Thursday, August 18, 2011


 E. Ethelbert Miller rolls a grenade into the room with this question: "I'm helping an editor of a magazine develop an issue that is going to look at President Obama and Black Masculinity. How important do you think doing something like this is?  Did the election of Obama force us as Americans to look at blackness in new ways?  Do White men have a problem with a black man with power?  How do we explain the rudeness shown Obama on a number of occasions. Is this simply politics or is race a factor? Is the attempt to define Obama as an alien linked to his blackness or the "sound" of his name?  Would black women embrace Obama the same way if his wife was white? If Obama is defeated next year, how might this alter the American narrative? Will we jump to the conclusion that "Reconstruction" failed again?"
 Many years ago, back in the 1980s, my friend Dr. Joseph Scott, then the director of Ethnic Studies at the University of Washington, and I crossed paths in the parking lot behind the building where his department and mine were located. We started talking, and Joe expressed to me his belief that black women had done a very good job of publicly defining themselves since the 1970s, i.e., creating an image (or meaning) for themselves and their lives that was positive and widespread in popular culture. And then he said, "When it comes to black men, people don't know who we are." In that same decade, writer John McCluskey Jr. and I published Black Men Speaking, which begins with Joe's powerful and moving memoir of his life growing up in Detroit in the 1930s, entitled, "Making a Way Out of No Way."

  I've never forgotten Joe's observation. People don't know who we are. A library of books could be devoted to examining that remark. In fact, for a time I was on the editorial board for the  Journal of African American Men, an academic publication devoted to studies of the situation of black males. Naturally, when McCluskey and I worked on Black Men Speaking, we discussed this matter---who are black men in America?---and he, like Joe, made a remark that was memorable. What he said was this: since the beginning of this republic, and probably starting during the time of the colonies, black men have always been a "problem" for white men. In just Darwinian terms, the black man was the white man's competitor---for power, the means of survival,  prestige and, of course, women. The power white men enjoyed during slavery meant, to put this bluntly, that they could pass their genetic information along to white women and rape black women with impunity.

 Black males had to be prevented from any and all sexual dealings with white women. One of the most powerful tropes or mythologies in American pop culture is that of the black man during either the eras of segregation or slavery being hunted, killed, lynched or burned for making overtures that were interpreted to be of a sexual nature toward a white female. (Ah, yes, remember Bigger Thomas's roof-top run across a building in Chicago after he kills Mary Dalton in Native Son?) The ground-breaking, classic film Birth of a Nation was popular for a reason---it depicted black men (actually white men in blackface) during Reconstruction rampaging and raping across the South until the "knights" of the KKK suppressed their "bestial," uncivilized behavior.  Black women, then as now, obviously did not pose the same threat to white male power, and perhaps this is one reason why they have done so much better than black males in terms of integrating into American mainstream society---that is, gaining advanced academic degrees and jobs in greater numbers than black males, many of whom feel (or so August Wilson once told me) that passage through the white man's institutions is basically a form of cultural (and racial) indoctrination, and this is something August said young black males rejected. Indeed, many literary works by black women since the 1970s reinforced the popular---and I would add, dominant---image of black males being violent, animal-like, stupid, and dangerous.
Whole libraries have been written about the American practice of emasculating the black male. We remember how sexually neutered the film roles were in the 1950s for Sidney Poitier prior to his appearing in "Guess Who's Coming to Dinner?" (and during the Black Exploitation film period of the 1970s that sexual neutering was reversed with a vengeance that did little to improve the imagery associated with black men). In the iconography of black men in America, we notice several carefully reiterated images. Black men are often granted by whites the status of being physically superior, as animals are. That meaning is dwelled upon in sports (football, basketball, boxing), and such a meaning leaves undisturbed and in place the racial propaganda of the intellectual as well as creative superiority of white men (except in an area like jazz or black music, where excellence is reluctantly acknowledged). That is a territory the majority of white males categorically refuse to relinquish. That of the mind. (By the way, I seldom talk about being a life-long martial artist because back in the 1990s, I noticed that white interviewers seemed way too interested in that dimension of my life---because it suggests violence---and not at all interested in my equally life-long passion for philosophy; I've always noticed with equal amusement how in the book world my Ph.D. in philosophy, represented by "Dr." before my name, is frequently dropped, as if the work required to earn a doctorate in a field dominated by white males for 2500 years never took place.)

I was recently conversing via email with film-maker Brian McDonald about how in popular culture we simply never see a black man who is a visual artist, who can draw, who has that natural talent (there are many such images of white males). Similarly, we seldom if ever see portrayed in the popular imagination black men who are geniuses---scientists, inventors, authoritative scholars. After six decades of living, and studying American culture, I understand full well that the very idea of a black man who is intellectually or artistically superior brings tremendous discomfort to the white racist mind, even to the liberal white mind. (Ishmael Reed once called this "liberal racism.") For fifteen years, August Wilson and I discussed this matter long into the night. He was a two-time Pulitzer prize-winning playwright, a man who dominated the American stage for two decades, but the incidents of disrespect he received and told me about were---well, endless. (He always noted each year how many plays by white playwrights became motion pictures while his ten plays, year after year for two decades, remained unadapted for that medium.) And I, of course, had countless examples of my own since childhood to share with him.

This is what we live with, as black American males. (Just for the record, let me add that black females in the popular imagination today are granted moral superiority and professional competence, but, like black males, not unquestioned intellectual or artistic excellence.) We have lived with being demonized, and our talents and gifts ignored or denied, since the time of slavery. The evidence for this in the historical record is overwhelming so I don't need to repeat any of that in this post. And it is what Barack Obama must live with, too. He has an I.Q. of 147. (There are white people who will say that is because he had a white mother). For some white Americans, his very existence is threatening. And they feel they must try to understand and interpret him in terms of a 300-year-old mythology about black men. That's blunted a bit because he chose a black wife rather than a white one (i.e., he chose not to compete with white men for their women). But---and this is quite amusing to me---columnist Peggy Noonan, who writes for The Wall Street Journal, has since Obama's election been returning again and again to her feeling that Americans don't "know" Obama, that he doesn't fit any previous cultural molds for a president.  She's right. He doesn't. And lately, she and others have been chipping away (after the debt ceiling deal) at both his intelligence and competence. Americans don't know or understand a black man like Barack Obama. What he culturally represents---a black male who is brilliant, not bestial; eloquent not inarticulate; confident, comfortable in his own skin and even at times arrogant, not humble; cool and rational, not emotional or "angry"---is the annihilation of every cherished, bigoted notion about what black men are or should be in a Eurocentric culture. That image is well understood to be a threat to white supremacy. Many white Americans want him to fail so that the mythology of black male inferiority can be maintained.

 Ethelbert, my friend, long ago I came to believe that this situation as I've described it for black American males will not change in our lifetimes. We can only do, one day at a time, what the ancestors we revere did, and what Obama seems to try to do: take care of business---the duties and responsibilities given to us in this life---step over racism as if it was a puddle at his feet, strive for personal and professional excellence, and take some small comfort in the fact that we, like the predecessors who inspire us, fought the good fight.

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