Engaging Abrahamic Masculinity: Race, Religion, and the Measure of Manhood

Article excerpt

Concerned with the humanization and transformation of masculinity, I want to share some preliminary thoughts that are part of a long-term project. I want to engage the racial, religious, and economic dimensions of masculinity in North America, an endeavor I call Masculine Work. As an intellectual and ethical enterprise, Masculine Work probes the fields of gender and cultural studies, philosophy, history, and religion. It offers new vistas for the analysis, critique, and transformation of gender in general and masculinity in particular. Masculine. Work is a kindred spirit of more than four decades of gender scholarship initiated by second-wave feminism, including race- and class-based gender scholarship as it is taken up by womanists in the field of religion. Masculine Work aims at addressing the most dominant and pervasive expressions of masculinity today as they are upheld and perpetuated by the monotheistic traditions of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. Also known as Abrahamic religions, these traditions sustain an institutionalized expression of masculinity, which I call "Abrahamic masculinity." In the pages that follow, I want to sketch the contours of an Abrahamic masculinity as it affects African Americans. I return to the analytical and moral imperatives of Masculine Work at the end of this article.

Masculine Dominance

For more than four decades, feminists and womanists have engaged in a categorical critique of masculinity in America. In their writings, male domination and supremacy have been treated as characteristic conduct of all men, inseparably connected to sexism, misogyny, and homophobia. The feminist and womanist critique of patriarchy challenged such an American masculinity. However necessary, their critique seemed to select specific populations of men, and it is specifically African Americans who have come to be seen as the most sexist, misogynist, and homophobic men in the United States. (1) This can be attributed to the longstanding, historically negative perceptions of black men and to their high visibility in the American media as a crisis population. In the past as well as our mass-mediated present, black masculinity has been interpreted in criminal terms. (2) Consequently, African American men play a prominent place in discussions about male dominance and supremacy in America. Because African American men are perceived as exercising these traits with greater intensity than other men, there is a need to revisit the categorical critique of masculinity initiated by feminists and womanists. To this end, a historical, global, and culturally specific analysis is indispensable for any critique of masculinity in racial and ethnic contexts.

The Religious, Historical, and Global Heritage of Abrahamic Masculinity

We should note, of course, that the forms of masculinity that black men are chided for cut across race, class, and ethnicity. Asian and Latino males, Irish and Middle Eastern males, Indian and Italian males, or, for that matter, from any other ethnic groups share and display, in some way or another, sexist, misogynistic, violent, and homophobic tendencies and behavior. Because feminism has made limited forays into most of these cultures, our knowledge of the depth of sexism, misogyny, and homophobia is limited. The same can be said about the various ethnic groups in this country, which, with their particular immigrant roots, have been shaped by religious and cultural traditions that extol the dominance of men over women. This is especially true for those groups that originate from a shared religious and cultural source of masculine ideals, such as Protestantism, Catholicism, Judaism, and Islam. Though diverse in many ways, they also share a dominant form of masculinity, which I suggest to call Abrahamic masculinity. (3)

The ancient Near Eastern legend of Abraham constitutes a pillar and ideal form of masculinity that dominates the world and American society, including the black community. …