Blackness, history & love · Books · Colonisation · Education · Gender · Political · Whiteness & racism

bell hooks on black men and masculinity

We Real Cool: Black Men and MasculinityWe Real Cool: Black Men and Masculinity by bell hooks
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Hooks explains why she felt the need to write this book, rather than leaving it to Black men to speak for themselves on the topic:

Many of the individual black men working in the field of ending male violence against women and children are experts at explaining black male crisis and finding paths to healing, but they just feel they do not have time to write. There is not even a small body of anti-patriarchal literature speaking directly to black males about what they can do to educate themselves for critical consciousness, guiding them on the path of liberation… as a black woman who cares about the plight of black men I feel I can no longer wait for brothers to take the lead and spread the word

She begins by explaining that West African men arriving as slaves in the Americas did not come with condioning in patriarchal masculinity. They were taught to identify manhood with domination, the willingness to be violent and the suppression of emotion by their white captors.

She cites autobiographical texts by men like Henry Box Brownshowing that the freedom they went towards was the freedom to be a benevolent patriarch. She notes that Frederick Douglass “did not feel his manhood affirmed by intellectual progress” but by fighting with the slave overseer. While these men were opposed to violence against women and Douglass in particular was a strong supporter of women’s liberation, their values were shaped by the white USian ideal of patriarchal masculinity. Oppositional alternatives were available to some black men, such as ‘the Tradition of John’ and interaction with Native/Indian people.

Hooks takes up the issue (much discussed by Patricia Hill Collins in Black Feminist Thought of women being the main wage-earners in black Usian families. She points out that while women earned the money, men often retained control of it and considered it their right to do so. The Moynihan report that accused black women of ’emasculating’ black men proposed that black men could reaffirm their manhood by joining the military and fighting in the US’ imperialist wars. Of course, hooks underlines the violent history and culture of Euro-Americans with which patriarchal masculinity is imbued. The Moynihan report shifted the blame for black men’s woes from white supremacy onto black women:

Tragically, collectively black men began at this point in our nation’s history to blame black women for their fate. This blaming ignited the flames of a gender war so intense that it has practically consumed the historical memory of black males and females working together equally for liberation, creating love in family and community. It has practically destroyed beyond recognition the representation of an alternative black man seeking freedom for self and loved ones, a rebel black man eager to create and make his own destiny. This is the image of the black male that must be recovered, restored, so that it can stand as the example of revolutionary manhood.

for example

If patriarchal standards for manhood prized being silent and unemotional, Ali dared to speak out loudly, to be bold and boisterous, and express emotions, embodying joy, laughing, daring to be sad, to feel pain, and to express the hurt. Photographs capture Ali smiling, hugging black males, daring to be physically close. On my desk I have the image of Ali holding his mother, showing his love; everything a patriarchal man was not supposed to be and do. Ali let loose the boy within and swept us away with his laughter, his generosity of spirit, his heart. He expressed the playfulness macho men were supposed to repress and deny.

Meanwhile, black men were telling whites that ‘they would rather by playboys than providers… White men were attacking black men in the sixties for not fulfilling the patriarchal role when it came to work and family, and black men were telling white men that sexuality was the only real site where manhood mattered and there the black male ruled.’ White men seeking alternatives to patriarchal masculinity looked to the ‘cool’ of black men.

Hooks laments that some sections of black power movements embraced patriarchal masculinity and undermined the historical movement ‘for racial uplift rooted in nonviolence and gender equality’. She also points out that black power militants who entered universities were confronted with the fact that the values of honesty, integrity and justice taught by their parents were not those that led to success under capitalism.

Education is a key theme. Hooks laments that black boys are not expected to be good learners, and that thinking black males have always been seen as a threat, and are likely to be cast as troublemakers at an early age. She points out that many black parents are now interested in reintroducing segregated education, since no one in black communities saw education as a ‘white’ thing until integrated schools instituted gendered racial othering.

It is as though patriarchal white men decided that they could make use of militant black male sexism, letting it be the first and loudest voice of anti-feminist backlash. Polls and surveys of the population that looked at attitudes toward gender roles in the late sixties and early seventies actually showed that black males were much more supportive of women entering the workforce and receiving equal pay for equal work than other groups of men. The voice of black male sexism and misogyny was not representative. And yet it was that voice that received ongoing national attention. It was not the astute critiques of American foreign policy, of capitalism, that citizens of this nation heard from black power advocates. When they appeared in mass media it was only as agents proclaiming their right to do violence, their right to kill. This was one of the contradictions within black power rhetoric.

Eldridge Cleaver’s Soul on Ice is one extreme example of black power polemic couched in antifeminist, homophobic rhetoric and valorisation of violence. Hooks argues that the book was published and acclaimed because white male leaders condoned it. As well as pointing out that ‘by embracing the ethos of violence militant[s of the Black Power movement] were not defying White supremacist capitalist patriarchy… [but] expressing their allegiance.’, hooks critiques popular films like The Shawshank Redemption and The Green Mile as ultimately affirming the image of the violent Black male.

The burn here is that this image is extremely useful to white supremacist capitalist patriarchy’s best proponents like Moynihan, who suggested that the violent Black male body could be used to fight wars: ‘both imperialist abroad and gender on the home front’

Hooks notes that young Black men lack role models and that Black men in the public eye, such as hip hop artists, sing and talk about and present an image of violence at odds with their own nonviolent personal lives. Black women, she notes, are most regularly the victims of those men who are violent, and such violence is all too often ignored. OJ Simpson’s violence towards Black female partners attracted no attention – it was only when a white woman became a victim that his behaviour garnered outrage. Indeed, it is when they are acting out that the world Black USian men live in pays them the most attention. ‘Mass media simply ignored any aspect of the black liberation struggle that was positive and ongoing’

As dead patriarchal heroes black power militants have become icons, commodified celebrities, and yet their critical understanding of the nature of domination is not studied, enlarged or treated as a starting point for new liberation struggle

It is no accident that just as Malcolm X was moving away from antiwhite black separatist discourse to global awareness of neocolonialism… his voice was silenced by state-supported black-on-black homicide

In the chapter on sexuality, hooks writes about the Euro-American fascination with black sexualities and how this was played out in lynchings, and also how the ‘sexual script’ of the ‘New World’ was ‘encoded with sadomasochistic rituals of domination’. She writes about the development of black sexualities in segregated communities and about the influence of patriarchal sexuality centred on the perceived male ‘need to fuck’

She quotes Steve Bearman’s essay ‘Why Men are so Obssessed with Sex’:

We are born sensual creatures with an unlimited capacity to feel and an effortless propensity to deeply connect with all human beings [which has been conditioned out of us]. All of these human needs are then promised to us by way of sex’

and elaborates on his analysis to portray sex as a quest for freedom for black men denied any other form of liberating power.

The widespread emotional and sexual abuse of black boys is also an influence, as is the objectification of the black male body. Hooks also quotes an interview with Cleo Manago who responds to the suggestion that there are ‘perks’ to the sexual stereotype of blackness negatively: ‘there are no healthy benefits to being Black, sexy, or more beautiful in a society run by Whites who resent and feel challenged by your beauty, who are obsessed with controlling or dominating you in response to the self-consciouness they feel in your presence… This is a precarious place to be. I don’t agree that Black men are more embodied than White men’. Hooks repeats her call for Black men to empower themselves by creating liberatory sexualities, endorsing Bearman’s view that ‘when sexual desire is purged of desperation, urgency, loneliness and fear, then sex can be inspired by joy and sexual relationships can be healthy and whole’ and declaring that ‘a free black man, at home in his body, able to feel his sexual desire and act with life-affirming agency, is the radical outlaw this nation fears’

Next, hooks tackles the crushing of the spirit that takes place in the patriarchal socialisation of young black boys, whose expressions of emotion are forbidden as ‘sissy’ by verbal and physical chastisement and rituals of humiliation. While the effects of patriarchal socialisation on men has been given some cultural attention, this is generally directed towards white boys: ‘the violent acting out of white boys tends to be viewed as a psychological disorder that can be corrected, while black boys who act out tend to be viewed as criminals and punished accordingly. She critiques conventional calls for disciplining black boys and points out that a quiet, obedient state is not necessarily a psychologically whole one, but may simply be the result of repressed emotion. Creativity in black boys is often treated as suspect or inappropriate, making it extremely difficult for them to cultivate the ability to find a way out. Boys may also be treated as special and entitled to the point that they do not learn any boundaries.

Society encourages black men to become ‘rageolics’. They are not offered spaces to speak their pain or avenues of healing from low self-esteem. Outward signs of success recognised by patriarchal society may not have any effect on feelings of emptiness experienced by emotionally damaged men who have no way to express grief for losses and abandonment experienced in childhood. Black men, hooks reminds us, creates the blues to express such feelings but ‘young black males tend not to want to hear the blues. They do not want to hear an honest expression of black male vulnerability.’

Hooks repudiates and nuances the trope of the absent black father, pointing out that white fathers have a by no means better record, and that the patriarchal male can be a negative presence worse than absence, and that it is more important that children have loving male caregivers in their lives than that biological fathers stick around. She disputes that mother relationships are more important than father relationships, critiquing dictionary definitions of ‘mother’ and ‘father’ that connote one with tenderness and affection and not the other. She decries USian culture for overvaluing the two parent family when other models can be equally nurturing, as long as children receive loving care. She suggests that what many Black fathers most need to do is open communication with and seek forgiveness from those they have closed themselves off from. She urges men to see their parental roles as women do, and through ‘mothering’ behaviour become capable of self-healing, nurturing of others and unconditional love

The final chapters focus on ‘doing the work of love’ and healing that can enable Black men to divest from patriarchal masculinity and its attendant pathology of disassociation. ‘Any black male who dares to care for his inner life…is already refusing to be a victim’. This section is full of detail and examples that make is practically useful as well as deeply inspiring and beautiful to read. This book is real cool.

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