In the history of Western civilization, the issue of race has often been the linchpin upon which family feuds were started, states and the nation became divided and fortunes were made or lost. Carefully woven into our nation's folklore and stereotypes are images of the Black male body--a representation that simultaneously invokes great admiration and abject fear.
Now, in an impressive interrogation into the problems of the Black masculine identity as developed over a 200-year span, Maurice O. Wallace, assistant professor of English and African and African American Studies at Duke University, in his book Constructing the Black Masculine, negotiates murky waters in examining the historical efforts by Black men to reconcile the relationship between maleness and blackness.
And from his research of representative texts and contexts from 1775 to 1995, Wallace concludes that the Black man has always been held under suspicion and subjected to an onerous sort of public gaze by white's eyes.
"This gaze has tended to spectacularize or read more or less into Black male bodies." Wallace said. "In some cases the body has been over-sexualized and at the same time regarded as less intelligent than the white male. In effect, the Black male has been reduced to a creature that is more body than mind."
In order to pursue this thesis, Wallace examines the writings and lifestyles of prominent Black men in American history: Prince Hall and Martin Delany--founders of the Freemasons; Frederick Douglass and Booker T. Washington; authors Richard Wright, James Baldwin, Melvin Dixon and Frantz Fanon; and dancer Bill T. Jones. And he states that despite the different periods in which these men lived, race constituted a defining feature of their national manhood.
"Who, after all, can deny the endless and unspeakable power of so many desperate white schemes as American slavery, Jim Crow, the lynch mob, urban dispossession, and, most recently, the prison industrial complex to unman (read: dehumanize) the African-American male?"
In other words, according to the author, as a result of the high profile of race in Western civilization, and the Black man's lowly position in that hierarchy, the Black male body has been reduced to the fears and fascinations borne out of our country's cultural imagination.
He begins with men like Hall and Delany, early race men, who appropriate the classic style of George Washington in their style of dress--powdered wigs, knee breeches and coats.
"African-American Freemasonry represents one of the first attempts in American history to settle the spectragraphic predicament--pursuing the impulse toward self-made manhood and the black masculine ideal," he says.
In other words, Freemasons, as well as Douglass, hoped to counter the image of the Black body as interpreted under the gaze of white Americans.
"One ... way that these men attempted to counter the first attempts at racial profiling--by challenging and subsequently presenting a different appearance than those that were the norm in the mid- to late-18th century--the fugitive slave where great attention was given to his body parts."
Wallace points to a memorable scene in Douglass' autobiography in which he strikes back at his overseer, describing the event as an explanation of "how a slave is made a man."
And as the author moves to consider the works and life of Booker T. Washington, he suggests that Washington was more subversive than he is given credit.
"He would never be described as a radical figure, given his philosophy and action, but he was much more complicated than the castigation of him as an Uncle Tom--a closer read refutes this claim made by many historians.
While Baldwin and Jones live public careers in different decades of the 20th century, Wallace suggests that both feel the intense gaze of white eyes--like other Black men before them. But their response is something never before employed.
"They flip the script on the gaze of the white public and expose the imagination of white America," Wallace said. "In both Baldwin's literature and the choreography of Jones, both men show how the public gaze dehumanizes and objectifies Black men. Jones is fascinating in his dance performance, often presenting stereotypes with which he knows his white audience can relate--only to overexaggerate and flaunt that stereotypic view right before their eyes. Baldwin does the same thing in his writing--making it clear that he knows he is being watched. But Baldwin asserts that at the same time, he too, is watching the watcher."
So, what is Wallace's conclusion about Black masculinity?
"It is a sort of improvisation that the Black man undergoes," he says. "They manipulate their own bodies, they understand their own body consciousness and they improvise on a less than flattering public view of their masculinity."
New productions of knowledge and new productions of power--that is what Wallace says the Black man continues to search for--a new ontology of sight, one which liberates slave from master and master from himself."