The release of Tommy J. Curry’s new text, The Man-Not: Race, Class, Genre, and the Dilemmas of Black Manhood, is both monumental and groundbreaking. This text inaugurates a new field of study—namely, Black Male Studies, and Dr. Curry lays the foundation well by establishing a multi-layered, nuanced approach that encompasses new approaches to conceptualizing gender, develops new gender theory, re-evaluates sexuality, and creatively applies class-analysis in an effort to consider Black men on wholly new grounds. Curry accomplishes this difficult task with seeming ease.
Early in his text, Curry situates how gender and blackness is regarded in America. He frames how the very context for Black gender is rooted in inhumanity. Based on 18th century ethnological schemes, he suggests Black men and women were regarded as a wholly separate branch of evolutionary stock, most especially among European polygenist pseudo-scientists. Yet as a separate stock, Black people were not regarded as having gender per se, but rather merely possessed different genitalia. In other words, they were male and female to be sure, but lacked the humanity (and thus the subsequent citizenship associated with such humanity) to be considered men and women. This observation frames the context for how Curry approaches the study of Black gender, and thus the study of Black males.
He continues his analysis by examining in great detail the role White femininity and womanhood plays in the establishment of a gendered and raced caste system solidified by the institution of chattel slavery, identifying White women’s contributions to the institution, the rape of Black men, and their role in producing the ‘strange fruited poplar trees’ popular in the Antebellum South. Yet beyond including them in the bloody legacy of the South (a feat they seem to avoid in popular memory), Curry further examines their behavior organizationally, philosophically, economically, and in terms of the White family-based power structure. The importance of this cannot be overstated: White nationalism functioned on the basis of the White family and thus their assault on Black humanity could not be complete without her willing participation, an assault rooted in an oft-lethal intellectual, economic, gendered, cultural, philosophical, and scientific series of strategies. Her role as the bastion of White integrity and innocence belied the importance of the role she played in serving as the moral center of whiteness, while also enacting revenge against White males by subjugating & killing (via proxy-murder-by-lynch-mob) Black males to sate her sexual desires and then protect her status and social standing. Nevertheless, our collective gynocentrism has prevented us from seeing women as a threat in any context, instead they are seen solely as either victims, victims in gilded cages, or they are invisible altogether. Curry uses historical data and the history of theoretical production to properly situate how gender played out, and to what extent it did so to the detriment of millions of enslaved Africans.
Ethnologically narrativizing the perspectives of newly freed African Americans, he also charts the philosophical underpinnings of notions of Black political uplift during Reconstruction, and goes to painstaking degrees to illustrate how Victorian (and other) notions of gender have shaped how both Black men and women conceptualized their newly defined gender roles, and how such roles (and their mimetic relationship to White society’s gender standards) impact intra-racial perceptions of gender. Curry then frames how contemporary Black feminist perceptions shape how we interpret past figures and movements while illustrating how these interpretations have been shaped by White ethnological assumptions.
Using both the latest and most trustworthy data alongside documented cases and anecdotes, Curry rightly highlights society’s investments in caricatures of Black men that are both fictitious and yet blindly adhered to. More to the point, Curry traces the origins of these stereotypical caricatures and examines their strategic purposes, laying bare the motivations of those responsible for their design. He then illustrates the impact of having pseudo-Black intellectuals who embrace these racist tropes and espouse them without an awareness of their context, arguing that doing so further compromises any moral or ethical high ground Black activists and intellectuals may have enjoyed.
Curry, circumventing the canned accusations of heteronormativity most Black males entering into gender discourses receive when advocating for a reassessment of Black males, engages a never before found publication by self-identified homosexual revolutionary Eldridge Cleaver. Entitled the Book of Lives, Curry is the first to find this unpublished manuscript and assess its relevance to our understanding of the sexual victimization of Black males et al. He also applies it to the question of power dynamics between White and Black men. He later rolls this into another analysis that both simultaneously theorizes and meta-theorizes, meaning he theorizes on both the theory and the popular treatment of Black males on a wider, more institutional scale when developing the concept of anti-Black misandry while theorizing about the dearth of theory on Black males rooted in data. Furthermore, he examines how this lack of theory exacerbates how Black men—especially under-class Black men—are perceived and treated both historically and contemporarily. Notably, Curry’s argument reveals the ways in which Black males’ vulnerabilities are generally overlooked in regard to the most highly regarded sites of defenselessness, namely rape and murder.
Here, the incapability of most in society to appreciate Black males’ vulnerabilities contribute to their invisibility, and thus further contribute to the core notion of this text: Black men are not considered men. Or rather they are perennially treated as “man-nots.” They are somehow hyper-feared, hyper-masculine, and hyper-dangerous, yet simultaneously still hyper-victims, and in order to hold this duality in mind, the sacrifice of their vulnerability becomes necessary.
In other contexts, Dr. Curry has added to the strength of this work by engaging me in dialogues outside of the text. For example, in the spring of 2017, Dr. Curry visited me at Fresno State and explained his overall work—a task that his text The Man-Not greatly contributes to and lays the groundwork for: the development of Black Male Studies.
African American Studies Teleconference: Black Male Studies
First, he participated in an online, eight-person teleconference (that he keynoted) in order to more fully explain the goals of his primary mission of humanizing Black males of all ages, class levels, sexualities, skin colors, historical time periods, and geographic locations.
Dr. Tommy J. Curry at Fresno State’s Africana Studies BPCLSORA
Next, he gave an in-depth lecture on the ethnographic history of Black males and how they became the caricatures of contemporary White social mythology. Both presentations were brilliant and insightful, but they also add to the elucidation of his The Man-Not, a work that should be considered one of the most significant texts in Africana Studies (because it performs a meta-analysis of how we study and conceptualize Black people), Black Gender Studies (because it re-evaluates how we understand “Black gender” as solely “female” while creating critical new spaces for Black males), and Philosophy (because it anchors Philosophy in the lived realities of everyday people, their histories, and their systemically-framed vulnerabilities).
To this end, Dr. Curry has laid an indelible foundation for a crucially needed dialogue while welcoming Black men into a discussion they have been vehemently excluded from…and I, for one, am grateful. If you haven’t yet read The Man-Not, prepare to have your world turned upside-down. My advice? Enjoy the ride!