Manhood Rights in the Age of Jim Crow: Evaluating "End-of-Men" Claims in the Context of African American History

By Summers, Martin | Boston University Law Review, May 2013 | Go to article overview

Manhood Rights in the Age of Jim Crow: Evaluating "End-of-Men" Claims in the Context of African American History


Summers, Martin, Boston University Law Review


American history has seen its share of episodic crises of American masculinity. Or, to be more precise, American history has seen its share of periods during which American men experienced a heightened, collective anxiety that they were in danger of losing not only their privileged status in society, but the very foundational ideals by which manhood was defined. Although there have been numerous historical moments when larger political and economic transformations have precipitated a societal redefinition of manhood, such as the emergence of liberalism and the Market Revolution in the first half of the nineteenth century, this Essay will focus on another important period during which anxieties about the decline of American men were pervasive: the late nineteenth century.1 It was during this period that white American men in particular felt their manhood being undermined by the corporatization of the economy and the decline of proprietary capitalism, the "closing" of the frontier, and the incursion of women into the political realm through reform and suffrage movements.2 They responded in a variety of ways, including by becoming more involved in the education of boys, defining manhood in terms of physicality, reasserting their role in church leadership, and advocating for a more aggressive American imperialism. Claims about the "end of men," then, informed everything from U.S. foreign policy and ideas about education to changing leisure practices and conceptions of sexuality.

The late nineteenth century is also an interesting period to examine because it was during this time that the South witnessed the emergence of legal and customary forms of discrimination that eroded the citizenship rights of the overwhelming majority of African American men and women. In the wake of the redemption of Democratic state governments in the 1880s and 1890s, the states of the former Confederacy began to implement laws that enforced the separation of the races in educational institutions, sites of commerce, and public spaces; established practically insurmountable barriers to voting; and made it possible for the landed elite to reassert their economic dominance and control over a formerly enslaved labor force. Moreover, this matrix of discriminatory laws was reinforced by the ever-present threat of extralegal violence in the form of lynchings, rapes, and race riots.

While both black women and men were victims of this racial backlash, this Essay will explore how the struggle over fundamental issues of equality was framed in the gendered language of manhood rights. It argues that African American men understood segregation and disfranchisement to pose an existential threat to their fundamental status as citizens as much as their identity as men. In a political environment in which women did not have suffrage, citizenship and manhood were inextricably linked. Middle-class African American men, upon whom this Essay focuses, responded to these assaults on their citizenship status, in part, by attempting to establish their dominance within their own communities. Although they did not reduce their male identity to their political relationship to the dominant culture and the nation-state, middle-class African American men did seek to shore up their masculinity by reasserting their control, vis-à-vis black women, working-class black men, and black children, in the areas of church and missionary work, the guidance of black youth, and the professional sphere. But these attempts did not go unchallenged, especially in the case of black women. While there was a great deal of collaboration between African American women and men in building up their communities and defending them against white racism, women certainly did not cede leadership of the race to men. As historian Martha Jones explains about black public culture in the nineteenth century, rather than being "patriarchal or male-dominated," it was an "openly and often heatedly contested space in which activists self-consciously wrestled with the meanings of manhood and womanhood and the implications of those ideas for the structures and practices of institutions. …

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