Saturday, February 7, 2009

Redefining Black Masculinity: "Barack & Curtis"

Got ten minutes? Good; watch this documentary about Barack Obama and 50 Cent, and what each says about black masculinity:

What I find interesting about the video is the conflict of not only the two shoots of manhood that are symbolized in these two different men, but the two narratives of the nature of 50 Cent's manhood - and how those two narratives are both in some ways contradictory and at the same time are also complementary.

Writer/educator Matt Birkhold says,
"We as white men who very seldom have any real relationships with anybody who's not white, particularly black men, right, believe that black men are what we see in movies. We believe that black men are 50 Cent. 50 Cent is a man who controls people by fear. This is the man we are all supposed to be afraid of. 50 Cent will come up in here and shoot all of us, talk all the valuables in the house, um, take whatever money we have on us, credit cards, cell phones, all of that, right? This is how 50 Cent makes his living.
Black gangster masculinity does the work of white supremacist patriarchal capitalism. All it requires, in order for you to be promised that you'll get rich, is that you're willing to verbally commit black-on-black murder, control black female bodies, all in the name of getting paid. The black gangster masculine figure employs the exact same logic as the people who started the slave trade."
Historian Jelani Cobb's narrative places the employment of this figure of black masculinity upon the white supremacist first and foremost, saying:
"I think 50 Cent represents a brand of black masculinity that dates back to the old post-slavery era. During the slavery era, you have the stereotypes of black men that we were happy-go-lucky, mostly lazy, individuals who really needed the benign tutelage of the slave institution. After slavery, in order to justify the physical violence that would be required to prevent us from exercising our rights, that stereotype changed into the lawless, dangerous buck. That was the idea that was placed on black men. It was almost like a template that they shaded in and said, 'This is what black men will be now'."
I think both are correct; Cobb is right to point out that the first imagining of the violent and untamable black man was the creation of the white man, of white men like the ones present in To Kill A Mockingbird, the ones who cynically fell upon "the assumption, the evil assumption, that all Negroes lie, that all Negroes are basically immoral beings, all Negro men are not to be trusted around our women". Cobb is right that this template was first employed - and continues to be employed - as a way of maintaining white privilege and status in society, as a method of making it clear in the minds of the citizenry that African-Americans were simply undeserving of being thought of as or treated as equal to whites. Also, as an aside, it was unnerving to me and slightly horrifying that many in my college Major Authors: Mark Twain class didn't know how the stereotype of African-Americans had shifted when we were discussing Pudd'nhead Wilson. That template is present in Birkhold's own argument, when he presents the idea that most of our popular image of black masculinity comes from the media that continues to facilitate that image.

But I also believe that Birkhold has something when he points out that the template of black masculinity that was fostered upon African-Americans after the end of slavery has also become a reflection of the white patriarchal culture that uses it to maintain its own privilege. That the hypermasculinity does create an environment of violence against women and encourages seeing women as objects to be used. Because black masculinity has become associated with "how many women you have". In that way, the oppressed pull from the tactics of the oppressor to create a hierarchy within the oppressed community.

Which is why the most intriguing point for me on the piece doesn't have much to do with black masculinity and how Barack Obama changes the perception of black masculinity for men, how he "is exploding the very facile and simple notions we have of what it means to be a black man in this society. Whose intellect is one of the foremost things that you notice about him, who is the antithesis of the angry, out of control negro", but instead of what Barack Obama's emergence means for black women. Esther Armah contends,
"The beauty of the presence and emergence of Barack Obama isn't Barack Obama. It's Michelle Obama. Because in Michelle, for black women there was an affirmation of, their strength could still find them a great guy."
And while I found the whole of Barack & Curtis to be incredibly thought-provoking and interesting and well worth watching several times to get the quotes right, I want to see that documentary, about what Barack Obama means for how black women see themselves and how their perception of how their community sees them may change. How Michelle, and Barack's attraction to her and love for her and dependence upon her - and her attraction to him and love for him and dependence upon him - could change the pervasive notion of how this specific community and the greater society imagines male-female relationships. How Barack Obama's obvious respect for his wife may translate into less women like Michelle being considered bitches, or angry. That would be another documentary I'd be interested in seeing.

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