Academic journal article Journal of Pan African Studies

Outside Insiders: Remember the Time

Academic journal article Journal of Pan African Studies

Outside Insiders: Remember the Time

Article excerpt

All too often, the images that come to the minds of Americans when thinking about Black males are images of criminals and violent street thugs. In 1998, Melissa Barlow stated that "talking about crime is talking about race" (Barlow, 1998, p. 151). Her statement highlights that presumptions about the racial identity of criminals may be so ingrained in public consciousness that race needs no mention for a connection to be made between the two. My acknowledgement of the association of crime with the African American community is not to suggest it as new; however, it is imperative to note that it is a connection that has perpetually plagued the Black population throughout history, Black men in particular. So, in thinking about contemporary Black masculinity, it goes without question that we must comprehend, historically, the circumstances which have created the image of the "criminally predispositioned" Black male today.

The pages to follow outline a historical framework for thinking about Black masculinity today. I briefly review major historical eras which have had significant impacts on African American men and the larger African American community, such as enslavement, reconstruction, Jim Crow, the Civil Rights Movement, and the contemporary war on drugs. Following such periods, Black men face a world infused with challenges to the structure of their lives today. Thus, I also highlight additional significant factors impacting Black men's lives today--i.e. family, work, and prison. I conclude by discussing the ever-present threat of incarceration on Black men and the issues that formerly incarcerated Black men face during reentry and present the potential impact of these factors on constructs of masculinity post-incarceration.

Black Males and Enslavement

Any discussion of Black masculinity must consider the impact of enslavement. Black male identity is a product of an American history that has been saturated with the unequivocal impact of enslavement, combined with narrowly defined understandings of masculinity--i.e. power, dominance, along with educational, economic, and social advantages. Unlike their White counterparts, Black men, both presently and historically, have had fewer economic and social privileges.

During enslavement, African bodies were equated to property and denied participation in public life. Thus, social identities for enslaved Africans were non-existent, as far as being socially recognized by non-Blacks. However, enslaved Blacks found ways of maneuvering such restrictions. David Johns (2007) pointed out in his investigation on the "problems" surrounding the construction of Black masculinity in America that "the transition of enslaved Africans into freed people ushered in a bifurcated Black/White social schema. Subsequently, preserving the socially constructed category of "Whiteness" required of Whites, the categorization of "Blackness" in opposition to the purity, entitlement, and moral hegemony associated with Whiteness.

As such, anything identified with Blackness was fixed within a contradictory and flawed notion of inherent deficiency--based primarily on the construction of the word itself' (Johns, 2007, p. 2). The power of land owning European Protestants power to create, validate, and sustain notions of Black masculinity that began during enslavement cannot be emphasized enough here. Pejorative images of Black males as lazy, violent, and disengaged, which were first offered to justify enslavement, continue to impact the ways Black males are represented, understood, and in many ways understand themselves (ibid.). Black men construct their identity through and against a cultural, economic, and historical backdrop that has limited their participation in public life. Moreover, Black men's contemporary realities are bound in their histories and inextricably connected to its historical production.

The historical realities of enslavement deeply impacted Black families. …

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