Sunday, September 20, 2009

I AM A MAN: An Attempt to [Re]Define African American Manhood

photo credit: Christopher Sims, I Am a Man, 2008

African American Men and Boys Week begins today; allow this post to be my introduction to all that follows.

Allow me to please apologize before hand because this post will certainly run long; any time an issue inspires me, infuriates me, puzzles me, I tend to be unable to control myself, and I go on much longer than I should.

But a few weeks ago I resumed my work with young African American men and women in the community, and though I see a number of reasons to be encouraged, abject foolishness is still for the most part the order of the day. And from what I read and what I see in the various media, my personal observation reflects the situation of our young men and women throughout the country.

And I do not mean to slight African American girls and women by concentrating on the issues faced by boys and men; many of the issues are one in the same. But I feel that I am better able to discuss issues of manhood and masculinity because this is my academic area of concentration, and even further, the condition of most social groups are measured by the status of the men representing those social groups.

I will not revisit and rehearse the baleful statistics here; we have all heard and read them over and over again. African American males lead in almost every conceivable negative indicator. But my first question is “Does this constitute an actual crisis?”.

I think it was Henry Louis Gates who wrote that crisis is sometimes desirable because crisis signals a turning point. Crisis signals a crossroads of sorts at which a decision must be made, an action must be taken.

But allow me to take the time to outline my position.

Though I know many people cringe when they hear someone bring up Africa to explain current African American problems and issues, but that is where we must go. With any potential pathology, you must go back to the original trauma to begin to find an effective, suitable remedy.

The institution of slavery is the single most traumatic event in our history. I think because of our distance in time and space from that event, we often underestimate its effects.

But within pre-slavery Africa, regardless of the societal structure, regardless if that structure was patriarchal or matriarchal, the African man had a place; he had a specific, clearly defined role in that community. And, perhaps most importantly, that manhood role was passed down inter-generationally by fathers, by male elders. In other words, there were always role models there to explain and define that role and model manhood and guide the African male child from childhood to manhood.

However, within the pernicious cauldron of that peculiar institution that memory was all but forgotten, all but lost. The African slaves, men and women, found themselves without a clearly defined role other than as menial servants, and in post slavery America they attempted to claim a role for themselves within American society, and in claiming that role, they drew upon the models most available to them—white men and white women. Keep in mind Frantz Fanon’s postulate, “For the black man there is only white destiny. And it is white.”

The European manhood model has almost always been expressed in terms of a rugged individualism, pulling oneself up by the bootstrap, in stark contrast to the interdependence of manhood models of most African cultures. Part and parcel of the European model, among others I will explore later this week, is the notion of economic independence; in other words, manhood is measured by the amount of wealth one might amass, the level of comfort he might be able to afford his family.

However, due to a documented history of racism and discrimination, African American men, for the most part, have never been able to realize this ideal. And neither have most white men for that matter. And it logically follows that in our inability to realize this ideal, African American men have been repeated and continually maligned as not being men, as somehow falling down in our duties to our communities and our society.

To sum up my argument, many of the problems facing African American men, many of the pathologies exhibited by African American men, arise as a result of an inability to realize the manhood model and ideal as posited by American society and have turned toward alternate avenues, most of which can be judged as inappropriate.

If that argument is true, then the most readily available remedy would be to redefine manhood in our own terms. Maybe I don’t make a lot of money and cannot afford my wife and family the luxuries that advertisers insist that we must have to be happy, but we are comfortable and my children are not hungry, therefore I AM A MAN. Certainly, I am soft spoken, and sometimes I would just prefer to just listen and not be heard, but nevertheless I AM A MAN. I don’t need to exhibit a proclivity toward violence, toward bellicosity, but I AM A MAN. I feel emotion and I am willing to express those emotions and not keep them bottled up within, but this makes me no less a man; I AM A MAN.

Whatever you say about me, whatever charges you level against me, I am self-assured of my being, of my place in the world. I AM A MAN.

Do you agree with my argument? Are African American males really in a state of crisis? What possible solutions can you offer to the problems and issues facing African American men and boys?

And do come back during the upcoming week. Tomorrow the question will be, "Can women effectively raise men?".


joe said...

Sorry, can't help you there Max.
**looking up definition of pernicious cauldron**

joe said...

I might just hang out and check out some of the answers if you don't mind...

Anonymous said...

Great post. You hit the nail on the head with the rugged individualist paradigm. The thing is that the bootstrap rhetoric is a total myth aimed at obfuscating the real solution, community and emasculating both the poor whites and black men who never realize that ideal.

The white elite in this country have/do/will mock the paradigm to their benefit. Black men would pull themselves up by their bootstraps--if we had them. Before you as a black man achieve bootstrap status, you have to navigate a HORRID public educational system and the prison industrial complex aka the modern day slave patrol all while experiencing the immaturity that is a rite of passage for any young man black or white. To a lesser extent in the south, we have the good ole boy network. This is just another manifestation of the insidious class warfare aimed at destroying class consciousness. Pitch poor whites the scraps so they continue to belittle and discriminate against blacks on an daily basis so as to pour salt in the wounds of slavery and Jim Crow. And if that isnt enough, subjugate black males Willy Lynch style, while offering black women the better end of a genocidal (in that this milieu doesnt produce healthy families) deal: the education, material trappings and careers with some influence/authority.

This thing is an utter mess. Thanks for broaching the topic.

uglyblackjohn said...

Anon brings up "Right of Passage.
But where are these rights.
Who dictates them?
Are they preparing a boy to become an inmate or a man?
Maybe there needs to be true and accepted rights to enable a boy to measure his progress.

The Bootstrap myth is almost laughable.
Which Wall St. firm pulled itself up by it's bootstraps?
Which CEO?
They can preach that all they want but they know that 'groups' do better than 'individuals'.
This is the secret that keeps them on top.

(Oh... it looks like your Gators might be the real deal after all.)

Lyn Marie said...

I agree with the historical context of the problem. However I have difficulty allowing the context to excuse some of the behavior of our young brothers.

I am a single mother raising my boys one 19 one 9 without any assistance from their fathers. I do not underestimate the importance of having a father in a son's life, but the idea that my children are doomed, is not an acceptable excuse (for lack of a better word) for them to fail. I am doing the best I can by setting the example myself. I am working, educated woman that wants the same for my sons. I don't want them to use their fathers failures to step up as a reason not to be the best.

I often hear the blame being laid at the doorstep of women for not allowing a man to be a man, especially Black women. This often puzzles me. How do women control how a man feels about his manhood? Perhaps you could touch on that? I am interested in hearing the male perspective.

What are the steps we need to take to improve the idea of manhood for young men?

Constructive Feedback said...

[quote]The institution of slavery is the single most traumatic event in our history. I think because of our distance in time and space from that event, we often underestimate its effects.

Brother Man:

I was "feeling you" up until the point where you made the above statement.

A 6 year old little Black boy who is entering Kindergarten this year is less impacted by the impact of the "Slave Master's Whip" from more than 140 years ago than he is negatively impacted by:

* The engagement model that his parent(s) used to prepare him
* His extended family's construction of a supportive environment
* The influence of his present day community
* The proper functioning of the key local institution's who's job is to provide the necessary civic services to him

All of the forces above working with respect to some CONSCIOUSNESS about the ultimate OUTCOMES that they desire.

SoulBrother - we as a people have a HUMAN RESOURCES MANAGEMENT problem of TODAY than any other negative force from the past or present that you can enumerate.

With all due respect - in my years I have come to the observation that the skills of some to articulate HOW our culture was stolen from us ARE NOT QUALIFICATIONS for these same people to develop a FUNCTIONAL CULTURE for our people TODAY as guidance for the FUTURE.

It is time for our people to recalibrate our efforts. We have attempted to accomplish in the American Political Domain what needs to be done in the "Cultural Consciousness" domain.

Charles J said...

Thank you Max for this weeks topic. I have to agree with every word you said in this articlede.

To be a Black man in America is almost like being born a conjoined twin. We can not get away from the privelege of manhood and the oppression of being a person of color.

Man, I can't wait for the rest of this week!

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