Manliness and Its Discontents: The Black Middle Class and the Transformation of Masculinity, 1900-1930

Manliness and Its Discontents: The Black Middle Class and the Transformation of Masculinity, 1900-1930

Manliness and Its Discontents: The Black Middle Class and the Transformation of Masculinity, 1900-1930

Manliness and Its Discontents: The Black Middle Class and the Transformation of Masculinity, 1900-1930

Synopsis

In a pathbreaking new assessment of the shaping of black male identity in the early twentieth century, Martin Summers explores how middle-class African American and African Caribbean immigrant men constructed a gendered sense of self through organizational life, work, leisure, and cultural production. Examining both the public and private aspects of gender formation, Summers challenges the current trajectory of masculinity studies by treating black men as historical agents in their own identity formation, rather than as screens on which white men projected their own racial and gender anxieties and desires. "Manliness and Its Discontents focuses on four distinct yet overlapping social milieus: the fraternal order of Prince Hall Freemasonry; the black nationalist Universal Negro Improvement Association, or the Garvey movement; the modernist circles of the Harlem Renaissance; and the campuses of historically black Howard and Fisk Universities. Between 1900 and 1930, Summers argues, dominant notions of what it meant to be a man within the black middle class changed from a Victorian ideal of manliness--characterized by the importance of producer values, respectability, and patriarchy--to a modern ethos of masculinity, which was shaped more by consumption, physicality, and sexuality. Summers evaluates the relationships between black men and black women as well as relationships among black men themselves, broadening our understanding of the way that gender works along with class, sexuality, and age to shape identities and produce relationships of power.

Excerpt

In America, at the turn of the twentieth century, manhood seemed to be a national preoccupation. From individual concerns about one's own masculine character to larger collective anxieties over the nation's manliness, definitions of manhood—ones that were fundamentally racialized and class bound— pervaded everyday discourse. Everything from definitions of success and citizenship to national conversations over expansion and empire was shaped, in part, by a gendered set of ideas that also informed the identity formation of white middle-class men. the overarching question of what constituted manhood, in other words, dominated the ways in which most men and women in the United States conceptualized, among other things, economic prosperity, national belonging, and, for many, their position within racial, ethnic, and class hierarchies.

Turn-of-the-century notions of success and failure were rooted in the gendered mythology of the “self-made man.” a product of the market revolution and the emergence of liberalism in the early nineteenth century, the ideal of the self-made man articulated a formula for success that was dependent upon the cultivation of one's “character.” a catchall term that at once meant nothing and everything, character might best be described as the collection of individual traits that rendered one a virtuous member of the community. in the context of Victorian America, character included honesty, piety, selfcontrol, and a commitment to the producer values of industry, thrift, punctuality, and sobriety. Individuals cultivated their character through a number of different mediums: the family, the church, the school, the fraternal organization, and the military. Although character was important in terms of the private lives of people, it was most often invoked as an indispensable quality when considering the public lives of individuals, specifically the individual's relationship to, and interactions in, the marketplace. the idea that one's character was crucial to one's success was axiomatic in the United States in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, giving rise to the literary genre of the success manual between 1870 and 1910. the qualities that constituted character also constituted manhood by dominant cultural standards. Indeed, the self-made man as the epitome of success depended upon, and reinforced . . .

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