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THE MAKING OF ‘NEW’ BLACK MEN

 

By Mark Anthony Neal, PhD.

Tuesday, April 13, 2010.

Comedian, author and radio host Steve Harvey, graces the cover of the November 2009 issue of Essence Magazine. The cover story celebrates what was a highly successful year for Harvey, the apex of which was the publication of his New York Times best-seller Act Like a Lady, Think Like a Man: What Men Really Think About Love, Relationships, Intimacy and Commitment. Pictured on the cover with his wife Marjorie Bridges-Woods, Harvey exhibits an aura of fitness and prosperity.

The underlying theme of the Essence cover story is that Harvey, now a born-again Christian, has turned his back on his sinful past (and profane comic performances), found redemption and is now fit for traditional male leadership within the black community. Indeed, the popularity of Harvey’s book, in which he offers relationship advice, suggest that the Black community also values this new role for Harvey.

The Essence cover photo of Harvey is a far cry from his appearance with Pastor Donnie McClurkin on the Trinity Broadcasting Network (TBN), broadcast just as the issue of Essence was about to hit newsstands. On McClurkin’s show, Harvey seemed to be literally collapsing under the weight of his new found responsibility. A tearful Harvey admits to McClurkin, “when you be out there, man… people don’t know what its like, if you ain’t got nobody to tell it to. See I can’t go sit with nobody who know what I’m feeling sometime…my friends aren’t famous, my real friends are regular cats. I can’t tell them what I feel like sometime. They ain’t got no information for me. I had to try to catch you [McClurkin] on the phone, had to try and catch Bishop Jakes, but he be busy, man…a cat like me, you be trying to hold it together yourself."

Harvey’s specific comments are perhaps less important than his intent to convey to McClurkin and his sizable audience—two billion worldwide, according the host—the difficulties of maintaining the image and reality of “Steve Harvey,” born-again Christian.

Donnie McClurkin, a three time Grammy Award winning Gospel artist and ordained minister is no stranger to such tearful outburst. A heavily emotive singer, McClurkin’s overwrought vocal performances often mimic the emotional breakdown that Steve Harvey experienced. It is an exaggeration that some Gospel audiences have become accustomed to, but McClurkin was not singing when, he addressed a COGIC (Church of God in Christ) youth gathering in Memphis, TN, in November of 2009. At the event, McClurkin seemed on the verge of an actual nervous breakdown as he spewed homophobic rhetoric—at one point inferring that Black GLBT’s were vampires—leading commentator Keyon Farrow to suggest that McClurkin’s “shrill rant became a shaming, a quasi witch hunt, where he demanded, screaming and speaking in tongues in moments, that the gay and lesbian youth went up to the altar in front of hundreds of people, to have ‘hands laid upon them’."

Having confirmed a life of homosexuality on various occasions in his past, including in his best-selling memoir, The Donnie McClurkin Story: From Darkness to Light, McClurkin’s performance at the COGIC gathering pivots on a belief that in the aftermath of his “born-again” Christian conversion, he is no longer tempted by homosexual desire. McClurkin’s antics suggest that he is not fully convinced, that his audience is fully convinced, that he is no longer—to evoke Joseph Beam—“in the life.”

A few weeks after McClurkin’s COGIC performance, audiences were captivated by a unfolding Thanksgiving Day domestic drama in South Florida, where the sheen of respectability that had engulfed the career and image of professional golfer and iconic pitchman Tiger Woods, was dramatically eroding with the charges and subsequent admission that he had engaged in several extra-marital affairs. Woods seemingly cavalier and reckless behavior, could have been easily been dismissed as insolent, but given how casually he went about his relations with more than a dozen women—Woods seemed to want to be caught.

It was as if Woods was fatigued—emotionally and mentally—by living up to the image that was crafted by him by his management and the corporate entities that he represented. Indeed in the now famous photo of Woods shot in 2006 by celebrity photographer Anne Leibovitz, and featured on the cover of the January 2010 edition of Vanity Fair Magazine, Woods evokes the iconography of turn-of-the-century Heavyweight boxer Jack Johnson. The photo seems to capture Woods's resignation at having to constantly live up to “Brand Tiger.”

Steve Harvey’s tearful breakdown, Pastor Donnie McClurkin’s emotional rant, and Tiger Woods’s destructive behavior provide insight into the contemporary crisis of black masculinity, which I argue has as much to do with the real structural challenges that black males face on a daily basis, as it does with desires within Black communities for performances of black masculinity that are no longer viable or sustainable—if they ever were. Specifically the demand is for performances of Black masculinity that are tethered to notions of respectability and racial uplift. While such performances are also desired for the Black family at large, it is the Black man—as titular head of the Black family—who is expected to set the example for respectability, though it is often the burden of Black Women to embody that respectability as a reflection of Black masculinity.

Thus current narratives of Black masculinity are informed by a widespread belief that Black men are not living up to their responsibilities as “positive” role models, fathers, husbands and community members. What distinguishes this particular discourse of respectability from previous historical examples, is the presence of Barack Hussein Obama. With the emergence of the first African-American president, the current crisis of Black masculinity is largely premised on perceived fissures between the omnipresent figures of respectability that Obama and the first family cut and the reality of how Black life is lived and experienced on a day-to-day basis.

The connection between performances of Blackness and notions of respectability have long been established within African-American life. In her classic book Righteous Discontent: The Black Women’s Movement in the Black Baptist Church, 1880-1920, historian Evelyn Brooks Higginbotham writes that the “politics of respectability emphasized reform of individual behavior and attitudes both as a goal in itself and as a strategy for reform of the entire structural system of American race relations.”

More specifically Higginbotham observes that “respectability demanded that every individual in the black community assume responsibility for behavioral, self-regulation and self-improvement along moral, educational, and economic lines. The goal was to distance oneself as far as possible from images perpetuated by racist stereotypes.” Given these dynamics, it’s not surprising that Black middle class leadership in the early 20th Century would use the available technologies of the day to challenge the hegemony of racist stereotypes. One of the most useful technologies was photography.

As historian Kevin Gaines writes in Uplifting the Race: Black Leadership, Politics, and Culture in the Twentieth Century, “Because photography was crucial in transmitting stereotypes, African-Americans found the medium well-suited for trying to refute negrophobic caricatures… anything less than stylized elegance would betray the ideals of race advancement and, indeed, hold the race back, as did the profusion of commodified, demeaning portraits taken of unsuspecting, often youthful, and destitute African-Americans.”

As Gaines comments suggest, embedded in early twentieth Century Black Respectability was a disdain—both casual and deliberate—for the Black poor and Black youth. Gaines adds that there was an “extensive photographic record of African Americans’ concern to infuse the black image with dignity, and to embody the “representative” Negro by which the race might be accurately judged.” Those who did not live up to the image of the representative Negro, were subject to scorn and scrutiny.

The presentation of what Gaines calls “stylized elegance” was also to be embodied in everyday black life. The well documented attempts by Black middle class elites during the era to dictate and regulate the dress, manners, vernacular, musical tastes, and leisure time of the black poor and working class were blatant attempts to bring the so-called “lesser” classes on board during a period that was largely defined by the notion of the “New Negro.”

As Higginbotham suggests, much of the anxiety of this era regarding the black poor and working class was the product of an “unprecedented migration that contributed to growing class cleavage in the black community.” In response, some members of the black poor and working class found creative ways to stylize their lack of resources, embodying an early iteration of what we commonly refer to in contemporary times as “ghetto fabulousness.” As such, sartorial politics—a politics of tailored clothing, if you will—became the obvious terrain in which struggles over legitimate representations of Blackness were waged.

The image of the physically fit and elegant Black man, presiding over an equally physically fit and elegant family was deployed regularly to counteract racist depictions of African-American life. According to Gaines, “To be the patriarch, the master of one’s family, was ardently desired by African-American men, who considered this an essential prerequisite of respectability, civilization and progress.” Citing the example of Booker T. Washington’s book New Negro in a New Century (1900), which features portraits of more than 50 prominent African-Americans at the turn of the 20th Century, literary scholar Marlon Ross makes a finer point on the politics of representation and respectability. Ross argues that the “race album attempts to avoid the insinuations associated with the display of the black body as the embodiment of backward savagery.”

Specifically addressing the constructions of Black masculinity evident in the portraits, Ross writes in his book Manning the Race: Reforming Black Men in the Jim Crow Era, that “the racial implications of the hyperformality in the photos can easily get lost in history if we forget that this style of portraiture is not ‘natural’ but evolves as a ‘realistic’ way of portraying the authority and respectability of solidly middle class late Victorian patriarchs.”

But Ross adds, that “this realistic style of photography asserts class and gender norms so quietly and yet so forcefully that we can easily overlook how historically fabricated is the masculine attire of dark suit, white shirt and, simple cravat.” Of particular interest to me is Ross’s emphasis on the staging of Black respectability, which suggests a conscious attempt by Black elites to perform a version of Blackness that was not only not realistic, but likely unsustainable outside of the specific racial politics that birthed the performances.

Of course, there were legitimate reason for Black middle class investment in these performances. In relationships between middles class Whites and Blacks, Higginbotham suggests that “respectability provided a discursive common ground in its concern for sexual purity, child rearing, habits of cleanliness and order, and overall self-improvement.”

In such a context there was clear relationship between African-American ideals of respectability and desires for social and political progress. From the standpoint of twenty-first century politics of respectability though, it seems unlikely that it would also be driven by the same desires that animated previous efforts.

As political scientist Cathy Cohen suggest, the stakes are quite different now, because there has been a degree of progress in race relations in this country. More than anything the current discourse of Black respectability is driven by desires within the Black middle class to protect their hard-earned social gains; no longer a movement about uplift, current efforts find their energies in notions of maintenance and expansion. Cohen writes that in a political environment dominated by the Religious and Radical Right, “African Americans with some access to power, mobility, and status and those aspiring to secure such resources are feeling especially anxious about what they perceive to the bad or deviant behavior of other group members…behaviors that are thought to threaten the status and mobility of other black people”

The roots of contemporary investments in Black respectability might be traced to the mid-1990s and the Republican Party “revolution” in the 1994 mid-term elections, which precipitated the rise of the Radical Right in mainstream politics at the beginning of the twenty-first century with the election of George W. Bush as President. Additionally the early to mid-1990s featured several very public events that portrayed Black masculinity as deviant and pathological including the Rodney King beating, Magic Johnson’s contraction of the HIV virus, the arrest of Black elected officials like Illinois Congressman Mel Reynolds and Washington, D.C. mayor Marion Barry, the first Michael Jackson child molestation investigation and perhaps most famously, the O.J. Simpson murder trial.

The most visible manifestations of the anxieties produced during this period—a period which some argue featured the “first” symbolic Black president in Bill Clinton—was the Million Man March, held in October of 1995. The march, facilitated at the behest of Nation of Islam leader Minister Louis Farrakhan, was explicitly intended to force Black men into accepting the mantle of responsibility within their communities and families, as part and parcel of a larger move towards a late twentieth century articulation of Black respectability. Though the movement never maintained its momentum, there’s no denying that the aims of the march became a building block of contemporary Black political discourses. Such was the case with the Million Family March, held on the five year anniversary of the Million Man March and less than a month before George W. Bush’s contested election as President.

As feminist scholar E. Frances White, writes in her book Dark Continent of Our Bodies: Feminism and the Politics of Respectability, “the building blocks for a strong community did not welcome welfare dependent families; female-headed households; and especially gay, bi-sexual and lesbian family members. This narrative does not find acceptable the families in which many of us live.” (78-79) The reality though, is that Black political discourse was not in a position to dramatically alter the lives that the majority of black people live in the absence of real political power to address the structural inequalities that many citizens face, regardless of race. Thus it was not surprising that such efforts were directed within the realm of culture or rather performance, notably around the issues of the public presentation of blackness and black sexuality.

Perhaps nothing better captured the level of anxiety in some Black communities than the controversies surrounding the issues of “sagging,” and DL sexuality, much of which came to a head recently with Morehouse College’s decision to institute a long-unwritten dress code on their campus.

 The issue of “sagging” or the practice of young African-American men wearing their trousers well below their waists, has functioned like a social panic in some municipalities, where local officials have sought to pass ordinances banning sagging pants, as the style is thought, by some, to be evidence of Black male criminality. The town of Delcambre, LA, did in fact pass such an ordinance, punishable by 6-months in jail and a $500.00 fine. The city of Opa-Locka, FL, banned sagging pants in city parks and public buildings. Additionally the city of Dallas funded a series of public service announcements denouncing saggy pants, equating the practice with homosexuality.

It was in this context that a MTV viewer asked then Senator Obama about saggy pants, when he sat down with MTV News, days before the November 2008 presidential election. During that interview, Obama made the now famous comment, “brothers should pull up their pants. You are walking by your mother, your grandmother, your underwear is showing. What's wrong with that? Come on.”

Within days of Obama’s pronouncement, numerous television news programs and newspapers ran stories about Obama denouncing saggy pants. Obama’s comments, taken out of context, could easily be read as an admonishment of young black men and by extension, the influence of hip-hop culture. In fact Obama, prefaced his comments by stating “I think people passing a law against people wearing sagging pants is a waste of time… any public official, that is worrying about sagging pants probably needs to spend some time focusing on real problems.”

But as a politician, Obama also knew that his comments about saggy pants represented a “win-win” for him; he would gain traction with undecided voters who hoped that he would provide a moral center for a youth culture supposedly gone awry, while serving as a non-issue for the hip-hop community that he had so deftly recruited in support of his campaign. Quiet as it’s kept, the saggy pants style is largely passé with regards to hip-hop generation masculinity, as some of the most highly visible and highly compensated hip-hop figures such as Sean Combs, Sean Carter, Curtis Jackson and even the recently incarcerated Clifford Harris, Jr. (TI), are more often than not, seen in public wearing business attire.

Yet while Obama’s carefully crafted response was intended to offend no one who might have potentially voted for him, his comments took on a life of their own, utilized to organize anti-sagging/dress code efforts at Historically Black Colleges and Universities, and public high schools like Plantation High School in South Florida, which sponsored a “Pull Up Your Pants Day.” That this sudden inspiration often takes place within the context of black communities, long grappling with how to relate to and control the young men in their communities, should not be surprising.

President Obama’s stance on the issue has simply been used to shame black youth into “normalcy.” Underlying this push towards routine sartorial choices, is a troubling class dynamic, rooted in a century-old (if not longer) debate amongst Black Americans about the proper presentation of blackness in mainstream culture. Indeed Obama’s election represented the symbolic political bully pulpit that a figure like Louis Farrakhan and Black religious leaders never had access to. Obama quickly became the most historically visible paragon of Black Respectability.

It was in this context that Morehouse College instituted a dress code in the fall of 2009. The college’s Vice-President of the office of Student Services, argued the new policy was an effort to “get back to the legacy” of the college, which in its heyday during legal segregation was a pantheon to Black male respectability. As the Vice President added, “We expect our young men to be Renaissance men…When people go about campus we want them to represent the college in an appropriate manner.” (Atlanta Journal Constitution 10/16).

The college is obviously within its right to dictate the policies of the campus, but what instigated national commentary about the new policy were several explicit aspect that outlawed, even criminalized, the wearing of head-gear like, caps and doo-rags in classrooms and the cafeteria, dental adornments like “grills,” sagging, and perhaps most controversially, the wearing of female attire, explicitly citing the wearing of high heel shoes and pocketbooks.

As commentator Frank Leon Roberts argued, “Morehouse College is much more than simply a “private institution;” it is a black cultural pillar…Given Morehouse’s stature as a historical pillar, all African-American men (not just those who are students or alumni of the institution) have an ethical obligation to contribute to this national dialogue about the politics of the college’s policies—especially in instances where it promotes a climate of rampant anti-ghetto-culture classism and femiphobia.”

Quite often what is at play in efforts like the Morehouse dress code, particularly in relationship to the concerns about women’s dress wear, is the issue of sexuality, specifically the issues of DL or down-low sexuality, which inspires within Black American a moral or social panic. This is exactly what Donnie McClurkin displayed in his rambling, even non-sensical rant at the COGIC youth gathering in November of 2009, which functioned as a mass exorcism.

In his performance McClurkin states, “today I am overwhelmed from this holy convocation because I see feminine men…it’s because we failed, it’s not the children’s fault, it’s because we failed.” At one point he directs the youth in the audience to come to the alter stating, “right now everyone of you young people who say I need this and I can’t leave out of here acting like this. I got to be right; I don’t want to be a feminine man; I don’t want to be a hard woman; I don’t want to be in homosexuality, bi-sexuality, tri-sexuality, I’m not a lesbian, I’m a holy woman of God, I’m not gay, I’m “born again.. Come now, I said run!”

Cohen challenges the notion that rants like McClurkin’s and the symbolic politics that inform it are irrational suggesting that “African-American fear and deep concern for what is believed to be the non-normative sexual behaviors of community members is not only a reaction to the internalization of patriarchal heteronormative values about what constitutes proper sexual conduct, it is also…a reaction to the knowledge that the idea of black deviant sexuality has been used continuously as a justification for the secondary status of African Americans.”

For the most part, President Obama has stayed above the fray, excepting his rather pointed comments at Black men with regards to taking greater responsibility for their children. In his now infamous Father’s Day speech in 2008, Obama asserted “But if we are honest with ourselves, we’ll admit that what too many fathers also are is missing — missing from too many lives and too many homes. They have abandoned their responsibilities, acting like boys instead of men. And the foundations of our families are weaker because of it. You and I know how true this is in the African-American community. We know the statistics — that children who grow up without a father are five times more likely to live in poverty and commit crime; nine times more likely to drop out of schools and 20 times more likely to end up in prison.”

Obama’s comments dually reflect his own investment in Black respectability, as well as a fundamental political belief that two-parented households represent the most effective route out of poverty for many poor Black Americans. Arguably, Obama’s approach finds resonance in the ways that Black life is lived as opposed to the radically different concerns of those who have exploited his image to challenge what they deem as destructive cultural performances.

Indeed, I would argue that what partially informs critiques of Obama regarding the lack of a so-called Black Agenda, is his unwillingness to engage in a discourse that juxtaposes Black Middle class success and aspirations with the failures of the Black poor to resist the pathologies that largely frame their visibility in mainstream media in culture. If anything, Obama’s very pragmatic view of Black life and culture highlights the inadequacy and unsustainability of performances of Black Respectability, when they are not tethered to real issues of Black empowerment, as was more likely the case for the Black middle class of the early twentieth century.

As the performances of Donnie McClurkin, Steve Harvey and even Tiger Woods suggest, such performances will ultimately falter under the weight of their pretensions. Like a suit that no longer fits, their performances are coming apart at the seams.

This is Prof Neal's 2010 keynote address to American Masculinity Studies Association, Atlanta, GA, USA. 

Mark Anthony Neal is the author of several books including New Black Man and Songs in the Key of Black Life: A Rhythm and Blues Nation. He is a professor of African-American Studies at Duke University.

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