What Does Black Masculinity Look Like?


Over the past few weeks, in the midst of teaching a pre-summer class on black masculinity in which we have discussed, debated and dreamed about the possibility for fluidity in raced gender performance, I have listened to a black man weep and express his love for his teammates and his appreciation for the sacrifices of his mother (see Kevin Durant’s NBA MVP acceptance speech); watched a black man kiss a man, full lips, on live television in celebration of an unprecedented accomplishment (see Michael Sam draft coverage on ESPN); and relished in the Pepto-Bismol-pink-colored-Cadillac a black man gave to his mother, a breast cancer survivor, to fulfill a childhood promise (see Teddy Bridgewater: A Promise to Rose, a short documentary by Spike Lee) .  In addition to being feel-good, rags to riches stories about black male athletes, these stories center the extraordinary escape from difficult circumstances and highlight the generosity, humanity, and possibility of black manhood.  These stories resist the stereotypic representations of black masculinity that saturate media and often limit black men, especially in professional (and college) sports as commodities and bodies.  In these stories, we see black men as sons and brothers, same-gender loving, promise-keeping, goal-setting men who cry, tell their truths, and love their mamas.

There are three lessons that can be gleaned from these stories and representations of black masculinity (there are, of course others, but you would have to take my class to get them, lol).

1) Black men can (only) talk about loving other men within the context of sport, brotherhood and heterosexuality, without (social and cultural) punishment.

While I enjoyed and appreciated the vulnerability and honesty with which Durant expressed himself in his acceptance speech, I couldn’t help but think about the politics of representation and how Michael Sam, a black man who is attracted to men, could never give the same speech without critique and discomfort.  As a heterosexual man, Durant has the flexibility of expressing himself and his love, appreciation and affection for other men (within limited contexts) without contempt.  And while the students in my class conceded that patriarchy is detrimental to us all, they realized that racism makes men of color peculiarly susceptible to mischaracterization and emasculation, so there is more to prove, and much at stake.  We need an intervention.

2)  Black men who identify as gay must uniquely negotiate their performances of masculinity because of homophobia.

Football is one of the most aggressive and hyper-masculine sports one can play, and while it has always been true that nonheterosexual men are fans and players of the sport, there are stereotypical assumptions that it is a “straight man’s sport,” a “manly man’s sport.”  Michael Sam’s outness is brilliant in that it outs the ignorance around homophobia and stereotypes by proving that all gay men are not feminine, and that sexual orientation does not limit or dictate one’s physical ability or talent.

I find the brevity of discussion around the hyper-homophobia in black communities interesting and troubling, especially when it is within that framework that Michael Sam is being viewed.  His bravery and willingness to sacrifice money (being drafted earlier would have translated to a larger salary) to avoid sacrificing himself is commendable and with an already troubled relationship with his family there should be more discussion about what it means to be an out gay black man.  There are unique circumstances and risks, which is why the DL continues to be “a thing.”  We need an intervention.

3)  Black men can love (and generously love on) their (black) mamas, but what about black women in general?

Teddy Bridgewater is two things that I like: country and a mama’s boy.  Black men loving their mothers, especially when/if their fathers are absent, is expected and celebrated in the black community.  Even the music of self-described thugs puts their mama on a pedestal.  Baby mamas?  Not so much.  Your everyday around-the-way girl that might be kicking it at the mall or sitting on the stoop?  Not so much.  I wish there were more examples of black men fiercely loving, fiercely defending, and fiercely holding down black women that didn’t carry them in their womb, but do carry them on their backs sometimes.  Black women are perpetually defending, protecting and covering black men and teach themselves to not expect the same in return.  I know hella dudes who respect the hell out of their mamas but have no love for women they don’t know, which is a problem because loving your mama is not the same thing as loving women.

There is a way in which our skewed understanding of black masculinity limits the possibilities of black love, love that is and can be both revolutionary (see Patricia Hill Collins) and unreasonable (see Kiese Laymon).  Unfortunately, culture teaches black men to love their mamas but be suspicious of other women.  We need an intervention.


Salvation comes in different forms.  Durant credits God, his teammates and his family for his success, Sam credits football and his chosen family, and Bridgewater credits his mother.

When it comes to considerations of black masculinity the easy answer is not always the right answer. It is easy to blame black men for their circumstances without critiquing the system designed to fail them, designed to make them fail.  Racism, homophobia and poverty are real everyday issues that impact the performative possibility of black masculinity.  Survival should not be an exception.   We need an intervention.

Over the past few weeks I have reflected on the ways the world has forever changed in the months and years since we lost black men in training like Trayvon Martin, Jordan Davis and countless others, taken by racism and irrational fear, remembered in eulogy, stripped of the space and opportunity to grow into men.  We owe it to them and ourselves to intervene, when and where possible, to make the world a safer space for black boys and men to see black masculinity beyond a cool pose.  And we owe it to ourselves and them to require and expect more from what black masculinity looks like.

My mama didn’t birth any boys but I grew up surrounded by masculinity, both by the women in my household who adopted the mannerisms and characteristics out of forced habit, and by the men who sometimes failed and sometimes thrived on being cool.  My intervention is in seeing black masculinity as bigger than the box culture tries to put it in.  The more variety we see in terms of who black men are, and can be, the better.  There needs to be more visibility of transmen, men with disabilities, men who are present and responsible fathers, men who identify as feminist, men who are active in their communities, men who are non-misogynist, non-homophobic, non-aggressive and anti-violent.  Black feminist men (outside the academy).  We need to see them to know they exist.  They need to see each other to know they exist.

Please shout out the black men in your life who are doing the damn thing and stretching the possibilities of what black masculinity looks like.

10 thoughts on “What Does Black Masculinity Look Like?

    1. Hasan,

      I believe there is a lack of representation in regards to texts and/or narratives focusing on black men with disabilities (and its impact on their experiences and performance of masculinity), which is one of the reasons I see it as a possibility for intervention, especially as it relates to physical disability and illness. In my class we have looked at texts that interrogate mental illness and depression and the ways it is both a response to and symptom of compulsive masculinity. We read Kiese Laymon’s How to Slowly Kill Yourself and Others in America to think through some of those issues. There are also individual pieces I have pulled from anthologies, but no book-long manuscript I am aware of. If you come across something, please share!

    2. National Black Disability Coalition http://www.blackdisability.org
      “Unspeakable: The Story of Junius Wilson” by Susan Burch & Hannah Joyner
      “Junius Wilson (1908-2001) spent 76 years at a state mental hospital in Goldsboro, North Carolina, including 6 in the criminal ward. He had never been declared insane by a medical professional or found guilty of any criminal charge. But he was deaf and black in the Jim Crow South. Unspeakable is the story of his life. In addition to offering a bottom-up history of life in a segregated mental institution, Burch and Joyner’s biography also enriches the traditional interpretation of Jim Crow by highlighting the complicated intersections of race and disability as well as of community and language.”

  1. robin, this was such a dope piece and i have shared it with my transmasculine brothers who redefine manhood and masculinity. not to say that we also do not find ourselves ensnared in misogynistic and sexist attitudes and behaviors that are already pervasive in society, but i do find solace in how we are trying to take those lessons from one part of our journey and bring it forward.

    1. thanks saifa! yes…taking lessons forward is a heartening and beautiful intervention! thank you for being a full manifestation of all the things i’m calling for/talking about.

  2. I knew two grandfathers, grew up with my Daddy, had 4 uncles, an older brother and 12 male cousins. I was married 36+years, I have 3 sons and 6 nephews so I have some definite and longitudinal views on black masculinity. I’ve seen it and experienced it as a little dark-skinned, dearly cherished black girl, daughter, granddaughter, sister, and cousin. And I’ve seen it and experienced it as a (still short, Grrr…)dark-skinned, profoundly loved black woman, wife and mother. I’ve not witnessed the Mama’s boy without a Daddy black masculinity or the homosexual yet athletic commodity masculinity nor have I’ve witnessed the academic construct of intersectionality component of black masculinity. I’ve only viewed the 24/7 lived, “handle your business” and “you only eat what you hunt and kill” kind of unheralded black masculinity-but that’s the kind of black femininity I’ve witnessed as well. My husband’s black masculinity included the financing and support of me through law school and when our sons were babies he got up every night I got up. I nursed, he burped and changed! His black masculinity included working with me in a business for 27+ years and homeschooling with me until our sons went to college. Black masculinity meant working out whatever conflicts he had with folks in the street or elsewhere, in the street or elsewhere-not at home. Black masculinity meant engaging me and our sons with the utmost respect. He never resorted to cursing, name-calling, screaming or hitting-ever! And no, I don’t think that’s phenomenal. It’s exceptional, but unlike a phenomenon it is absolutely reproducible. But we need to see what to reproduce. A large component of our challenge within community is inextricably tied to the one-dimensional, somewhat narcissistic fluff upon which our community’s attention is directed, far too often with limited analysis. We bemoan the mythology of the strong black woman while refusing to acknowledge how seldom black women get the help we need. If black women didn’t/couldn’t pull from our reservoirs of strength what would become of us while folks wax eloquent about the importance of self-care? If we think black women should lay some of our burdens down, then the rest of us gotta be ready to pick said burdens up. Similarly we decry the narrow, harsh, constricting and negative imagery of black men, yet those are the images we ourselves most often put forward. Is it to make a point? Is it to make us more vigilant? Is it to remind us that indeed Satan is as a roaring lion, walking to and fro seeking whom he may devour? Or is there an inherent conflict of interest lurking just below the surface? If we were to aggressively advance, promote, highlight and illuminate the quiet work being done in our communities by black men and black women with the same rigor and fortitude with which we put forward (promote?) the daily demagoguery of SWS (systems of white supremacy) well, what would many of our preachers, professors, politicians, public intellectuals, pundits and television personalities have as fodder from which to feed their respective flocks? Black masculinity is present and vibrant where it is acknowledged, respected and allowed to blossom, germinate and spread its seed, after it’s own kind. Want an example? Check this out http://bit.ly/1n4AZQ3

  3. Kudos to you and this excellent piece! I love your insight on the relationships between black men and the other women in their lives besides their beloved mothers. This issue has long troubled me and I agree that we need an intervention.

  4. “Your everyday around-the-way girl that might be kicking it at the mall or sitting on the stoop? Not so much. I wish there were more examples of black men fiercely loving, fiercely defending, and fiercely holding down black women that didn’t carry them in their womb, but do carry them on their backs sometimes.”

    Wait a minute… Does that around the way girl love the black man? Did she buy him flowers just in case she showed up? I don’t think so. This idea that men are to shower women with love who may very well care less about them ridiculous. On the flip side the man can be truly awful but that’s who the women chose to give her affections and in so doing she may have overlooked a much nicer man who appeared too soft. So much of male bravado is a performance for women as are the hyper feminine traits women perform for men. If men who appear strong and confident are desired then many men will find a way to perform it regardless of their true feelings. On the inter-sex level the masculine posture is a defensive. Appearing not to be vulnerable makes you less vulnerable to those who prey on vulnerability. Women can be seen doing the same and even in more extreme ways than men.

    “Unfortunately, culture teaches black men to love their mamas but be suspicious of other women. We need an intervention.”

    Are these women trustworthy? That should be the first question with the second is the same asked of the man. Did they have a mother and father who lived together and loved each other? That can help. If a bunch of people came out of homes where everything went wrong between their parent(s) and the opposite sex then trust might not be what they teach them.

    The gender blame game where we make one or the other out to be the villain is counter productive. It’s reeks of bitterness in those voicing these concerns more than anything else, just as my account of the ‘bad’ women would be rooted in my own experiences. If we’re going to talk about love or lack there of we ought do so from the neutral ground of human relations. One added benefit is not excluding same sex relations which are just as tumultuous as those between the sexes. We accept same sex couples but refuse to let their relationships see them as truly equal to relations between the sexes. It’s all men and women do this but they do whatever… I’m shocked so few have noticed the overlapping patterns aren’t a function of gender roles but rather attachment levels, personal preferences for control, jealousy, envy, neediness, apathy, avoidance, and other HUMAN THINGS! People form unbalanced relationships all the time regardless of sex. Poor relations with the opposite sex are sometimes rooted in gender expectations but that’s a foolish excuse to defer to things like misogyny as an explanation for one’s bitter experience with unrequited love.

    “There needs to be more visibility of transmen, men with disabilities, men who are present and responsible fathers, men who identify as feminist, men who are active in their communities, men who are non-misogynist, non-homophobic, non-aggressive and anti-violent. ”

    We can see these people walking around the hood all the time except for feminist men who left their “I’m a feminist man” T shirt at home. I don’t think we need to see him anyways to be honest. The people who are really into feminism think that’s some kind of righteous path and people need it to get along. They don’t and people work out all sorts of complex gender and sexuality issues without ever reading anything feminist have to say them. The right way is usually the path of love and compassion. We can teach and promote that without a endless stream ever shifting best practices and jargon.

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