particularly Black young males who find it much easier to follow street codes rather than make the effort to discover who they are behind the drag. Ask any Black male teen and he’ll school you on the importance of having ‘the look’ and thug attitude. Ask any non-Black male teen and he’ll no doubt tell you how for him it’s more than just learning how to fit in, but a kind of indoctrination he knows how to turn off once he’s at home with his kinfolk and away from the fanfare. For the young brotha in 'da hood', however, look and attitude are skin-tight, difficult to replace with more substantive DNA since group acceptance are key to individual survival. Like purposely failing your classes to appear more Black. Because it's cool to be streets smart but not book smart. And if you're book smart, best to stick to hood soap operas to keep your hood membership. Thus, the Americanization of the Black man is cousin to the hoodization of the Black boy where the mindset is wild, wild west where everything but self-reflection is up for grrabs.
There’s something about the country we live in that allows White males to be full human beings while limiting the definitions of maleness for others. You see it in our everyday doings, in our media, play grounds, and campuses. You see it in our politics when you hear people say Barack Obama isn’t tough enough or he’s too nerdy, or just not Black enough, as if to suggest that Al Sharpton and Jesse Jackson are more Black than him. I’ve travelled some, and I can tell you that I don’t see this type of preoccupation of acting brolic in other countries. You might see young Brits or Japanese Hip Hop heads imitating gangsta rappers and what they perceive to be Black. But you won’t see the negation of being a full human being anywhere else but the U.S.. You also won’t see any other Black groups call themselves by the very names their slave owners called them. James Baldwin used to say Americans love bullshit! We encourage the negation of the self behind the bling. It's in our history. How it’s founded on terrorism and continues to infest the minds of our male children. Even impressionable young Black girls find it attractive to see a boy practically walking like a toddler all over again because his pants are worn so low. We’ve gone from glorifying prison mentality to honoring street culture, and the retail stores are happy to push the fashion that comes with the trends. But this is not a trend or, like Jeri Curls, we would’ve seen this too pass. Nah, this is the American macho mindset, whether it’s Rambo or Black Exploitation. You don’t see the absurdity of it until you step out of it. The challenge, then, for any Black parent is to find balance between understanding the pressures of growing up in America and finding real substance at the family table.
The Stifling of the Black Man’s Spirit
With the emphasis on being a sexual extraordinaire, sports jock and bling master, it’s no wonder that the number of depressed Black men is increasing every year. When Michael Baisden says we cry in the dark, it’s not a cliché. The pressure to adhere to not only White folks’ expectations of what an American Black man is supposed to look, act and talk like, but to hood exploitation as well where the road between boy and man is often ambiguous, causing brothas--young and older--to suppress their natural spirit in the name of artificial acceptance. If it takes stepping out of the box to recognize the absurdity in pretending to be gangsta, it takes super conscientious parenting to fight against street mentality. Black culture is not street culture, though some of us have decided it is. We might complain about our boys looking like bandits, yet we complain in the dark, feeling powerless against the Machine. But if Black men subscribe to street mentality, how can we expect Black boys not to do the same? If Black men use the N word as freely as saying hello, how can we then expect our boys to challenge themselves? And if pastors don’t challenge themselves and their congregation by encouraging more critical thinking and less victim mindset, where then is the true spirit of the American Black male?
To define what it means to be a man—a Black man—depends on his home turf; and from an American perspective, it’s that cowboy mentality clashing with the Shango within that stifles his spirit. It's a contradiction of sorts where the emphasis on thug mentality pulls at a brotha's wings, creating a kind of inner turmoil that works against our legacy of resilience and pride. Without intervention, it becomes a way of life to deny one’s ability to be a full human being, and as a consequence he limits his view of not only the world but of himself.
Ever notice how some brothas spit on the ground whenever they cross one another’s path?
It's as if they're preparing themselves for attack, each letting the other know he's not intimidated. It's both interesting and sad to watch. Interesting because of the amount of defensive energy placed in something as simple as walking towards someone; and sad because out of all the greetings either of them can think of, acknowledging one another’s similar skin color and so experience, at least, it's the spitting with such disposition that overrides any possible form of solidarity. It's a behavior that best fits war zones. Bullet-holed neighborhoods that force people to learn combative codes of conduct. But just like wearing your jeans low enough to show your boxers, spitting as you approach another brotha has become a way of life for young inner-city males, especially. If you think in terms of war and casualties, you understand how dissin a nigga’s sneekaz is an effective form of weaponry. Killing before being killed is the name of the game. A form of prison mentality adopted into everyday living, with media exploitation and sexual pomposity as fallout. This is what hyper-masculinity is. The over-exaggeration of an already corrupt definition of what it means to be a man— a Black man in America.
So how do brothas adopt this behavior, in the first place? Who and what pushes it, and why? And how do we get rid of hyper-masculinity when it's supported by even the women we love? To briefly answer these questions means connecting the dots from the ramifications of the enslavement of the African male to Jim Crow laws that limited the Black man's movement and aspirations , to having to conk their hair (a/k/a straightening their hair with lye), to welfare policies that forbid female recipients from having their men live with them, to being passed over for jobs in preference for passive brothas, to only being allowed to prosper in sports, pastor hood, entertainment and illegal activities, to succumbing to finally becoming a fragmented human being perfect for eurocentric doctoral research— Why is the Black man so angry?
If we argue that hyper-masculinity is rampant in the Black Community and that it’s adding to the destruction of Black boys, we can lay blame on our culture of violence and the post-psychosis syndrome that comes with having to bear the burden of truth. On the other hand, it’s this same psychosis that somehow gives way to innovative cultural expression and healing. So the bigger question then is whether or not we’re creating a restrictive or progressive definition of what it means to be Black and male.
Homosexuality and Black Homophobia
There’s a reason behind the down low hype, and it’s much more complex than politics and soap opera books. When a person is stripped of their natural heritage and culture and then made to cope within the walls of an injustice system, living an authentic personhood of any kind becomes a goal. Not a given. And denial is not the answer but the question. So let’s first admit some obvious and not so obvious points—
There is homosexuality in our community. Many of our past and current high profile figures were and are homosexual. We have an alarming number of Black homeless same gender loving teens. There are gay Rappers and Hip Hop artists. There was consensual gay sex down at the prison I taught at back in the Tupac n Biggie days. It’s not a White thing or an HIV thing. It’s the way of the world. The more we deny sexuality at its most basic nature, the more we deny who we are; and the more we deny who we are, the more we deny God.
It’s a process to remember to love your kind. We’ve been so conditioned to do otherwise that we forget our collective struggle. It’s in respecting another’s right to be as they see fit where we begin learning not to throw away our own children. The Black American male doesn’t have the luxury of living his life the way he sees fit. The greatness he sees in his mirror is not enough for him to combat the guilt he feels when he’s caught between fulfilling social expectations and his personal journey. So it’s not that the behavior alone is down low, but that when it comes to the Black Community we’re pretty much DL on any topic we deem taboo, which in turn causes individuals to live undercover lives out of fear of isolation and attack. It’s gonna take the new generation of American Blacks who think out the box, whose frame of reference is more progressive and free of victim mindset to allow both the homosexual brotha and sista to re-join the family table and take their rightful place.
We have a tendency of focusing on our burdens and not on solutions. It’s that psychosis again. The hurt that never got resolved. It’s like the person who molested you providing your financial aid. That’s why the Million Man March was all hype. There was no follow-up. No real change. No accountability from the Black inner-city officials who had promised to place their full attention on community development. Instead, they cashed in on the social ills and let gentrification lead the way. This promise un-fulfilled has a direct affect on our everyday lives; and this is how you create the American Black male, how you program him, in a capitalist system, without intervention. To be a Black man, then, means learning who you are from where you are, superman-ing your way in and out of trends and isms and defining success in your own terms. It means celebrating the entrepreneurial vision and skills of our sons; no more criticizing gangsta Rap and focusing instead on alleviating the things they’ve been griping about, in the first place. It means monitoring what the public school system is putting in their heads and what we put in their hearts. Nuf said!