***Warning: Spoilers Ahead***
Scholar Athena Mutua wrote a book entitled Progressive Black Masculinities in 2006. The “new” in the title, and in this blog, might be a bit misleading. The new refers to its contrast with previously heralded masculinities, yet it does not mean that there haven’t been progressive men in the past. Mostly, the shift in our preference for a less domineering style of masculinity has been in response to advances in technologies and activism. In other words, capitalist-inspired technology freed people from adhering to stifling gender roles and allowed for a more flexible approach to labor, health, life expectancy, and mobility (albeit a capitalism tempered heavily by the massive activist movements to free women, people of color, the elderly, and the differently abled–and one day the poor). Such new allowances have led us slowly away from our evolutionarily-bred need to rely on dominant males to provide. Now, anyone can earn a wage that can support a family rather than relying on a male that can hunt game and protect family from predators. In this fashion, Solomon Northup represents a tradition of progressive Black men who’ve always existed… Those Black men who provide materially as well emotionally.
Living in Fresno, the film Twelve Years A Slave took a few weeks after its release to get here (the theatre manager at Edwards Cinema in Riverpark told me that theatres often wait to see how an independent film fares at the box office before they decide to bring it out, hence the delay). That being said, I’m not sure how long it’ll remain here, so I heavily recommend seeing it as soon as possible—wherever you are. My 8 year old son and I sat in the theater an hour before the film waiting for it to begin. I should warn you though, as far as films about enslaved Africans in North America go, it is the most realistic to date. So bring your kids only if you’re prepared to discuss it at length.
What follows is a Black Masculinist read on Twelve Years A Slave…
Solomon Northup, brilliantly played by Chiwetel Ejiofor, was a progressive Black man during the slavery era. A free man in the north, he was kidnapped and sold into slavery under false pretenses (not to suggest there were ever “true pretense” for slavery). It began because he took a job that paid more than he regularly made and hoped to secure more funds to support his family. The fact that was he was kidnapped in the North does not go far enough to illustrate that racism existed in the North as well as the South. If anything, it’s where the movie leaves off that shows us that. Northup sued the men that kidnapped him but could not legally represent himself in court, and thus no one was held accountable. In other words, the North’s racism was legal, and continued to be well after chattel slavery officially ended.
One scene, extremely understated, was when a man named “Jasper,” an enslaved Black male who followed Solomon and his wife into a store. He never spoke. He just watched this free Black man acting as a husband and a father buying his wife a gift… The longing on his face was telling (and haunting).
Northup, upon his kidnapping, found other progressive Black males that were meditating on how to navigate their respective kidnappings. One tried to defend a Black women who was about to be raped and found out firsthand that his life was no longer worth the bounty. He was killed at knifepoint in short order. And this is the high point of our gender contentions with our sisters…the degree to which we cannot protect and provide for them to degrees that we ourselves respect, and the cost when we try. Maya Angelou beautifully articulates this dynamic, and the psychological trauma associated with it for Black men.
With all due respect to Queen Maya Angelou, the one question I wished she ended with was whether or not Black females could forgive us for not having the means to prevent our brutalization. If we consider the African enslavement project (also termed the “Maafa”) to be a paradigm for Black females and males’ ongoing relationship to Western capitalism, it hasn’t ended, and thus our need for forgiveness has not abated. In other words, we still regularly fail to make Black females’ lives easier, much of the time regardless of our approach to negotiating gendered-racism. The frustration of women, articulated by Angelou, too, has not abated (a great example of this frustration can be witnessed in Thandie Newton’s performance with Terrence Howard in Crash (2004).
Often, we Black men are intimately aware of what it means to be “Western” men, and what it costs us to do so. And frankly, it can be devastating. At the moment the female in your life needs it most, it’s usually at the very real cost of whatever security, status, or freedom you’ve attained. But far too often, it’s at the cost of your life (just ask the young man who died defending his girlfriend’s honor when she was grabbed in her behind at a party). Part of the reason the cost is so severe is that Black men must be policed from performing masculinity on equal terms with mainstream society. This is not to say that all men are men on equal terms, but that Black men must be excluded from it, because the demand would be too much to bear in regard to the demands of restitution such men would require from the society that enslaved (and continues to) exploit them because of their gender and their race. (Western masculinity here is defined by access to wealth, and therefore providing, protecting, and negotiating one’s interests in society is mediated through access to wealth and the capacity to leverage influence with it, something Black men have been systematically excluded from participating in.) The pictures below by Kendy Joseph outline a generic narrative that is all too familiar for those familiar with African enslavement in America…
Northup, a loving family man and dignified artist, is subjected to the worst of the human experience. The slave auction alone is jarring, at least until you attend an NFL or NBA audition camp and hear very similar assessments of Black male bodies, or listen to some men discuss women’s bodies. The irreverent intrusion into people’s personal space, their bodies, their genitalia…jarring. To watch him negotiate White supremacy, whether standing up against it or strategically acquiescing to it; the weakness one feels as a man who cannot prevent his own pain–let alone a Black woman’s–is hard to watch… Yet the social expectation that he do so still exists, and thus, his failure to do so marks him both as a “non-man” and less of a human being. But it’s also hard to watch because it is a reminder for what we still feel quite often. Impotence. And that is the most consistent hallmark of Black manhood in the New World.
The limited and sparing opportunities to protect and provide for the household (hell, for some–especially after incarceration–contribute consistently), to reap the rewards of a masculinity well-performed, i.e. our family’s respect, love, and admiration (without even asking why the performance of Western masculinity need be the price for such social “rewards”). It is what can send a man into despair at the anger of Black feminist railings against his patriarchal “privilege,” which is, for him, merely another reminder of his societal impotence. Thus, it is Northup’s war against “falling into despair” that truly makes sense here. He is not just railing against the injustice of having been enslaved, but the ease in which his ability to protect and provide for his family can be stripped away, and the only “good” he can truly do is to survive (keeping in mind that most kidnapped freepersons never made it home again after their abductions). The only good he can do for Black women, once kidnapped, was to help one masturbate and not expect sex afterwards…or beat one less harshly (at least for a while) when forced to do so against his will (Lupita Nyong’o’s performance of “Patsy” here is simply dazzling and surreal).Compared to men that have the freedom to serve their families as Western “men,” this is far too limited a range of options, and far away from a place of being able to meditate on why there’s a social expectation that you spend your life (and maybe risk your life) providing for your family at all. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not suggesting that men should do nothing for their families, but the type of manhood held up to us is one that supports such unmeditated sacrifice, and never explains why. And even to scholars on gender who describe acceptable forms of masculinity, it seldom ventures into the mechanics of where/how such expectations came to be. Here, if you missed it, it is Northup’s continued crying/begging at the end when he sees his family again that they “forgive him” for his absence. I understood exactly what he was asking for (sounding like a husband who left his wife for another woman and then decided to come back). He was essentially apologizing for not being able to perform a masculinity that would be constructive for the family’s overall well-being. Yet this type of nuanced complexity is excluded from our popular reflections on Black masculinity, especially in the Black community, as many Black men do not yet have the vocabulary to articulate this in detail and many Black females have taken to making synonymous males and triflin’ness (and yes, I made up a frightfully applicable word here–and you knew what it meant too, didn’t you?).
As I lectured in class on the death of Renisha McBride last week (while making Twelve Years A Slave extra credit), a few of my Black female students railed against brothers who they accused of “never” having been supportive of Black women–let alone in the face of such injustice. I didn’t point out that we all just watched in class our first introduction to McBride via Marc Lamont Hill (who sought the story out in response to a tweet), that although the first rally for her defense was put together by Black female producer and editor Dream Hampton, photos of the rally had Black males present, a Black male sent me the report via social media, and that I was a Black male telling the students about McBride (when others hadn’t) while urging them to use social media to get the word out. Instead, I tried to explain that too many of our perceptions of each other are mediated through a profit-driven media institution, owned by smaller and smaller groups of moneyed White elites. And that Black women are systematically excluded from a media enterprise that has masculinized Black death and yet still only begrudgingly reports on victimized Black men (who, by the way, still didn’t get justice after their deaths—think, Emmett Till, Rodney King, Trayvon Martin, Jonathan Ferrell, etc.). Or that the few Black males we can name who’ve been victimized do not begin to scratch the surface on the number of Black males incarcerated, attacked, and/or killed every week in America since 1619 (how many of you know who George Stinney is?).
Yet the media’s continued masculinization of Black death leaves most Black folk unaware of what happens to Black women—not just Black men (who, by the way, own no media networks of significance and do not determine these practices). In truth, I wouldn’t have known about King, Trayvon, Northup, or McBride without network news, which is sad statement in and of itself.
The masculinization of Black death is rooted in White society’s continued assumption of what I call reflective patriarchy, meaning that they assumed that their gendered cultural worldview was mirrored in other communities, and applied it as such. This was even the case back in the 1700s and 1800s when most slave narratives were written about Black men and published by Whites. It is more than likely that Black women were writing their stories even before Phyllis Wheatley (1773), but getting them published was another matter, as White males believed that the author of a respectable publication should reflect them…thus, Black males were the subjects of far more published narratives than Black women. But today, the second reason for the underreporting of Black female victimization is that we have an unspoken “poverty-mentality” approach to reporting Black stories in news media. Only a select few stories at a time will suffice. And as Obama is our current president, nuance and detail in reporting Black stories is a no-no, because reporting on Obama has already reached our weekly Black media quota on most mainstream networks.
Historically, it is only at the death of Emmett Till that we started to see America’s voyeured-homoeroticized-fetishized fascination with victimized Black men begin in national media (at best in support of Black men’s experiences, at worst it revealed America’s fetish for witnessing Black male’s physical vulnerability (including, quite regularly, castration), political impotence, and often grotesque deaths).
Since then, Black death has been masculinized, but not because Black men have demanded it be such. Black fathers, brothers, husbands, and sons do not ignore their female loved one’s pain, despite how our media may present it. We do, however, often feel powerless to do something about it (at least anything that can be reported publicly or associated with an acceptable masculine response —think Black male mob violence i.e. Ice Cube’s “Tear This Motherfucker Up” or the highly offensive, yet at times attractive, “Horny L’il Devil”).
Twelve Years A Slave encapsulates Black male’s social impotence because the feeling of Northup’s experience has not completely gone from our daily experience. Every time I get in the car in the morning to take my son to school and go to work, I am hyper-aware that I may never make it home again, whether due to death or incarceration. I think of being arrested at all times (making the end of Ice Cube’s video for his song “Today Was A Good Day” eerily prophetic), and staying locked up because I can’t afford to get out (firstly), then staying in longer than necessary out of the need to protect myself once inside (despite knowing it may increase my prison stay). The feeling of spending years locked away for little to nothing is a haunting reality for most Black men, as most know too many horror stories to take it lightly. And, like Northup, my auctioned labor has more value than my contributions to society in society’s view (for-profit prisons who “sell” my labor to the highest corporate bidder, usually resulting in a pay wage of about $7 per week). It is no question that Black women are experiencing imprisonment, but it is not yet entrenched in their moment-to-moment engagements with society that the fear of long term incarceration might be associated with something as simple as driving down the street or going to the store (rape would likely be the Black female counterpoint to this feeling).
What’s my point here? It’s twofold. First, go see Twelve Years a Slave (and not on bootleg). It is a necessary check against the literalization of Django Unchained (2012), and repositions films such as Haile Gerima’s Sankofa (1993) as a clarifying point for the lived experiences of slavery. Secondly, we must learn how to do both a Black Feminist and a Black Masculinist “read” on such narratives, as they would reveal very different–yet edifying–interpretations of the same subject from different raced and gendered vantage points.