A recent Vanity Fair article on actor Michael B. Jordan and director Ryan Cooler, featured a photo that caused controversial reactions.
Most of the reactions to the photo came from Black people and it saddens me to say that many of the comments expressed confusion regarding the posing of the two men. Then there were, of course, those who were more blunt and expressed that photo made the men “look gay.” Some people came to the defense of the photo and to combat what they felt were homophobic statements. But as I read through the myriad of responses I began to wonder why did the photo seem to confuse or bother people (even the ones who didn’t necessarily respond negatively).
My initial reaction to the photo was just that the pose seemed awkward. I can’t say that I thought the pose was not natural and the two men didn’t create the pose themselves through some interaction on the set but it didn’t seem like the type of aesthetically pleasing shot that would be chosen for a cover. Cooler looks somewhat uncomfortable the way his body is facing away from the camera while his head is turned to it and Jordan’s hand is on his head. I asked a few male friends their reaction to the photo and they all started with some variation of not understanding what’s happening or the message that is being sent. One of my friends who didn’t recognize either man asked “Are they a couple?”
Certainly there is an overbearing amount of commentary about Black masculinity and the ways in which it is expressed and Black masculinity is almost always linked to machismo and homophobia but still I found it most interesting that so many Black men felt confused by the photo. They didn’t outright think gay but just a awkward sense of confusion that as they tried to understand led them to the gay part.
Black Male Affection
I hate that people sensationalize and often simplify the emotions of Black men. Despite whether they are outwardly expressed in ways accepted as universal and/or mandatory the emotions of Black men are just as complex and varied as anyone else. In order to engage in a conversation about the emotions of Black men, one must first accept that those feelings are unique and are shaped by both a shared cultural history and gender.
For many Black men affection is not something for which they have a strong reference. As we well know the affects of slavery holocaust that Black men were separated from their families and often were not allowed to participate in the rearing of their children. Slavery also triggered a certain measure of stoicism in survival response to the physical and psychological degradation that enslaved people endured. Bring that forward to more contemporary times and what we see is not a lack of willingness to express emotion but a conditioned behavior that has been role modeled through generations.
Black men’s lack of affection is more about behavioral legacy than the individual’s actual feelings. And despite all of the evolving Black men have done over the past decades, there still remains a sense of uncharted and uncertain territory when it comes to affection between Black men. I don’t have many memories of my father being physically affectionate to me outside of rubbing my head to congratulate me or tickling me or that one time he reached over to wipe morning crust off my face. When I was around 20 we had our first real conversation and I remember him telling me that he didn’t know how to talk to me because his father hadn’t talked to him so he assumed men don’t talk intimately with one another. I would suspect this is the case in a number of Black father and son relationships. It is because of this type of emotional environment during development that many times Black men do not have a reference for affection with another man and the aversion that people label as phobia may times is plain old ignorance.
Sexuality as Identity
Identity has both internal and external components and purposes. On the one hand identity is about and individuals inward expression; however, because that individual is seeking to express their internal selves externally, identity is also about the external perception of others. It has to be. It is popular these days to think that an individual shouldn’t care what other people think of them or that they shouldn’t be affected by the feelings and perceptions of those around. But it that were completely true then the individual would most likely be a sociopath because identity is a nonverbal way that we communicate certain things to the environment around us.
Another point of note in this discussion is the fact that it is not until the 19th century that sexual identities were shaped in mainstream culture. Researchers have stated that before that time sexual acts were thought of as something that a person did and not something that they were. This is significant in that because sexuality is accepted as a part of a person’s identity – and in some cases the prominent one – being accused of or thought to be engaging in acts that a person may not actually engage in carries a lot more weight. So we must consider that when a straight man is accused of being gay he is in effect having an entire identity hoisted onto him from outside himself and in error. This is an act of violence. It carries a potential for destruction of the perception of the individual’s true identity, which is half of the purpose of an individual developing an identity.
The problem is that not enough Black men have a role modeled reference for male affection and because of this they often find expressions of male affection queer (pun intended). I think this is why so many Black men found themselves confused by the photo and when they did makes sense of it homosexuality is all that they could come up with. Because for many Black men homosexuality is the only reference they (outside of maybe sports) for affection between Black men.
Love is the single most transcendental force at Black people’s disposal. It doesn’t matter if that love is romantic or otherwise. When Black people love each other openly, brazenly it changes the entire atmosphere of Black culture and invites a sense of unity. And most importantly is presents an image that our children so desperately need if we are going to teach Black people, men in particular, how to love and show it without apology.
I’m not sayin; I’m just sayin,
An Angry Black Man