Black Masculinity and the U.S. South: From Uncle Tom to Gangsta

Black Masculinity

I first picked up Riché Richardson’s book, Black Masculinity in the U.S. South: From Uncle Tom to Gangsta solely because I have great respect anyone who can get a scholarly work published with the word “gangsta” in the title. I was unprepared for the depth and scope of the work I had before me. Upon initially picking up the book, I was surprised by what felt like a narrow approach to a broad topic. Richardson approaches her subject through the lens of southern black literature (not the well-known kind) published mostly in the 1960’s-1980’s. As I read, I changed my mind about just how narrow Richardson’s lens was. Upon finishing the book, Richardson’s choice of popular film, literature, and music appeared suited vehicles through which to explore to the portrayal of black southern masculinity.

Riché Richardson was an associate professor of English at the University of California Davis when she first published Black Masculinity. She credits personal interest in the south as one of the major motivators in pursuing the project: “Admittedly, my background as an African American born and raised in the south has partly fueled my passion to engage in systematic critical reflection on the region,” says Richardson in her introduction.[1] She credits scholars in the Duke English department for allowing her the creativity to be experimental in her methods in a time when the field of “southern studies” was in the process of big change. The change to which Richardson referred was the development of the field of “new southern Studies;” Black Masculinity is Richardson’s foray into this field. Richardson’s second intervention is into the field of black masculinity. Recent years have brought scholarship investigating hierarchies of sexuality within black masculinity, “however,” Richardson argues, “beyond the expanded conceptions of black masculinity yielded by the work on sexuality, black men frequently continue to be treated as an undifferentiated and monolithic racial and gender category.”[2] Black Masculinity and the U.S. South is Richardson’s venture into the intersecting fields of southern studies and studies of black masculinity.

Richardson’s analysis of southern black masculinity follows a rough timeline from the roots of the Jim Crow south in the beginning of the Klu Klux Klan, through the civil rights movements of the 1960’s, and into today’s “Southern Rap” movement. She argues that southern black masculinity exists at the bottom of a hierarchy of black masculinities, and that culturally prevalent “types” of the southern black masculine identity are the foundation of the hierarchy. Types such as the “uncle Tom” or the “black rapist” are rooted in the Jim Crow and slavery south, and are the tools through which southern black masculinity has been subjugated to other black masculinities. Richardson calls for studies that probe distinctive black masculinities, and proposes her study founded on regional masculinity as the beginning of such a process.

Richardson begins chapter one with the identification of three “types” of black masculinity, both of which are clearly rooted in the south: the bad negro and the black rapist. The bad negro is the black man who is a lawbreaker and a trouble maker. Richardson roots the bad negro type firmly in the south by claiming him as “an outgrowth of the “rebel slave,” with roots in African American folklore.”[3] The bad negro of the civil rights era was “not essentially bad so much as the fruit of the repressive southern Jim Crow ethos.”[4] The second type –the black rapist—grows out of the bad negro. The black rapist is the white supremacist version of the bad negro. He is not only bad, he is dirty and animalistic: he has designs to pollute the white race by raping white women. The third type is the antithesis of the first two: the uncle Tom is the passive and has evolved into an asexual (and sometimes homosexual) type. The black rapist is primarily a vehicle of white oppression, the uncle Tom is primarily a vehicle of black oppression: the bad negro has been used by both groups to oppress southern black men.

All three types are key to Richardson’s analysis. In Chapter one, Richardson turns to a reflection of the bad negro and the black rapist in white supremacist thought as explored in William Bradford Huie’s novel The Klansman. (Which is itself a complicated parody of and reflection upon the white supremacist thought prevalent in The Birth of a Nation and The Clansman). The movie The Klansman, released seven years later, offers a reflection on the way that the types influenced the black power movements of the 1960’s. Richardson argues that changes made in Huie’s novel when it was adapted for screenplay reflect the appropriation of the bad negro type by the black power movement. Authentic black masculinity was linked with violence in resistance: by shifting a key scene in the novel away from the rape of a black woman and onto the lynching of a black man, the creators of the movie the Klansman highlight white supremacists’ attack on black masculinity. Richardson finishes her chapter with an analysis of O.J. Simpson’s characterization of a “bad negro” type following his arrest ad highly-publicized trial. The bad negro and the black rapist type are mixed in O.J.’s portrayal when his white wife is examined as a part of his identity.

Chapters two and three move beyond Richardson’s analysis of black masculine identity in the south as formulated by white supremacists and into the inner hierarchies of black masculinity. Richardson uses chapter two to explore the hierarchies of black masculinity, and chapter three to connect the white supremacist ideologies of the bad negro and black rapist to the formation of the black masculine hierarchy. Richardson uses the vehicle of Charles Fuller’s work A Soldier’s Play to begin to examine how black men relate among themselves. Through the struggles of an all-black army unit in WWII, Richardson argues that Fuller exposes the stereotypes of southern black men that are used for their degradation, such as stupidity and animalistic sexuality (both of which are based in the white supremacist thought that produced types such as the black rapist). In Richardson’s argument, I was beginning to see the connection between a black southern masculine identity, as defined by white supremacists, and the denigration of black southern men by other black men. Fuller’s exploration of this denigration, argues Richardson, was intended to expose the flaws in hierarchical black masculinity. Richardson believes Fuller failed, and I was inclined to agree. Fuller, in assigning the Northern Black male as the hero of the story and relegating the southern male character to a silent death, perpetuates the hierarchy that places southern black masculinity below that of the urban north.

Chapter three, and Ralph Elison’s Invisible Man, allow Richardson to explain why hierarchies like those exposed through Fuller’s A Soldier’s Play exist, through the lens of black rural otherness. Richardson argues that Elison’s use of Invisible Man to juxtapose white American subjectivity with elite notions of blackness within the African American south exposes the root of the subjugation of southern black masculinities to other black masculinities: the discourse of southern white supremacists, who use the black rapist character to identify the southern black male with animalistic sexuality, allows other black masculinities a sense of superiority. Richardson’s exploration of Invisible Man was the glue that held chapters one and two together, and began to weave the created types of black masculine identity into black men’s own performance of their masculinity.

Richardson is careful to point out that ultimately Elison, like Fuller, is unable to escape the trap of perpetuating the stereotypes of black masculinity: Elison’s hero (like Fuller’s) ultimately ends up appealing to the north for the formation of his authentic masculine identity. “The novel advances the logic of urban as authentic in definitions of black masculinity.”[5] Richardson demonstrated that because  black masculinity in both Elison and Fuller’s stories was constructed by, but not of, the southern types against which it was opposed, northern black masculinity dominated.

Richardson explores how this dominant ideology of northern (and urban) masculinity was expanded by the  black power movement of the 1960’s: specifically the speeches of Malcom X. Malcom X subjugated not only southern black masculinity, in ferociously denying his southern roots, but also through the use of the uncle Tom type. In several speeches, Malcom X invoked the uncle Tom as not only a rural and passive character, but also as a character that was homosexual: pleasing his white master and desiring him in an erotic and subservient way. By invoking the uncle Tom as homosexual, rural, and passive, Richardson holds that Malcom X links authentic black masculinity with an urban setting, heterosexuality, and violence. According to Richardson, this hyper-masculine, sexualized type of back masculinity is perpetuated by Spike Lee in his films of the 1960’s such as Get on the Bus, School Daze, and Bamboozled. Richardson sets up her final chapter when she argues that Malcom X and Spike Lee’s promotion of violent urban and sexualized black masculinity paved the way for the rise of gangsta rap.

The final chapter is where I finally began to see how the strands of Richardson’s narrative came together to offer a coherent description of black masculinity. Chapter five presents Richardson’s analysis of modern “southern rap” as it engages with the types present throughout all of black masculinity. In the beginning of the chapter, Richardson raises the question: Does the popularity of southern rap (rap being an inherently urban and masculine art) gained in recent years through the success of groups like No Limit records and Cash Money Millionaires, represent an elevation of black southern masculinity in the hierarchy of black masculinity itself? Richardson’s analysis would seem to say no. Richardson’s southern rappers are not freeing themselves through their rise in popular rap culture; they are only binding themselves again to the oppressive types of southern masculinity originally propagated by white supremacists.

Richardson shows how young black rappers claiming to “gangstas” and “playas” is just a re-casting of the bad negro and black rapist types initiated by white supremacists in the beginning of the formation of black masculine identity in the south. Southern rap has thrived playing with the stereotypes of which it is all-too conscious. Southern rappers have “turned southern stereotypes into a commodity.”[6] Yet, it appeared to me that the black southern rappers of Richardson’s final

The Album Cover of Joe Blakk's "Way Down South"
The Album Cover of Joe Blakk’s “Way Down South”

chapter fell into just the same traps as the novelists in the chapters before them; calling out southern stereotypes only reinforces them, and secures the idea of a urban and northern masculine identity. At one point, Richardson analyzes Joe Blakk’s “Way Down South” and comes to the same conclusions as I did: “While it confronts the condescending attitudes of Northerners, the message of “Way Down South,” which at bottom, says that “we are just like you” in some ways concedes the superiority and exemplariness of northern models of black masculinity. The South emerges as a mere simulacrum by its logic.”[7]

The South emerges as a mere simulacrum… Richardson’s own words critique her work, for after reading Black Masculinity, I can see the southern black masculine identity as nothing but a simulacrum. The problem with Black Masculinity is its inherent suggestion that the nature of black masculine identity is the shadow of the reflection of white supremacist thought. After finishing Richardson’s book I was left wondering, what is the true nature of black southern masculinity? It has been cast as the uncle tom, or the bad negro, or the black rapist. It has been subjugated below violent urban masculinity by non-southern black men’s appropriation of white supremacist types of black masculinity. If southern black masculinity really is the root of so much of universal black masculinity (as Richardson claims), why can she not offer a concrete definition of black masculinity apart from the ghost of white supremacism? Throughout her whole work, Richardson never once suggests a definition for black masculinity.

And maybe, just maybe, a definition of the essence of southern black masculinity was not the goal for which Richardson was aiming. Black Masculinity and the U.S. South is a strong examination of the historical treatment of the black male identity as evidenced through cultural artifacts. Richardson’s use of texts and film is engaging, and effective when in each chapter she pairs the cultural artifact with a historical or current event. When discussing The Birth of a Nation, for example, Richardson displayed the relevance of her argument by connecting her theory of the film to O.J. Simpson’s trial. After reading Black Masculinity, I am convinced of the need for a geographical analysis of identity categories, especially when it comes to race. Richardson’s argument that much of universal black masculinity finds its roots in the south is compelling, as is her argument that southern black masculinity is subjugated through the use of historical types. In light of this subjugation, asking for a historical definition of southern black masculinity may be beside the point. The most important part of investigating black masculinity in the U.S. south may be the way it engages historically, not its essence. Maybe all Richardson’s work needs is a new title : Cultural Reactions to Black Masculinity and the U.S. South, or something along those lines. Of course, if only for the sake of my own interest, she’ll have to keep “gangsta” in the title.

 

 

 

[1] Richardson, Black Masculinity and the U.S. South (Athens: University of Georgia Press, 2007), 11.

[2] Ibid, 8.

[3] Ibid, 33.

[4] Ibid, 34.

[5] Ibid, 156.

[6] Ibid, 207.

[7] Ibid, 218.

Bossy (Power of Language in the Workplace)

When reading Bell Hooks’ Black Women: Shaping Feminist Theory, I came across the following quote: “Women [spend] a weekend in an expensive workshop that guarantees to teach you how to become assertive (but not aggressive).” Immediately, I remembered a commercial I saw a couple years ago sponsored by Pantene. This commercial compared the language used to describe educated women in positions of power, such as politics or CEOs, with their male counterparts in the same exact job. Not only are women discriminated against in the workplace financially, they are also put at a disadvantage for holding positions of authority by male coworkers and male identification. For so long women have be instilled with notions of proper “femininity” and what it means to be a woman, and to an extent a good housewife. According to Foucault’s repression hypothesis, this innate nature of women is actually institutionalized by the patriarchal society and is a form of oppression. How we describe women and men is very important in the language we use. Due to society’s interpretation of words like “bossy” and “boss,” these words have been engendered and therefore serve as a form of discrimination against women or less masculine men.

She’s Beautiful When She’s Angry

The documentary She’s Beautiful When She’s Angry was first shown to me in my Anthropology of Social Movements class last semester. This film traces the women’s liberation movement in the 1960s and 1970s, specifically focusing on activist groups like the National Organization for Women (NOW) and Black Sisters United. The collection of women interviewed for this film were part of these groups as well as leaders of lesbian activism sects and the writers of Our Bodies, Ourselves. When reading Betty Friedan’s except from The Feminine Mystique, this documentary automatically came to mind as women were arguing for equal rights not only inside the home as mothers, but also in economics and education. But I also found this documentary very interesting because of how it addressed the intersectionality of race and gender in this period of the women’s rights movement, such as Bell Hooks writes about in Black Women: Shaping Feminist Theory. Hooks states that Friedan “ignored the existence of all non-white women and poor white women” the same way that many African American and lesbian women saw “feminist radicalism [lose] ground to bourgeois feminism.” Lesbians at the time were also rebelling against compulsory heterosexuality and male identification as they felt they had a right to voice their opinion in the women’s liberation movement as shown in the documentary. She’s Beautiful When She’s Angry shows the dynamic intersectionality of race, class, and gender during the women’s right movement in the late 1960s and early 1970s.

Super Bowl, Totino’s, and SNL

As the Super Bowl is this weekend, it is only fitting that my contemporary media analysis is a parody of a super bowl commercial that was shown during halftime of last year’s game. Saturday Night Live reenacted a commercial for Totino’s Pizza Rolls emphasizing gender roles and using rhetorical appeals to identify the misogynistic characteristics of advertisement in society.

Ironically, the commercial displays a typical Super Bowl viewing party: men surrounding a TV, cheering and eating. The setting of this commercial automatically assumes society’s mental construction of gender by implying that sports are for men, who are generally thought of as the stronger sex, while women have a familial duty to be “in the kitchen,” as the only woman in the commercial states. The notion of gender roles is reinforced by the interaction of the cast. For example, the woman continues to internalize her role as the provider of food and alcoholic beverages for the men instead of watching the game in addition to cooking—or microwaving in this case. Another example is when one of the husband’s friends asks if she wants to watch the game and it is assumed that she does not want to join by her husband. I think an interesting thought to entertain is that this s an economic advertisement with the point to increase sales in Totino’s Pizza Rolls. Watching this skit makes me wonder if there are men behind similar commercials geared towards mothers, and also now would really like to know what Totino’s advertising thought about the SNL version. This portrayal of male identification is an everyday example of the social reproduction of heterosexual norms.

The SNL cast made sure to use rhetorical appeals, such as irony, humor, and exaggeration, to convey their disgust with the portrayal of women’s positions in the home. One brilliant example of the use of rhetorical appeal is the “Super Bowl Activity Pack for Women”—“for grown women ages 5 and up.” This “activity pack” is patronizing to women as it is for keeping one’s “mind active and learning” by completing children’s mind puzzles.

Women are supposed to have equal access to education as well as economic opportunities, but this interpretation of the commercial depicts women having characteristically low intelligence, such as the demeaning easiness of connect the dots and crossword puzzles. Personally, my favorite part of the activities was the option to “count her own money,” except the money was fake Monopoly money. This part of the commercial reminded me of the economic inequalities women face outside of the home because of institutionalized social interactions. The activity pack is another example of how the patriarchal hierarchy is continually made fun of here.

It is important to take Saturday Night Live’s interpretation of the commercial with a grain of salt and recognize there is an entertainment quality to it. Saturday Night Live’s parody can be construed in two different perspectives. One could watch this skit and view it as a way to poke fun at feminists and the “extreme” views of today’s culture. On the other hand, the message I took away from this performance is that consumer advertising generally caters towards a particular gender to increase sales. SNL profited off of the generalization of gender roles to poke fun at our society.

This skit was performed to parody a common visual the recognized by the general public. This interpretation of the Totino’s Pizza Rolls commercial reached a wide audience, since it is a popular comedy show and social media continued to share this skit repeatedly—both men and women of all ages, races, and classes have viewed it. So although the main purpose of the skit was to evoke humor, I think it also is an interesting way to naturally generate a conversation about gender roles and the inequality that exists between genders. In this way, I believe this skit to be effective, as it sparked a discussion between my friends at Davidson College. Some may view the parody as an extreme view of feminism, while others may say, “Wait, actually this brings up a good point!” The most effective methods of societal change start with a conversation, and in today’s age of technology, social media and TV shows can provide the first steps toward that change.

Double Standards in Today’s Society

 

Andres Sanchez

The piece of contemporary media I will analyze is a Pantene commercial from 2013 in which touches on society’s double standards and encourages women to leave labels set by society behind and break from the chains of society’s views. The commercial relates to Adrienne Rich’s ideas in her work Compulsory Heterosexuality and Lesbian Existence where she identifies the meanings of male identification and lesbian continuum. The Pantene commercial intends to explore how current society has not changed much from the time Rich wrote her work in 1980 as although more women gain higher positions in jobs, the labels that were created decades ago must still follow them everywhere they go. Through these labels, the audience is able to see the ways in which standards hold the men and women of today. With these intentions and use of rhetoric, however, the commercial challenges the male audience to react to the commercial in a different way than the female audience.

The commercial by Pantene begins with comparing a man and a woman, both whom are bosses of a company. As the man addresses his partners, he is labeled as “boss”, but as the woman addresses her partners, she is labeled as “bossy”. The label with which the woman is set contains a negative connotation as bossy can be perceived as someone who is imperious. As the commercial progresses, women and men continue to be labeled differently in contrasting situations with men being labeled as “persuasive”, “dedicated”, and “smooth” while women are labeled as “pushy”, “selfish”, and “show-off”. The polarity of labels in the commercial intend to persuade the audience, in this case men and women, that even though women are allowed to pursue higher positions in today society, double standards are working against them for doing so. For example, one of the scenes in the commercial demonstrates the distinction between a man and a woman who are working late at home. In the man’s situation he is labeled as “dedicated” while the woman in the same situation is labeled as “selfish”. In Rich’s work, she defines male identification as “the act whereby women place men above women, including themselves, in credibility, status, and importance in most situations regardless of the comparative quality the women may bring to the situation”. By using this to interpret the scene in the commercial, the woman in the scene is labeled as selfish because she is seen as someone who has to be the caretaker of the house and doing anything other is selfish while the man is seen as the one responsible for the income of the home. In every scene of the commercial, each woman is labeled because she is going against the male identification.

Apart from the idea of male identification, the Pantene commercial also touches on Rich’s idea of lesbian continuum which she describes as “forms of primary intensity between and among women, including the sharing of a rich inner life, the bonding against male tyranny, the giving and receiving of practical and political support”.  The women in the commercial can be seen as those who are part of this lesbian continuum by challenging male identification and pursuing higher positions in jobs. It is because of this opposition against society standards that they are then labeled with negative connotations. The commercial does not shame on the women for doing so, but shames the double standards of society for judging women who want to pursue jobs and take actions that are believed to be those belonging to men. A possible fallacy within the commercial is the way in which only women are seen as the victim, but this is reasonable because the commercial focuses on a product is meant for women. This fallacy, however, can cause some of the male audience to feel uncomfortable at the fact the commercial can be viewed as an opposition to male privilege in today’s society while other part of the male audience may feel unrepresented by the fact commercial only targets the way in which society’s labels affect women and not men.

The rhetorical devices used in the commercial include connotations, contradictions, and tone. The contradictions and connotations are clearly seen in the commercial through the polar labels set on men and women having men being labeled with words that associate with positive connotations and women with words of negative connotations. The song used in the commercial, “Mad World by Gary Rules”, is a very interesting choice as it emphasizes one’s disgust of the regular chores of daily life and the way in which one does not look forward to the next day through the lens of a person who is viewing the world as an outsider. The way this song connects to the purpose of the commercial is that is gives off a tone of angst towards how society has set guidelines which women and men must live by, and once they step out of these boundaries set by society, they are judged and labeled. All these rhetoric devices work together to make the audience feel disdain towards the stereotypes established by society towards one’s gender.

Although women in today’s society aim to obtain better positions in their professional life and move away from domestic stereotypes, there are always labels awaiting them if they do so. According to Rich, these labels are a byproduct of the ideas of male identification and lesbian continuum set in the 1980s. The Pantene commercial analyzed is a great representation of what double standards in today look like. Even though the product advertised and commercial focus on women, the depiction of men is also a product of today’s society. By only including the effects of labels on women, the Pantene advertisement leaves out the male audience and can bring about different reactions by men. In the end, the commercial calls for a great reflection over what standards we hold for each gender and for a break from these standards. The double standards of today should not be a guideline for how one should live their life. These standards exist worldwide, unconsciously or not, and they will continue to exists as long as labels are prevalent based on one’s gender.