Constructing the Black Masculine: Identity and Ideality in African American Men's Literature and Culture, 1775-1995

By Reiter, Shannon | Journal of American Culture (Malden, MA), September 2005 | Go to article overview

Constructing the Black Masculine: Identity and Ideality in African American Men's Literature and Culture, 1775-1995


Reiter, Shannon, Journal of American Culture (Malden, MA)


Constructing the Black Masculine: Identity and Ideality in African American Men's Literature and Culture, 1775-1995 Maurice O. Wallace. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2002.

Constructing the Black Masculine provides a fascinating, thought-provoking look at how conceptions of black masculine identity have come to be formed by the "monocularistic (flat, dissociative, fixed) gaze" of Western whites. From the earliest black American fraternities of the eighteenth century to thoroughly modern twentiethcentury images, Wallace traces the construction of black masculine identity through such varied media as photography, autobiography, freemasonry, architecture, narrative, and dance. Along the way, he pauses to consider several figurative works of literature and infuses his analysis with the theoretical approaches of Dernda, Foucault, and Bourdieu, among others. Indeed, Wallace skillfully weaves elements of several cultural genres into an interdisciplinary study of African American masculinity. Eminently relevant and generously illustrated, this text provides an important window into how vision, image, and representation have functioned to construct the black masculine and to what ends.

Wallace presents what he terms an "ocularcentric thesis" (5): that the black male body is at once both too little seen and too much seen. As a result, the racialist gaze fixes (or "frames," in photographic terms) the black male in stereotypic representations. This inability to "see" black subjects clearly has vast implications, and Wallace works to illuminate "how dangerously reductive, how morally wounding, the machinations of colonial enframing can be" (173). He insists that our ocular orientation is not inherently problematic; it is our monocular vision that results in the worst kind of representation: two-dimensional dichotomous paradigms of seeing the not-self within such binaries as "master/slave, subject/ object, black/white, colonizer/colonized, either/ or" (177). Wallace uses each chapter of his book to demonstrate how black men have responded to the racialist gaze, noting that artistic forms such as architecture and dance can be seen as weapons of protection in the psychological warfare being waged on black male identity.

Leaping back and forth between examples of photographic and narrative pictorialization, Wallace applies his ocular thesis to the realms of freemasonry, autobiography, architecture, dance, and the FBI surveillance of Richard Wright and James Baldwin. …

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