Jessica: Where did you grow up? What was it like to be a black man in your community?
Lemelle: I grew up in South Central, Los Angeles. My family was one of the first black families to move into what was then a predominately Jewish neighborhood. I definitely remember being looked upon as “strange” for being a black kid… but this sort of began to change as more people of color moved in. I went to Catholic school for a lot of my life, and this was where my identity was formed based on how others perceived my black family. Unfortunately, I internalized a lot of the things I experienced in Catholic school, but my neighborhood began to change a lot during my teens. Honestly, I did not think too deeply about my “maleness” until later in life… when I felt like I really began to be socialized as a male. I realized later in life that the development of race and gender go hand in hand. As I got older, I remember constantly navigating between these two poles of heterosexism and sexism in order to fall under society’s expectations of masculinity.
Jessica: What made you want to go to college and eventually become a professor?
Lemelle: Well, I began to recognize that in my world, there were only 3 ways out: becoming a gangster, or athlete, or getting an education. I definitely had my gangster phase for a while. Realizing that I would never be a real athlete, I decided to go into education. Also, I knock on my Catholic school experience a lot, but they did often stress getting an education and I think that motivated me. And my parents never got a full “proper” education but I consider them “organic intellectuals”; that means that they were highly educated by life. They became my role models, and they really pushed me to succeed, especially my mother. I remember everyone in my family, and even my friends used to think of me as this “neighborhood know-it-all” who was always teaching people things. That also motivated me to continue my education and teach. I was never the best student, but I began to work hard. I began to recognize that I needed to work hard. I knew I didn’t want to join the Army – another way “out” – so I went to college instead. My head got really big when I started college, especially when I thought about all of the people who told me I would never go. I quickly realized there weren’t many people like me in college, if you know what I mean. Junior year of college was really bad. I got drafted for Vietnam shortly after. I quickly enlisted with my cousin as dental technicians because we wanted to avoid actually going to Vietnam. That didn’t work out, but I just worked in Maryland for a while. That’s where a lot of my conceptions of maleness came together. I saw a lot of theories about gender performance come out during my experiences in the Army. I signed up for night classes in Maryland, where I began to appreciate education a lot more. I realized that proving my masculinity through chasing women and things was overwhelming and strange. When I got out of the army, I began to read about political theories, which really changed my attitudes toward women and other men. I wanted to become a more progressive man by letting go of sexism and hegemonic masculinity. I came to grips with my flaws but thought more deeply about how I could do better. I entered an activist phase… I joined many groups, some of which dealt with male supremacy. I carry a lot of these experiences with me in my career as an educator.
Jessica: Do you or did you ever have any role models?
Lemelle: Well, I had a few “counter-role models,” if you will. My father was one of these counter-role models… he was all of the things I knew I didn’t want to be. I can also think of more distant role models, like writers, such as Nelson Peery. He and a few others really changed my way of thinking about the world through their writings. Of course, I should also mention my mother, who taught me everything about how a thoughtful, mature man should act. From all of these people I learned that life still is and always will be a struggle, especially for a black man. I try to model for kids in the ways that my own role models led me to where I am now.
Jessica: What is your definition of masculinity? How does it apply to your life as a black male?
Lemelle: I really have no definition of masculinity. As a Marxist, I look at things dialectically. “Maleness” and “femaleness” are often polarized, but those divisions are socially-constructed. There is no clear-cut definition. Our consciousness is always bombarded by these 2 poles. I’m glad that people can call me out on my sexism, heterosexism, or what have you when it’s subconscious and I slip up. But I accept that I slip up. I try to put what I’ve learned throughout my life into practice constantly. So, I have to say that I can’t really define masculinity.
Jessica: If you could give any advice to younger black men, what would it be?
Lemelle: I would tell them not to let society define who they are. They need to be comfortable with who they are, as everyone should be. Subtle pressures will constantly be put on them as black men. They just need to remember who they are and feel secure and confident in who they are. And they need to do whatever makes them comfortable. Life will always be a struggle in finding out who you are, and they will need to always stay true to themselves to pull through.
Reflections on Black Masculinity and the Black Male Experience: An Interview With Professor Sid Lemelle
Sid Lemelle grew up in South Central Los Angeles during the 1960s and 1970s, a very interesting time for people of color in the United States. As a black male, Lemelle had a very challenging childhood. “My family was one of the first black families to move into what was then a predominately Jewish neighborhood,” he says. “I definitely remember being looked upon as ‘strange’ for being a black kid… but this sort of began to change as more people of color moved in. I went to Catholic school for a lot of my life, and this was where my identity was formed based on how others perceived my black family. Unfortunately, I internalized a lot of the things I experienced in Catholic school, but my neighborhood began to change a lot during my teens.” Lemelle remembered feeling like an outsider as being a part of the only black family in his neighborhood, but he began to think more critically about his life while he was in Catholic school; he certainly felt the repercussions of his blackness both in and out of school. When I asked Lemelle about how he grew up thinking about masculinity, he said, “Honestly, I did not think too deeply about my ‘maleness’ until later in life… when I felt like I really began to be socialized as a male. I realized later in life that the development of race and gender go hand in hand.” Lemelle’s experiences as a child in Catholic school in South Central largely influenced his critical thinking later in life.
When I asked Lemelle about what inspired him to go to college and eventually to become a professor, he said, “Well, I began to recognize that in my world, there were only 3 ways out: becoming a gangster or an athlete, or getting an education. I definitely had my gangster phase for a while. Realizing that I would never be a real athlete, I decided to go into education. Also, I knock on my Catholic school experience a lot, but they did often stress getting an education and I think that motivated me. And my parents never got a full ‘proper’ education but I consider them “organic intellectuals”; that means that they were highly educated by life. They became my role models, and they really pushed me to succeed, especially my mother.” Lemelle also thought a lot about his “counter-role models” – people like his father, who served as examples of people he didn’t want to become. He relied a lot on his mother to get him through his education. He also gives credit to writers such as Nelson Peery who helped him form his ideas about politics and critical theory after he served in the Army. Lemelle’s experiences in the Army greatly influenced his opinions on gender, race, and masculinity – he realized through his experiences serving in Maryland that he really needed to let go of sexism and hegemonic masculinity in order to become a better person.
When I asked Lemelle for his definition of masculinity, he said he does not have one. “‘Maleness’ and ‘femaleness’ are often polarized,” he said, “but those divisions are socially constructed.” As a result, he has no “clear-cut” definition of masculinity. When I asked Lemelle about the kind of advice he would give to younger black men, he said he would tell them to “not let society define who they are.” He thinks that black men need to stay true to themselves and remember who they are in order to succeed in life.
Lemelle’s life as a black man definitely breaks away from stereotypes of blacks and black males that plague black men in the media. It is quite clear through my interview with Lemelle that he thought a lot about his blackness, his maleness, and his black-maleness (or racialized gender identity) throughout his entire life. Growing up in Catholic school, he realized what his options were as a black man in South Central when he thought about gang life, athleticism, and getting an education. By choosing to pursue education, Lemelle broke away from the stereotype that black men can only grow up to be criminals or basketball players. Despite being told by a lot of people around him that he would never make it to college, he enrolled at Cal State Los Angeles in order to get a degree and get out of poverty. The stereotypes that society has constructed about black men do not at all entail getting an education, but Lemelle knew from a young age that he wanted to break that mold.
Lemelle’s experiences in the Army also prove that he contributes to the idea that black males are not limited by their stereotypes. During his time in the Army, Lemelle felt that he had to “prove” his masculinity through very stereotypically masculine experiences, such as chasing lots of women around, fighting other men, and making a good living. Lemelle realized early on that he did not want to become trapped by that particular world. He continued to take classes in Maryland where he learned a lot about race through politics and critical theory. Lemelle completely broke away from the stereotype of black males being aggressive womanizers when he decided to try and let go of his sexist and heteronormative attitudes. He felt that while he was growing up, society often tried to fit him into this box in which he had to present himself as a straight, hypersexual, and hypermasculine figure. Lemelle completely defies these stereotypes by being comfortable in his own skin. He does not pay any mind to people who may have called him names such as “faggot” or “pussy” because he recognizes that these things stem from heteronormative and sexist frameworks. As such, Lemelle is a wonderful role model for young black men who also wish to break out of the box that society tries to force them into.
It became especially clear to me that Lemelle is a progressive individual when he told me that he has no real definition for masculinity. Evidently, his experiences with the Army as well as with politics and critical theory have led him to accept that masculinity itself is a social construction. Lemelle believes that black men should not have to follow any kinds of societal standards for black men; instead, he believes that all black men should accept who they are and stay true to themselves throughout their entire lives. Lemelle has grown to feel comfortable in his own skin, regardless of how he acts or what he wears. He recognizes that as a black man, he has and will continue to endure a lifelong struggle of feeling comfortable in his own blackness, maleness, and heterosexuality. He serves as a progressive role model for younger black men because he became a professor to fight against racism, sexism, classism, heterosexism, etc. Growing up in South Central Los Angeles, the odds of Lemelle becoming a successful individual seemed very slim, but he clearly beat those odds. He hopes to serve as a role model for his sons and other young black men.
Based on my interview and previous experiences as Lemelle’s student, it is obvious to me that he is an inspirational older black male. Anyone, but especially black men, can learn from his experiences that we are not at all confined to what society expects of us based on our race, class, gender, and sexuality. Lemelle has certainly defeated black male stereotypes by becoming a leader in his community. We can easily refer to his achievements in order to remember that black men can and will continue to become successful.