Re-Imagining Black Masculine Identity: An Investigation of the "Problem" Surrounding the Construction of Black Masculinity in America

By Johns, David J. | National Urban League. The State of Black America, January 1, 2007 | Go to article overview

Re-Imagining Black Masculine Identity: An Investigation of the "Problem" Surrounding the Construction of Black Masculinity in America


Johns, David J., National Urban League. The State of Black America


Black masculinity is not merely a social identity crisis. It is also a key site of ideology and ideological representations where a major contrast of competing forces is played out.

Maurice Wallace, Constructing the Black Masculine

The social categorization of black maleness, black masculinity, black male identity or any term by which we seek to understand the implications of being both black and male, in the United States, is an imagined social construct with real consequences.1 The concept of black masculine identity was fashioned during and codified after the formal collapse of the American institution of slavery. Thus, black masculine identity is a product of American history. It has been socially constructed from narrowly defined understandings of white maleness.2 Black masculine identity is heavily imbued with pernicious stereotypes introduced to strip enslaved Africans of humanity. These stereotypes are still prevalent in contemporary U.S. society and this prevalence is at least one factor contributing to the cycle of black male disengagement, alienation and misrepresentation.3 The collusion of multiple factors, including being fashioned from restricted definitions of white maleness and the pressures of other socially imagined but life-shaping constructs like race, gender, and class, has resulted in archetypal categorization of black men and boys as easily understood, readily identifiable and operating in standardized and often counterproductive ways.

Black males continue to occupy the lowest rungs of most, if not all, quality of life indicators. The negative implications of how black men are identified and tracked by society deserve critical attention. This essay highlights the ways in which the concept of black maleness is a product of American history and examines the ways black males perceive themselves as well as the ways black males are perceived by others. This tripartite investigation makes re-imagining varied, complicated, and nuanced versions of black masculine identity possible and serves to disrupt and supplant negative and harmful understandings of black males.

Deconstructing Black Masculine Identity

To put the matter yet another way, it is by an abiding bankruptcy of vision that black male bodies in the public sphere go phantasmically misrecognized. It is precisely the ineradicable image of the black male body in the white mind or what Freud called the "permanent traces" of perception [...] that forestalls the achievement of "real authority" black men, under patriarchy, might otherwise freely gain.

Maurice Wallace, Constructing the Black Masculine

Peculiar to the creation of the Americas, the institution of slavery served as the mechanism through which chattel slaves, particularly African male bodies, became men.4 African male bodies were denied any semblance of humanity, including gender distinctions or access to socially constructed identities. The equivalent of property, enslaved Africans were denied participation in or associations with humanity altogether. As such, social identities were not bestowed upon or accessible to enslaved Africans. Once enslaved Africans became free, the social matrix governing the slave/owner relationship shifted. As enslaved Africans transitioned beyond the circumscribable boundaries of commodity, the establishment of socially validated identities was required.5

This framework facilitated the establishment of a social category of black people who were no longer enslaved. This societal shut required an adjustment in the hierarchical associations governing all individuals; the creation of an identity politic to address the changes in the social schematic. 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. …

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