In Black Masculinity studies there is a term called cool pose. This term was used by Richard Majors and Janet Mancini Billson in a book called “Cool Pose.” Cool pose is a coping mechanism created by Black Men in order to deal with the oppression of white-supremacy. Majors and Billson define cool pose as “the presentation of self many black males use to establish their male identity.”
Birth of The Cool
It’s no secret that the horrors of slavery created an environment where Black people had to shroud their feelings. Whether to keep their oppressors from seeing their hatred of them, their will to escape, or being able to identify those that they loved (in order to use that love against them), there was not an emotion that could be safely expressed by an enslaved Black person. For Black men this was especially significant because they were often tortured through their loved ones. They degraded and humiliated by having to witness their wives and children battered, raped, and killed. This was done to strip them of what would make them a man in the imperialist white-supremacist capitalist patriarchy of America.
African-American men have defined manhood in terms familiar to white men, however, blacks have not had consistent access to the same means to fulfill their dreams of masculinity and success.
– Majors and Billson, Cool Pose
Through the patriarchal definition of America, a man provides, protects, and cares for his family; a man earns a living that offers him the opportunity to climb the socioeconomic ladder; a man dominates and never submits. Even after the abolishment of slavery, It was ensured that the Black man would never be able to measure up to that definition. In order to survive, Black men created cool.
It is no secret that poverty and stress degrade mental health; however, it is very rarely discussed the ways in which our society creates and perpetuates these environmental conditions. On the other side, there are rarely programs and initiatives that have an objective to reach those who are suffering from mental illness such as depression or debilitating psychological stress caused by poverty. Even Black men with less extreme personal situations deal with the psychological pain of being Black and male in America. The systemic disenfranchisement and limitations on opportunity are enough to drive a man crazy.
It is like the myth of Sisyphus, the greek character who is eternally forced to push a boulder uphill and just as he is reaching the top, the boulder falls away and rolls back down the hill. Imagine that as a daily life. To be promised life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness and the moment you get anywhere near achieving it, some law, rule, doctrine, or requirement is used to push your dream back downhill. It is true that there is a stigma related to therapy and mental health issues in the Black community. However, what is just as significant is how the lack of adequate healthcare and/or finances hinders Black people from being able to obtain the clinical health assistance needed to deal with their psychic stress. Without these resources it is only natural that a group of afflicted people will find coping mechanisms and ways to survive without them.
Cool pose is about how Black men have learned to deal the stress of the world around them. It is about a psychological framework from which Black men can view and interact with the world safely in spite of the many psychological assaults that they face daily.
The black man’s cultural signature is his cool. It is sometimes the only source of pride, dignity, and worth in the absence of the outward status symbols of materialism and title that mark success in American culture.”
– Majors and Billson, Cool Pose
Black men created cool as a persona by which to interact with the world. It places a space between the external and the internal. For Black men this safe space leaves room for the variety of messages that they encounter. Cool is what makes it possible for a Black man to enter an elevator with a woman, have her clutch her purse, and he not internalize the humiliation of being treated like a criminal by a complete stranger. Cool is what allows a Black man to be stopped repeatedly without cause by police officers, condescended while interrogated, slapped with whatever charges the officers think might stick, and continue to get behind the wheel of his car everyday. Cool is what allows a Black man to step outside his project apartment and witness death and desperation all around him and continue to believe that he can change his circumstance.
Beyond Majors and Billson’s study of cool pose a number of individuals have studied this theory. However there is a flaw in almost all of the theories about cool pose including Majors and Billson’s). In some attempt at diplomacy, these theories have explored the negative affects of cool pose. There is nothing wrong with objective analysis; however, these conclusions are not actual conclusions but over-reaching presumptions.
For example, in Majors and Billson’s descriptions of the negative effects of cool pose they describe aspects such as how “many black males are unable to mainstream or evolve other forms of consciousness” and the “negative interpretation of various cool behaviors by white males who observe blacks being emotionless, fearless, aloof, or macho.”
I have some severe issues with these thoughts. The first is that these factors are not negative aspects of cool, they are negative consequences of being Black, period. Whether expressing cool or not Black men have obstacles to being “mainstream.” That is because in of the mainstream the Black man has never been a factor to consider nor has his identity and values been incorporated. To the other point I am actually disgusted that these intelligent researchers are blind to their own intellectual hubris: colonization. Because Majors and Billson still view “mainstream” (which is a code word for American majority which would be code for White America) as the ultimate goal, they use it as a standard by which to measure Black male behavior. This will never yield truthful, insightful, progressive thoughts regarding Black men. It is these mild flaws in their research which has led to study of cool to be skewed egregiously.
Researchers have sought to use cool pose try to explain Black male violence, Black male drop-out rates and under achievement in education, and any other negative impression they create with their statistics. Most of the work written on cool pose seeks to use it as a way of diagnosing all the ills of Black manhood. What is most despicable is that while they explain cool as a naturally instinctive defense to oppression, they criticize Black men for allowing this defense to keep them from submitting to the oppression.
Unfortunately, many black males are unable to mainstream or evolve other forms of consciousness. The cool front leads the black male to reject mainstream norms, aesthetics, mannerisms, values, etiquette, or information networks that could help him overcome the problems caused by white racism.
– Majors and Billson, Cool Pose
So in essence Majors and Billson see the negative aspects of cool pose to be the fact that it begins a decolonization of the Black male mind. What they are suggesting is that Black men would be better of accepting societal norms (such as racism and discrimination) and submit to the mainstream that is attacking them. I believe they mean well but they cannot see that this is evidence of a major problem in Black Masculinity studies: choosing the wrong gaze.
Choosing the wrong gaze from which to observe and research any minority group in inherently problematic. The gaze is a psychoanalytical concept that describes the perspective by which something is viewed. In Black Masculinity studies we often choose the gaze of the mainstream, popular, societal belief. This is exactly the sort of thing that we must not do we analyzing an underprivileged group. Any underprivileged group does not have the same reality as that of the mainstream and, therefore, cannot be measured by the standards of the mainstream.
In Black Masculinity studies, as exemplified in studies of cool pose, it is evident that researchers have chosen the wrong gaze. Instead of viewing cool as a Black male cultural phenomenon specific to the Black male American experience, they measure it against the mainstream experience (that no Black person has ever fully experienced).
In that view cool becomes an issue that needs to be rectified. It implies to Black men that there is something wrong with the way they are. This is much the way in another post I discussed how the label of hypermasculine is placed on Black men because their natural behavior is viewed externally and objectified against the mainstream. The mainstream defines the cool of Black men as hypermasculine and problematic when it is simply natural and culturally specific.
We cannot enter the struggle as objects to later become subjects.
– Paulo Freire, Pedagogy of the Oppressed
If it is Black male behavior that we are seeking to understand, then Black men must be the subject and the behavior the object and not the other way around. And the mainstream cannot be the standard.
In the study of Black masculinity and the Black male identity, Black men must be the subject What is discovered cannot be measured against the mainstream because the mainstream was not created in consideration of the Black male perspective. It may seem reasonable to suggest that Black men have in many ways turned mainstream values, ethics, and ideologies, but, in fact, they were never included. It is the mainstream that has turned its back on Black men; Black men just found a way to redefine themselves outside of the mainstream. Furthermore, with all the flaws and issues inherent within mainstream culture and ideologies it would behoove us not encourage anyone to assimilate into the dominant culture. If anything mainstream culture needs to be penetrated and expanded to include more perspectives.
The Black man’s creation of cool is one that does not need to be embraced by the mainstream as it is culturally specific to Black men. Cool must be respected and validated before the flaws within can be addressed. Cool must be seen as more than a diagnosis for negative Black male behavior. Cool must be seen as more than just a defense mechanism. Cool is a part of the Black male identity. The point of creating that identity is not to assimilate into mainstream culture; the point is to survive it.
Osiris Come Together.
An Angry Black Man
Friere, Paulo. Pedagogy of the Oppressed. New York: Seabury, 1970.
Majors, Richard and Billson, Janet Mancini. Cool Pose. New York: Lexington, 1992.