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'Race Men' Questions Images of Black Masculinity
By Farhan Haq, IPS, 8 September 1998
NEW YORK, Sep 12 (IPS) - What do Miles Davis, Paul Robeson, W.E.B. Du Bois, C.L.R. James and Danny Glover have in common?
All of them are black but, as literary scholar and feminist critic Hazel Carby contends, they are also public figures who have struggled with, or against, definitions of what African American masculinity must be.
In her new book 'Race Men' (published by Harvard University Press, 228 pages, at 24 dollars), Carby, who holds the chair of African American studies at Yale University, questions the black male archtypes of the century - and casts the historic figures she deals with in a new light.
Miles Davis, for example, often has been perceived either as a tough guy known for his remarkably sensitive, fragile trumpet playing or - most recent by feminist Pearl Cleage - as an abusive misogynist and pimp, unworthy of his fame.
Carby, in a subtle comparison between the jazz musician and gay science-fiction writer Samuel Delany, however, shows how Davis needed to define himself against women - and against anything "feminine" - even as he created music that offered an almost erotic interplay among the members of his all-male bands.
"Vulnerability and interdependence in musical production were masked behind the screen of arrogance and disdain for the audience," Carby writes of Davis's image. "Both the denial of dependency upon women and the aggression toward them fostered the homosocial jazz world of creativity, just as in the wider world female labour supports and maintains the conditions for the production of male creativity."
As the above passage shows, Carby can be both a subtle and yet strongly ideological writer, who can use feminist theory to bring out new dimensions of even such all-male enclaves as the world of be-bop music.
Throughout the book, male arenas - from the male-bonding 'Lethal Weapon' movies pairing black actor Danny Glover and white actor Mel Gibson to C.L.R. James's fascinating analysis of the cultural meaning of cricket - are re-examined in ways that show how some African-American men confronted the expectations that their roles as public black men imposed on them.
Yet a little of the book sometimes can go a long way. Carby's description of the homoerotic elements in the relationship between Gibson and Glover in the 'Lethal Weapon' films is both obvious - many action films pair black and white men to show how they can bond after facing aggression and an unfriendly world - and overstated.
Her'Lethal Weapon' analysis goes off the track when she claims that some disputes between the two main characters illustrates "a contemporary political anxiety (that) black America, having demanded and gained equality, has somehow betrayed the white and middle-class America that graciously acceded to these demands."
To read that much into a movie where periodic explosions drown out any trace of dialogue or plot is a tall order. By contrast, other chapters are graceful in demonstrating the ways that the reality of black men is often subsumed by the need of dominant (white) culture to build up myths of "untamed" or even savage Africans.
Huddie Ledbetter, the blues musician known as Leadbelly, is shown here as a formal, well-dressed gentleman who is nevertheless depicted by his patron, John Lomax, as a dangerous convict.
The strongest figures in the book are those - including James, Delany and Paul Robeson - who can take the expectations placed upon them as black men and transform them. James, for example, locates the revolutionary potential in black manhood, either on the cricket field or among the "Black Jacobins" who founded Haiti; Robeson rejects "noble savage" archtypes in theatre to star in collective theatres that challenged conventional black stereotypes.
Some of the chapters in the book, which grew out of a series of lectures Carby delivered on race and masculinity, are sure to attract controversy - none more so that her views on Du Bois, whose sexism she views as integral to his political theories and his landmark work, 'The Souls of Black Folk'. And other chapters may well prove annoying, particularly to those who fail to see the significance of Danny Glover's acting or Samuel Delany's writing.
For all that, 'Race Men' is a rare book, which looks at several different subjects - from jazz to black political philosophy, from action films to the blues - from a refreshingly radical perspective and brings real insight to the study of black masculinity.
Carby's work transcends cultural studies in this case to become an eloquent survey into how role-playing and expectations construct everything else - race, gender, sexuality - and how those in turn affect modern culture and modern life.
[c] 1998, InterPress Third World News Agency (IPS)
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