I was in a seminar discussing Black masculinity and during the group discussion several Black males brought up concerns about the way Black men are covertly portrayed in the media as savages and brutes. One brotha refered to Lebron James’ cover of Vogue magazine.
Now as a Black man looking at the cover, I am immediately filled with several emotions. The first is a slight repulsion of the likeness of the cover to the image beside it, then there is a touch of anger at the audacity to make such a correlation and also anger due to the fact that Lebron is so ignorant or hungry to reposition himself in white patriarchal society through fame and fortune that he would allow himself to be exploited in such a way and give permission to the world to continue to see Black men as savages. The most lingering feeling is confusion. That confusion comes because my mind cannot reconcile why Black men are seen and portrayed in this light.
The image of the Black man as a savage and brute is related to the more socially acceptable term “hypermasculine.” Black men are constantly called hypermasculine. This is especially justified when Black male rappers (who have a lot of mainstream visibility) are evaluated in the ways that they talk and conduct themselves. Many Black men are not necessarily in approval with all of the antics of Black male rappers and, in frowning at those antics, we allow society to use these men as archetypes for describing all Black men and the natural tendencies of Black men.
Black male rappers are Black men and they do have natural Black male tendencies. Some of these tendencies go to the extreme and are not something that we, as a group, are proud of; however, we cannot allow our brothas to be martyred for our sakes. These men are not perfect but they, too, are not savage brutes nor are they “hypermasculine.” They are Black men acting in a context. That context doesn’t always bring out the best in them and some of them are too ignorant to know how to conduct themselves in a number of contexts (the least of which is national public scrutiny).
To explore the notion of hypermasculinity, let’s first look at the word itself. Hyper suggests an excess or exagerration and masculinity means to have the traditional qualities associated with the male gender. Therefore, to call a man hypermasculine is too suggest that he has an excess of qualities associated with the male gender. Now isn’t that preposterous. We don’t go around suggesting that there is something wrong with a woman who is “girly” or very feminine. We don’t go around suggesting that someone’s eyes are excessively brown. So how does it make sense to describe any male as excessively masculine?
Hypermasculinity has become a code word for young, Black males. It used to give a connotation of danger and violence to the image of Black men. Rappers epitomize this image and give power to it through their embrace of violence and gang culture; however, it becomes a question of what came first the chicken or the egg. Hip Hop is a mirror that reflects the culture in which it exists. Therefore, when rappers indulge these images they do so because it is a reality that they have existed within. So, then, is it the rappers fault or society’s fault that the environment exists to inspire the images rappers perpetuate?
I have to refer to rappers because it is that image that influences everyday Black males and creates fads and slang phrases that society then uses to relate everyday Black men to these rappers images which are then related to this notion of hypermasculinity which holds a connotation of danger and violence. That is how a young Black boy in a hoodie can be seen by a grown non-Black man and thought of as a danger or threat that needed to be eliminated (Trayvon Martin). That is how Black men who sag their pants or walk around shirtless can be seen as hypermasculine, hypersexual dangers to women (white women most especially).
In examining the idea of hypermasculinity it is also important to not that we rarely see a term attached to White males who portray the same, if not more, “excessive masculine qualities.” Take for instance professional football players. Many of the White and Latino men who play the sport are just as “masculine” and/or “excessively masculine” as Black men even when they commit violent acts of crime. A large number of current and former football players end up charged with committing acts of violence, but they are never demonized to the extent that rappers are (and these days a third of them have never done any of the things they talk about in their lyrics and hold undergraduate degrees not obtained through athletic scholarship).
So it bears concern to me when this term is used, and especially when it is used against Black men. I’m not big on conspiracy theories but I would go as far as to say that in the individual situations where it is used, there is an intention to taint the image of the Black man upon whom it is being used.
Masculinity as a Social Construct
Masculinity, as a concept, is a social construct that attributes certain qualities to the male gender. It is society who assigns those qualities to the male gender, which means one only has to be male (a genetic choice of nature) to have those qualities and it be socially acceptable. The qualities that are related to the idea of masculinity are subjective — except for the those that the majority of society agrees upon. So with that level of subjectivity, how can we accurately measure masculinity and, therefore, have a standard against which to decide whether someone is excessively masculine? Having a lot of qualities subjectively associated with a characteristic that is not chosen by the individual cannot be a bad thing nor can it be unnatural. However, when it comes to Black men, it is suggested (by Blacks and Whites) that we can and generally do have too many male qualities. Asinine. What I think is often at the root of this thinking is a resistance to patriarchy, misogyny, and male supremacy that has been deeply internalized by the Black male psyche, which is a righteous stance to take, but not at the denigration of the collective Black male image.
The truth is that in an imperialist white-supremacist capitalist patriarchy where men (specifically White men) hold the greatest potential for power, the greatest threat to that is a non-White male. Most dangerously, the Black male. Why the Black male specifically? Because of the history of oppression (from slavery to Jim Crow and beyond) that the imperialistic white-supremacist capitalistic patriarchal male has imposed upon the Black male. It is only reasonable to believe that, if there is any male in this society with the greatest motivation for overthrowing the imperialistic white-supremacist capitalistic patriarchal male, it would be the Black male. Therefore, the ascension of the Black man to any true position of manhood in this country threatens the framework that supports the system. As Senator William Windom said in 1879:
the black man does not excite antagonism because he is black but because he is a citizen.
– Senator William Windom of Minnesota
Supremacy works through objectivity. Therefore, if it can be perpetuated through the systems of society (such as media) that the Black man is some hypermasculine brute savage that just happens to walk on two legs and operate at a higher level of thinking than most animals, then the concept of treating the Black man with the same consideration and rights and privileges as White men seems ludicrous. And not only will society subconsciously accept these notions, they will help to ensure them.
That is the true depth of repercussions that occur from allowing the Black man to be labeled as hypermasculine. So when Lebron James is presented on a magazine cover in an image that very blatantly mimics that of King Kong, what may look like a simple magazine cover with a coincidental likeness is actually something much more insidious.
In order to suggest that a man is hypermasculine, there has to be a standard of masculinity. So I have a question for anyone that suggests that any Black man is hypermasculine: what or who then is the standard for masculinity? And how did they get to be the bar which to measure every other man? Is the White man, the Asian man, or the Latino man? And if they are, how then can we account for the variances of masculinity within these groups? Think about it. Try to answer. Exactly. More inane propaganda that has to foundation in logic or reality.
The major issue with the way Black men are portrayed in the media is that fact that we do not resist and redefine these images and the language used to attribute these characteristics to us. While in the group discussion I presented to the brothas the fact that they, themselves, had used the terms “brute” and “savage” without opposition. Granted they did oppose the use of these words to describe Black men, but they had not resisted and redefined. We must take seriously these instances of covert racism. It is not a matter of pointing fingers and placing blame at those who create, perpetuate, or participate in such acts; it is the resistance and correcting of the errors that is the major concern. As long as we allow the world to misshape our image, cry ignorance, and seek excuse from the damage that it causes, we will forever be at the mercy of external forces in terms of shaping our identity. That we must not allow.
The point is that, from an intellectual standpoint, there is no such thing as hypermasculinity. One cannot have too many masculine qualities if he is male. He may have more or less than others but that does not make him better or worse than the other; it does not make him more or less male than the other. And what we, as Black men, need to realize is that the use of this term in description of ANY Black man is a covert attack on our masculinity. We must shun this notion altogether and refuse to use this word in description of ourselves or our brothas because when we do we allow the world to protray us as brutes, savages, and niggers (I wonder if the NAACP wants to run a campaign for that?). There is more than one way to keep a Black person a nigger and America has mastered most. As a collective group we must align ourselves against the notion of the Black man as hypermasculine/inhuman. We must define and affirm our masculinity as, maybe different than any other man in America, but not natural. Our masculinity is not dangerous or threatening — unless the intent is to keep us subordinate in this society. There maybe something to be afraid of if that is the motive because we have no intention of remaining in the dregs of this society. Anyone who is in opposition to us taking our place as men should be afraid because we will overcome them. We are men and we will be treated and portrayed as such.
Osiris come together.
An Angry Black Man