“A Quick Statement about Progressive Black Masculinity” by T. Hasan Johnson, Ph.D.

As defined by feminists, progressive masculinity generally refers to a practice that challenges systems of gendered, androcentric, patriarchal domination. Yet progressive masculinity as defined by Black Masculinists suggest that dominating others need not be a central feature of masculinity. In fact, it often has not been, historically, for shifting demographic populations of differently configured Black men (based on color, political orientation, religious/spiritual beliefs, gender, sexuality, class, height, voice tenor, etc.). Here, examples such as W.E.B. DuBois, Robert F. Williams, and even Huey P. Newton demonstrated organizational progressivism, while scores of fathers, brothers, lovers, grandfathers, uncles, boyfriends, etc. demonstrate Black male progressivism daily without fanfare. Furthermore, Black Masculinists argue that patriarchy is not universal, especially among Black males, and when it has been practiced, or at least seemingly lauded, it has been done so with, often, a form of selectively-affirmed consent from Black women when useful and suitable in particular contexts that suited their interests. For instance, in his text I Am A Man!: Race, Manhood, and the Civil Rights Movement (2005), Steve Estes outlines the various ways post-enslavement Black masculinity seemingly conformed to Western standards in an effort to adapt in society. However, the idea of mimicking White male patriarchy was not the goal, as Black females and males negotiated their newfound gender dynamics together, something not done in traditional Western patriarchal practice.

Black Masculinism questions the notion of Intersectionality Theory, which proposes that Black males are hampered by race but privileged by gender. We argue that there are shifting issues that can in one instance denigrate one group, while another category can further denigrate them in an unforeseen manner. So despite that masculinity appears to privilege a group, it can also further oppress them, as Black males have not historically been regarded as “men” in the Western sense. Hence, the relevance of more nuanced theories such as Athena Mutua’s Multidimensionality Theory. Black Masculinists invoke dimensions of Multidimensionality Theory that posit spheres of empowerment and agency, in some of which Black males are in positions of power, and others where Black women, girls, LGBTs, trans, etc. hold power. In other words, the issue is not whether Black males or females lead, but that both (and many more) have led in certain contexts–which shift over time. Also, group interactions cannot be dissected along just one dimension (such as gender) without overlooking many other relevant factors. Yet despite the nuance of multidimensionality, Mutua still used language that posited Black male privilege, but never defined it empirically, leading to a necessary, albeit slight shift, by Black Masculinists on the nature of multidimensionality.

As Dr. Tommy Curry states,
“Even Mutua’s rejection of intersectionality has not yet come to grips with the full force of Darren Hutchinson’s argument. Despite her concession that there is no empirical evidence for Black men having any “male privileges,” Mutua still feels compelled to entertain the notion that there are nebulous privileges attached to Black men. This is an ideological claim that remains intutitive for Mutua regardless of fact. This is why the call for a new study of Black men by Black men (similar to my work on genre studies) is necessary to re-situate and historicize Black masculinity beyond pathology and (academic) profit.” (FB Messenger; 8/16/15).

As far as empowered spaces for Black women not controlled by Black males, spaces dealing with childbirth and mid-wifery, labor (pre- and post-enslavement work), or amongst naturalist church practices where Black folk met in the woods illustrate how spaces can empower or disempower Black female demographics.

Sometimes, spaces labeled patriarchal are actually something more complicated. For example, if Black churches are primarily populated by Black women, and Black male leadership cannot lead without their consent, how then do we explain a Black patriarchy with no materials means of control? Thus, if Black women left the church and started their own, what could Black male pastors/deacons/church leaders do about it? They could not implement a material, economic, or militaristic campaign against their Black female former members (Staples, 1979). At best, they could only level a moral condemnation (or maybe physical abuse on an individual basis against their spouses…), or possibility an exegetical reading, but such things are subjective, as there can always be counter-exegetical readings of scripture in any religion. The point being, this is not institutionally-sanctioned patriarchy.

In fact, Staples argues that there are only two Black institutions of note (i.e. not run by Whites), the Black Church and the Black Family. As stated, he says the church as an institution lacks Black males (severely so) except for senior leadership and is otherwise run by women. The family, in contrast, has two types, matriarchal and patriarchal. That said, he argues that there is little empirical evidence for an institutional Black patriarchy (Staples, 1978, p. 28).

With Multidimensional Theory, one must also account for spaces where, say, middle-class, gay Black males might be in power in a given academic department; or young, poor, but highly educated Black females might lead in an activist organization (such as Black Lives Matter); or (mostly) heterosexual, cis-gendered, working-class Black males might determine the culture of a record company or studio (such as Death Row Records in the 1990s). These conflicting and intersecting aspects of identity complicate assumptions of power and “patriarchy,” because they don’t account for notions of power amongst non-male groups, and thus don’t conform to overarching assumptions of patriarchy.

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One thought on ““A Quick Statement about Progressive Black Masculinity” by T. Hasan Johnson, Ph.D.

  1. Excellent article! It really helped me understand how patriarchy works in (white) society as compared to, say , the black church, where power is only appears to wielded by black men but could always be underminded by black women.

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