What’s the problem with Black Masculinities?

by Dr Ornette D Clennon 

Like so many of us, I was spellbound by the recent conversation between bell hooks and Melissa Harris Perry that showed beyond any doubt the lively power of an intersectional analysis that concerns itself with the entanglements of race, gender, class and sexuality in history and in everyday life. One point that caught my attention was when bell hooks responded to a question from the audience, picking up on and problematising the use of the term ‘hypermasculine’.

We should be careful about how we use the idea of hypermasculinity when talking about black men, hooks argued: it is patriarchy not masculinity that is the problem. This distinction recognises patriarchy as more than an economic system of male power and privilege and acknowledges the ways in which gendered relationships of power are also racialised, infusing identity, emotions and perspective. Talking of patriarchy as a disease Cornel West writes,

I grew up in traditional black patriarchal culture and there is no doubt that I’m going to take a great many unconscious, but present, patriarchal complicities to the grave because it so deeply ensconced in how I look at the world. Therefore, very much like alcoholism, drug addiction, or racism, patriarchy is a disease and we are in perennial recovery and relapse. So you have to get up every morning and struggle against it.

The distinction between hypermasculinity and patriarchy is a subtle and complicated point. hooks seemed to be saying that if there is no critical thinking space from which to examine masculinity in terms outside of a patriarchy we restrict the room for acknowledging what she refers to as the ‘wounded’ psyche of the black male. How then do we begin to value and nurture black men?

“One of the things I’ve always felt so strongly and really expressed in We Real Cool hooks said, ‘is the depth of black male woundedness by patriarchial terrorisim and until those wounds get addressed in some way I don’t think we’re gonna get the respect, the recognition, the care…”

It is this notion of “patriarchal terrorism” that intrigues me the most. I see this as a terrorism that hijacks black masculinity, in its continually evolving forms, and turns it in on itself[i]. For me, hypermasculinity is both a cultural artefact and a commodity of patriarchy, with repercussions for us all. It is the commodification of black hypermasculinity as an apparatus of patriarchy that I want to consider more closely.

black_male_model_shirtless_thumb2Through the exaggeration of dominant or ‘hegemonic’ masculinity, the image of black men as hypermasculine can become a cultural tool of self-regulation and self-loathing. This act of hijacking of what it means to be a man is a double whammy of subterfuge in modern culture where black masculinity has been co-opted as a purveyor of the market. In the Western neoliberal market cultural “blackness” sells. At the same time the blow of patriarchal domination is given a new sheen. It becomes a new false consciousness.

At the other end of the spectrum, we in our role as consumers of marketed blackness are also promised the privileges associated with cultural and social upward mobility and cool. Yet these promises are nothing more than  mass consumerism built on a blackenised promise of an unattainable utopia. As we think of ourselves as self-determining as consumers (i.e. buying into the hype) we choose cultural commodities that signify “blackness” in the Kviftian sense of a commercial and exotic othering. We are duped into thinking that we have secured our individuality through the cultural aspirations of the market. Here is the second subterfuge; the market has become an institution in its own right.

In his bookDiscipline and Punish, the philosopher Michel Foucault describes how power is mediated through what he calls “discipline”. It is able to instil self-regulating behaviour in its subjects. However, whilst we are keeping our beady – yes beady, because, as Harris-Perry contends, we should be angry at the social injustices eyes honed on structural inequalities are we becoming instutionalised by the market in much the same way as Foucault’s prisoner who rejects freedom in favour of the familiarity and ‘safety’ of captivity?

The power that this hidden-in-plain-view (market) institution wields is this very idea of commercial “blackness” that threatens to hold us ideologically captive too. It infiltrates our lines of resistance like the Trojan horse, as it is mediated through cultural images[ii] and market brandings of black hypermasculinity. Through these brandings such as the marketing of Hip Hop or here in the UK anything with the epithet “urban”, patriarchy is able to subjugate both men and women of all colours in one fell swoop. Think of Miley Cyrus and Lily Allen and how racialised patriarchy was played out on the bodies of twerking black women, even in Allen’s attempt to subvert it.

hooks recognises, as quoted earlier, that until we address the insidious nature of the role of patriarchy in the woundedness of black men, we will not be able to address the woundedness of black women (or anyone else). But why focus on the black male? Why is it important to address men as a priority?

black_male_skin_muscleI would argue that as patriarchy is racialised, we can discern its contemporary workings in the market objectification or fetishisation of the black male body. The market fetishisation of the black male physique [PDF] means that black men are necessarily kept on a perverse pedestal of hyper masculinity. There is little scope to explore other aspects of what makes a man a man – whatever that may be. Jackson[iii] talks about the iconography of the black male physique that is only allowed to be desired (by the white male gaze[iv]) through its visual depictions of woundedness, in the Hip Hop glorification of the gun-shot wound, for example.

This desire is ultimately forbidden so must be disguised or hidden. Here commercially exploitative iconography allows the “patriarch” to play out masculinity using a fantasy avatar of black hypermasculinity which subjugates all men and women. The legacy of this human objectification is that the black male body has indeed been marketed to designate the epitome of masculinity that is both feared and revered in equal measure. However, the market regularly co-opts what it once considered to be animal (just as slaves were also traded in markets). In so doing it still exerts and demonstrates its ownership of the commodity. We can see this in the fetishisation and market abstraction of the black male physique and the pornographic perception of his superior reproductive powers, both images of which are post-slavery, post-colonial dehumanising constructs.

The power of this version of black masculinity is such that westernised men (and women) are falling under the spell of black priapism and aspiring to this limiting commercial branding of masculinity that pivots on homophobia, misogyny and emotional infantilism. As black men, we run the risk of limiting ourselves socially and emotionally. For instance, a study of young people in the UK by psychologists Frosh, Phoenix and Pattman found that the valorisation of black boys as hypermasculine – physical, sporty and super-cool – also involved the rejection of the pursuit of intellectual activities as ‘gay’.

In other areas of social life such as family relationships, there is little room for the black man to be considered a “father” because in the archetype he is only expected to sire offspring using his superior reproductive powers. The black man is not expected to be a “husband”, rather as a stud or breeding machine he is expected to be sexually profligate. So resisting and not conforming to this deeply embedded social and archetypal narrative is to open oneself to marginalisation or worse still, abuse and violence. Even though more versions of black masculinity are now being forged as black men resist dominant stereotypes, difficult questions remain.

How can a black man truly respect women? How is the black man supposed to be a father when all that is required of him is to sire? How can a black man explore other sexual orientations, other masculinities or ways of transacting with other men) such as being gay/bi/trans, or at the very least being emotionally aware/sensitive/literate when all other men are sexual competition or threats?
We need to take a good look at ourselves in the mirror of cultural and ideological liberation. Our diasporic histories are indeed a strength, yielding many cultural innovations. We also need to come to grips with the darker legacies of our ancestral journeys in order to move on and to develop resilience. Of course, this will not be easy but we can make a start by acknowledging that we ourselves play a part in perpetuating the structural inequalities through our self-speak, through our transactions with each other and with women, and through buying into the market hype about ourselves.

I take inspiration from the Marxist sentiment of ideological liberation as articulated in the Garvey-inspired Redemption song[v],

Emancipate yourselves from mental slavery,” because “None but ourselves can free our minds”


[i] I suppose I am alluding to a kind of Freudian “melancholic attachment” that the market (patriarchy or white male gaze see note vi) has to a form of masculinity that can never be/have or possess, as it is forbidden and can only manifest itself in grotesque caricature. In doing this the melancholia or loss (black hypermasculinity) becomes the only discursive lens through which to view masculinity per se.

[ii] So strong is this cultural embedding that it permeates our cultural associations of “blackness” far beyond the visual (e.g. music, language, sporting culture etc)

[iii] Jackson, C. (2011). Violence, Visual Culture, and the Black Male Body. New York, Oxford: Routledge.

[iv] Here, the idea of melancholic attachment comes into its own.

[v] Garvey, M. (1938, July). The Marcus Garvey and Universal Negro Improvement Association Papers. (R. A. Hill, & B. Bair, Eds.) Black Man magazine, 3(10), pp. 7-11.

Dr Ornette D Clennon is a Visiting Enterprise Fellow in the department of Contemporary Arts at Manchester Metropolitan UniversityHe is also a composer and singer and has worked with a variety of bands, orchestras, artists and ensembles, including the Scottish Chamber Orchestra, The Halle, The Smith Quartet and Soul II Soul.  His work explores the intersection between Arts, Culture and Social Agency. Ornette also works with communities, as a NCCPE (National Co-ordinating Centre for Public Engagement) Public Engagement Ambassador and is interested in researching the applied outcomes of his cultural theory research in the communities with which he works as a music practitioner and composer. Find him on twitter @revkollektiv


 

This article was commissioned for our academic experimental space for long form writing curated and edited by Yasmin Gunaratnam. A space for provocative and engaging writing from any academic discipline.

 

15 replies

  1. As if there’s something wrong with being a stud!!!!A LOT of ladies think me studly,INCLUDING ones nearly FORTY years my junior.Still,we black lads regard intellectualism as “white,” as well as any endeavour other than rap,which requires us to be thuggish and thus,”keep it real.”

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  2. Guess that’s because there are so many dumb-a**es out there today.As a poster boy handsome black Canadian chap,62,I could JUST IMAGINE,were I a youth today,my attempting to emulate barely (if that) literate,”Grillz”-teethed,baggy-pansted gangsta rapper with a 78 IQ.(Mine is close to 160.)
    That’s basically what “cool” or “hyper masculintity” is”:People of dull-normal or MUCH less intelligence telling us life-size Brads how to think,dress,speak,etc.

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  3. “As black men, we run the risk of limiting ourselves socially and emotionally. For instance, a study of young people in the UK by psychologists Frosh, Phoenix and Pattman found that the valorisation of black boys as hypermasculine – physical, sporty and super-cool – also involved the rejection of the pursuit of intellectual activities as ‘gay’.”

    No offence, but this quote shows that you don’t seem to understand what hypermasculinity actually means. You need to read the works of Richard N. Pitt on the misuse of this word.

    I’ll leave you with a couple of quotes:

    “People just use the word as if the word doesn’t have a real definition. So by using the word that has a real definition and just slapping it casually around on, for example, on black men who are standing on the street corner, then that by itself is a problem because remember, the definition of hypermasculinity says that these are men who are very violent, are likely to rape you and are risk takers.

    The second issue winds up being that people tend to use hypermasculinity in literature as a way to study the behavior of men of color, gay men who are “straight” acting, working class men and Hispanics. You would be hard-pressed to find an article that says let’s look at hypermasculine behavior on Wall Street or let’s look at hypermasculine behavior in white men—they don’t do it. So these groups wind up owning the term because when we’re looking at these particular behaviors, we tend to describe their behavior as hypermasculine, but we don’t describe other populations’ behavior as hypermasculine.”

    http://madamenoire.com/107072/qa-social-scientist-discusses-hypermasculinity-and-black-men/

    AND

    “Just as media elites have been criticized for incautiously portraying Black masculinity as hyperviolent, hypersexual, or hyperdelinquent, the social science community’s emphasis on “Black men in crisis” similarly essentializes Black masculinity in this way. One can barely imagine a published article about Black men or Black masculinity that does not speak to the problems inherent in the Black male performance of masculinity. A notable exception to this “essential Black masculinity” meme is Franklin’s (1994) description of five masculinities: conformist, ritualistic, innovative, retreatist, and rebellious. Each of these forms is described as a different response to Black men’s inability to achieve what scholars alternatively refer to as “traditional” or “ideal” masculinity. But even as social scientists scratch beneath the surface of this seemingly rich set of Black masculinities, it is discovered that the masculinities all exist in one way or other as behavioral adaptations deemed problematic by social scientists, behavioral adaptations that are too often described as hypermasculine. Not only do researchers privilege white, middle-class masculinity by referring to Black masculinity as hypermasculine, but they make Black masculinity an adaptive response. Ultimately, this places white masculinity at the center of the definition of ideal masculinity and reduces Black masculinity to a flawed circus-mirror reflection of it.”

    Richard N Pitt and George Sanders “Revisiting Hypermasculinity: Shorthand for Marginalized Masculinities”

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    • Hi Anon

      The inherent association of being adverse risk takers, rapists and the such is exactly what is overlaid in these cultural associations of black men. So really, as I say, this problem of perception and manipulation is really extremely damaging and pernicious – yes black men even just standing on street corners elicit these almost subliminal inner responses perceived as THREAT (c.f. police behaviour and stop and searches etc). We agree about the racialised patriarchy you describe when you correctly identify white masculinity at the centre. It is a desperate state of affairs.

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  4. This was a very interesting read.

    I especially agree with the idea that the perpetuation of hypermasculinity among black males can be explained by the panoptic concepts described by Michael Foucault. Speaking as a black man – we are indeed institutionalised at every level of society to maintain a protective facade, and this is largely due to rightfully feeling as though we are constantly being observed, judged and scrutinised against an unattainable ideal.

    You are right to attribute the origins of that “ideal” to the darkest days of our oppression. I agree that liberation from hypermasculinity will only happen once we face the truth that, in many ways (esp in the Western diaspora), we are “the prisoner who rejects freedom in favour of the familiarity and ‘safety’ of captivity”.

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  5. The following question posed in the video and not really addressed in earnest caught my attention: “African-american imperialism and the mode in which we are privileged in our idea of blackness. We throw blackness around as if we all understand what that is… we travel the world. There is a world out there – a global world out there that we exist in that identifies with blackness as an othering(?)… So, how do we leave room for that conversation when we start to inflict capitalist ways of thinking on other people”

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    • Hi Newt Guy

      That question caught my attention too, believe it or not. The African-American imperialism is actually the market commodification of Blackness (“black” culture as symbolised through the commercial images of black males, which are sold around the world at a market and marketised cultural value). For me, the young lady who asked the question was saying that if we take these “commercial” or global representations of “blackness” as actually referring to the Black experience (with ALL of its diversity), then where do we actually go in addressing the structural inequalities (racialised patriarchy) that make such commodification possible? This is a sort of “double consciousness” conundrum coined by W.E.B. DuBois where if we continue in “the mode in which we are privileged in our idea of blackness” (quote from video) we continue to see ourselves through the eyes of the very patriarchal system that is designed to keep us subjugated.

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    • Hi Newt Guy

      That question also caught my interest too! For me the young lady who posed that question was really talking about marketised patriarchy – African American imperialism is the commodification of the black experience (African American) to create a commercial form of “Blackness” that can be used to sell to and intellectually/”culturally” colonise the market (the imperial bit). I think to quote the questioner, if we continue in “the mode in which we are privileged in our idea of blackness” then we run the risk of seeing ourselves exclusively through the eyes of the very patriarchal institution designed for our subjugation – Du Bois called this a state of “double consciousness”. If we have no “self image” (in the broadest sense) outside of what is fed back to us, then we really are in trouble. I think when the questioner mentions “inflict[ing] capitalist ways of thinking on other people” that was what she was getting at, perhaps.

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  6. This is an excellent piece. Though my research is more about gender diversity and gender literacy than race, I felt it made an excellent point about the need to differentiate in our perceptions of gender the difference between Patriarchy and Masculinity, and how commercial messages may be reinforcing patriarchal perceptions and attitudes as cool. Such a sad step backwards if we fall into that trap!

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  7. Fantastic writing, thank you

    I just finished reading Black Cool to which hooks contributed an essay, ‘Forever’ that deals very well (and very accessibly) with the white-supremacist-patriarchy version of Black male cool. She points out that it’s a deathly cool that kills Black bodies… hooks and other authors (including dream hampton) also draw attention to more positive ‘streams’ of Black cool. I recommend the book to any folks who enjoyed this article = )

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