REVIEW: REINVENTING THE IDEAL OF THE BLACK MAN
By Ilene Fleischmann
Thursday, September 18, 2008.
What does it mean to be a man? What does it mean to be a black man? And what might it mean to be a black man freed of the dominant, violent, aggressive model that American culture has imposed on the male sex?
Those are some of the questions asked and answered in "Progressive Black Masculinities" (Routledge), a just-published collection of essays edited by Athena D. Mutua, associate professor at America's University of Buffalo Law School.
The book grew out of a workshop and a larger conference held at the Law School's Baldy Center for Law and Social Policy; the papers presented at that conference form the bulk of the volume. Mutua says the idea for the conference began with a class on "Critical Race Theory" that she taught with Stephanie L. Phillips, a professor in the Law School who has an essay in the collection.
At issue, Mutua says, are the ways that American culture speaks to African-American men about how "real men" behave. "All men are not privileged the same," she says. "Men themselves are divided by race, class, ethnicity and religion."
Men in general, she says, are subject to a "hegemonic" idea of masculinity that raises the notion of an unreachably ideal man. Individual men, Mutua says, are judged by how close they come to this ideal, which is characterized by a sense of dominance of the environment, work and home. The culturally imposed ideal is of a white, upper-class, propertied man, she says—"real men" who are not feminine, not gay, not boys and not black. And so the very idea of a "real man," Mutua argues, is inherently racist.
Hand in hand with that cultural racism, she says, is the pressure for black men to demonstrate the aggression and dominance that the male ideal demands. That pressure limits the full expression of men's individuality, but also limits the potential of the women in their lives and, for those around them, reinforces negative stereotypes of black men. "Black men get stuck in really limited images," says Mutua, who in addition to serving as editor wrote the book's introductory chapter setting out its premises.
Much of "Progressive Black Masculinities" is devoted to proposals for how to reinvent the ideal of the black man, suggesting new models that transcend the cultural racism and violence of the old ideal. For example, one writer presents an image of the strong black man as measured by the strength of his commitment to his family—a new model that does not confuse dominance for strength.
Other essays deal with the progressive and regressive aspects of hip-hop culture; the problematic aspects of the biblical letters of Paul; and a very personal piece by Duke University professor Mark Anthony Neal about the challenge of being a pro-feminist, progressive father of a daughter.
"We all recognize that this world is hard on black men," Mutua says. "But we also realize that black men are internalizing ideas that are deeply problematic, and they need to go beyond that."
She also acknowledges that, as a female scholar, she brings an outsider's sensibility to men's issues. But she and her husband, Makau Mutua, a professor in the UB Law School, have three sons. Athena Mutua says the book is personal to her because of them. "What do I do with these sons?" she asks. "What is it that I want to tell them? I want to tell them this: Please be progressive. Please be human."
From the UB (University of Buffalo) Reporter
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