How Do Black Men Speak about Themselves?

In an era when the nightly news brings yet another police murder of a Black man on television, it is more important than ever to listen to Black men speak about themselves. I feel so strongly about it, that I wrote a book that nobody cared about, that actually got me called “crazy” on more than one occasion, I almost self-published, and took 14 years to finish!

Book cover for Masculinity Under Construction. It is now available for pre-order at Amazon.com
Book cover for Masculinity Under Construction. It is now available for pre-order at Amazon.com
Upcoming Book Cover downloaded from amazon.com

How do Black men speak about themselves? Do we know? Do we ask? When they do speak about themselves, do we listen? If we seriously listened to TuPac, would we get past the beat to hear his very serious political commentary, or brush him off as “angry” (as if a Black man is not entitled to anger)? If we listened to Stevie Wonder, would we hear his concern for the environment? Or just listen to the songs we heard on the radio growing up (as if a Black man can’t be concerned about the environment)? If we listened to Malcolm X, would we hear how he advocated for women and spoke against Northern-style racism, or would we reduce him to one quote (please don’t make me repeat it here)? But do we even go that far?

Or, do we go and find the latest, trashiest RAP song with cartoonishly vulgar/violent lyrics on the radio and discuss that as a Black man speaking to/for/about other Black men? Do we find some anti-Black, Black white supremacist on the setting of sports entertainment/analysis stage and amplify an ex-athlete’s prattle as “expert” opinion on Black men and Black masculinity? Or, do we find a coked-out Black celebrity whose emotional/psychological substance goes no deeper than a mirror’s reflection, stick a microphone and camera in his/her face and say that this person’s opinion must suffice for all of Black masculine America? Do we really do that? Do we find some clown, who speaks in the childish, empurpled language of a comic book, sprinkle it with data, call it social science and say that Black men are “endangered species” and take it for gospel truth because he has a doctorate from a reputable university? What serious social scientist would actually animalize any human being by calling him/her a “species”? Who would be senseless enough to continue the pseudo-scientific, race-tinged dogmatic language of Scientific Racism in the 21st century? Or, do we trot out some political scientist or journalist to call Black men, when they are in a celebratory mood or when they, as lawful citizens of this country, decide to exercise their rights of free speech and peaceful protests, to call them “thugs” and “sons-of-bitches”? And when we find out that said Black man has a degree from a “civilized” white institution, try and validate him with another degreed Black person by pointing out that he has a degree — as if Black men are not entitled to expressions of joy/anger/sadness in the ways that white men are?

Written down in this manner, it seems non-sensical and in a dark, Rabelasian way, almost humorous — if Black male lives weren’t being taken on a daily basis. All of my life, I have heard the dehumanizing, zoonotic discourse that turns Black men into criminals, objects, animals, and faux men. “Black men are murderers.” “Black men are an endangered species.” “Black men are thieves.” “Black men are drug dealers.” “Black men are absentee fathers.” Black men are rapists.” “There are more Black men in jail than there were slaves.” “Black men will be extinct by the time you are 25.” “Young ladies, you won’t have anybody to get married to, because by the time you can get married, all of your men will be dead or in jail.” “Black men don’t do nothing but shoot and kill one another.” “The more educated a Black woman becomes, the less likely she will be to get married. There simply aren’t enough educated Black men who will want to marry her.” “Black men ain’t shit.” “Black families are dysfunctional, because they are female-headed.”

Quite frankly, by the time I reached 16, I was tired. I was tired of the nightly news that focused on the 25% of the Black male criminal population, I was tired of school assemblies that told me Black men were going to be “extinct” by the time I reached 25, and I was tired of social scientists who kept animalizing Black men by saying they were “species,” and I was tired of movies about World War II that only focused on white soldiers and never on people like my grandfather and his brother who fought in segregated units in the South Pacific and I was tired of people not actually HEARING TuPac and I was tired of people focusing on Ice Cube’s profanity and violence and not listening to the fact that he was comparing the LAPD to the Ku Klux Klan in Predator and I was tired of people not actually focusing on other things that killed Black men besides Black men like the very aggressive strand of prostrate cancer that seems to ravage and kill Black men at an alarming rate and I was tired of people telling me that I was not going to get married because all of my peers would be in jail as if getting married were my only goal in life and being a woman all by myself was not enough and I was tired, tired, TIRED of never hearing from young Black men on a national platform, because Civil Rights Era Baby Boomer Black men just never seemed to “get” it. What did Black men say about Black men and to other Black men?

Then, one day, in graduate school, I discovered a James Baldwin collection edited by Toni Morrison. And, no pun intended, “my dungeon shook.” I discovered, between the pages of Baldwin, that there is masculinity and then there is blasculinity. And woe unto anyone who confuses the two!

James Baldwin essay collection edited by Toni Morrison available on Amazon.com
James Baldwin essay collection edited by Toni Morrison available on Amazon.com
Downloaded from Amazon.com

Allow me to quote from my upcoming text, if you will: “In ‘Freaks and American Ideal of Manhood,’ Baldwin discusses the ramification of race-based slavery upon the Western world and slavery upon the history of mankind. He writes, ‘For the first time in human history, a man was reduced not merely to a thing but to a thing the value of which was determined, absolutely, by that thing’s commercial value’”(pg. 137). In the beginning of the book, using Baldwin’s very keen analysis, I call this process the “cognification” of Black men. On this page, I write, “The cognification of Black men lasted long past the demise of those institutions.”

As an American academic, I would love to arrogantly declare that I have somehow coined a new term. I have not. James Baldwin, writing almost 70 years ago, speaking to and about and with Black men, described, defined, and analyzed that concept for all of us. Because we somehow could not understand Black men as anything other than human cogs and animals and because we could not understand masculinity as a gender and accepted patriarchy as “natural,” we shuffled Baldwin aside. Now, as we see Black men being callously murdered with knees to the neck and chokeholds that take minutes to kill, we need to understand the psychology of the perpetrators. They were not killing human beings, but animals and cogs. It was the same with the horrific Parsley Massacre in the Caribbean. James Baldwin even talked about the role of fear that many white men carry of Black men. On November 17, 1962, he published an article in The New Yorker called “Letter from a Region in My Mind.”

Of the fear that white men carry of Black men, Baldwin writes more than 50 years ago, “Neither civilized reason nor Christian love would cause any of those people to treat you as they presumably wanted to be treated; only the fear of your power to retaliate would cause them to do that, or seem to do it, which was (and is) good enough.” Baldwin, obviously, is speaking to someone directly. So often, he is speaking to his namesake, his nephew, James. In my book, I write that this criminalization/faux men stereotype, concocted by philosophers doing psuedoscience for the sake of establishing and advancing mercantile capitalism, had/has real consequences. It came to us packaged neatly at the turn of century in the form of the mythological figure that we now know as the Black rapist beast. And it was his raw power, something attributed to him by the creators of the stereotype, that was most feared: “Raw, brute power and retaliation from Black men was a real fear and the source of caricatures and stereotypes. The Black, rapist beast entered into the American imagination as slavery ended and his ramifacations lasted well into the twentieth century” (pg. 29). When I saw the cops shoot a handcuffed Black man in the back, I saw not hatred, but fear and cowardice. A handcuffed man is no danger to anyone, but police are human beings like everyone else. They have been inculcated with a lifetime of entertainment, political language, and maybe even religious speech that tell them that Black men are animal-like, unthinking, titan-like criminals with brute strength and a chip on their collective shoulders about slavery and they are just itching for revenge for slavery and the subsequent American Holocaust.

The figure of the criminalize faux-man in North America or Caliban in the Caribbean or silent but frenzied blue-black native in white-authored texts like Tarzan or Trader Horn or Heart of Darkness or even something as liberal as Death of a Salesman continued and continues to haunt Black men. But Black men do speak. From Walker’s Appeal to Alexis’s General Sun, My Brother, to Tutuola’s Palm Wine Drinkard, they speak.

A still that shows a white actress, two white actors and a Black native from Trader Horn. Downloaded from tvtropes.org
A still that shows a white actress, two white actors and a Black native from Trader Horn. Downloaded from tvtropes.org
Still from Trader Horn. Downloaded from tvtropes.org

Even through the stereotypes, Black men attempt to speak. Native Son, published in 1940, speaks to the mythology of the Black rapist beast. Most critics focused on the hatred that Bigger had for his family, particularly for the women in his life; however, I wanted to focus on the way that Northern-style racism crafted the stereotype and how Bigger tried to speak to it. “The indignity of living in a rat-infested, overly-crowded kitchenette building in the redlined South side of Chicago is but one way that Northern racism personally touches Bigger and the entire Thomas family. Bigger feels emasculated because as the oldest male child of the house he feels responsible for the welfare of the family and is unable to provide enough economically to move them to a better dwelling” (pg. 42). Personally, Bigger feels inhibited and restricted by a city that promises much and delivers almost nothing. His jobs are subservient, his pay is meagre, and his opportunities are nonexistent. It is rather telling that Wright does not set this book in Alabama or Mississippi or the South in general where the Black rapist beast mythology had its most heinous influence and the American Holocaust was the worst, but in Chicago.

In the Caribbean, Black male writers adapted and adopted the figure of Caliban, from Shakespeare’s play, A Tempest. Aimee Cesaire, wrote there are many adaptations of Caliban by Black writers, but I choose Cesiare’s, in part because of the linguistic politics at play here. While many African Americans were violently opposed to ebonics (in part, this opposition was cued by media portrayals. I still cannot believe how effective the media was at NOT interviewing any linguistic or English professors during that entire controversy), the Black Caribbean has been much more mature about political debates and language. In fact, the brand of English used throughout the Caribbean is no longer called, patois, but nation-language. In Cesaire’s play, “Using nation-language rather than the European language of Prospero is Caliban’s way of engaging Perspero and opposing him simultaneously, and it is also a nonviolent reclamation of Caliban’s masculine identity that does not involve using either a Black woman or a European one as a cultural symbol/object”(50). In colonial situations, language does matter. It can imprison and it can liberate.

Last, Tutuola DOES NOT shy away from the African “jungle” that has so populated white authored books and movies in the West. Instead, he plunges the reader in the bush, and with his language, he normalizes it while making the trappings of civilization seem abnormal. Tutuola does not even mention white men or white people at the beginning of The Palm-Wine Drinkard. Instead, “As a drinker of excessive wine, he lives in opposition to his own community” (pg. 44). When the tale ends, the drinkard takes his rightful place as a productive member of his own society.

Having read through literature of the African Diaspora, and I am still a student of this literature (and I will be for the rest of my life), I have found and am still finding a pattern with Black men: only those men who use masculinity and not blasculinity to judge themselves and the measure of their lives feel “castrated” or “emasculated.” In almost all of the texts that I read, those protagonists, those who played the lone, male hero — so often celebrated in white, male fiction and popular culture — were either dead or isolated to the point of cultural irrelevancy by the end of the narrative. Only those Black men who judged their own communities’ standards and those who chose the love of their families instead of the size of their bank accounts as the sole measure of their manhoods survived to the end of the text.

And though Baldwin began writing this more than 60 years ago, I feel that it is worth reiterating: if the world refuses to see Black men as human beings by the white world’s standards, perhaps we need to check the standards and stop checking/arresting/beating the men. The problem is not with Black men. The problem is with a system that would measure them as things with an attached dollar sign, stereotype them, then fear them based on a stereotype that they had absolutely nothing to do with. What would happen in America if we stopped criminalizing Black men and let go of our psychological security blankets?

This comes directly from my scholarship. I have taught Black masculinity in literature as a specialty course, but I have not taught it in a while.

LaToya Jefferson-James has a Ph.D. in literature. She specializes in literature of the African Diaspora and cultural criticism.

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