The current liberation movement is under threat.
Fueled by the modern lynching of Black bodies, this movement faces one of the same internal foes that have threatened Black liberation movements before it. This threat, a Black patriarchy and oppressive machismo, has been pervasive in Black liberation movements dating back to the abolition movement of the 19th century. Today it manifests through the figure that has been referred to colloquially as the “hotep,” the modern embodiment of sexist respectability politics, who endeavors to limit and control how liberation is won, and who will be liberated. To be clear, the problem is not Black masculinity itself, but rather the narrow definition of Black masculinity that is often limiting, patriarchal, and harmful to all genders and our attempts at liberation. If we do not expand our view of Black masculinity and address the patriarchy entrenched in our vision of liberation, modern Black liberation movements will fail to liberate whole individuals.
Unearthing the origins of this narrowly defined Black masculinity begins with with The Negro Family: A Case For National Action, a report penned in 1965 by the then-Assistant Secretary of Labor, Daniel Moynihan. Known commonly as The Moynihan Report,it was an attempt to shed light on America’s “race problem.” The Negro Family argued that there were five problems in the “Negro male” that were destroying the Black Family:
- Lack of employment
- Subordinate role in the household
- Absenteeism or inconsistent presence
- A lack of pride or machismo.
“Because the father is either not present, is unemployed, or makes such a low wage, the Negro woman goes to work. This dependence on the mother’s income undermines the position of the father and deprives the children of the kind of attention, particularly in school matters, which is now a standard feature of middle-class upbringing.” – Daniel Moynihan, 1965 tweet
According to Moynihan, the overall effect of the Black man’s “situation” is a complete loss of his machismo, or manhood. Moynihan claimed that “these events worked against the emergence of a strong father figure. The very essence of the male animal, from the bantam rooster to the four star general, is to strut.” His argument was clear: the man who cannot fulfill his hyper-masculine roles, who is unable to “strut,” is not a man.
Moynihan’s narrative is a prime example of deficit storytelling. Deficit stories are social explanations told by the dominant group. They focus on the negative traits of an oppressed group while ignoring and excluding the diverse perspectives of the oppressed, restructuring their narratives to perpetuate and justify the oppression. In his report, Moynihan uses a white supremacist and patriarchal lens in defining appropriate and constructive versus deviant and harmful behavior. Moynihan then presents real inequalities in wealth, income, employment and education as the natural result of deviant behaviors. Finally, he proposes that the solution to iniquity is adherence to and assimilation into the oppressive, normative structure of American society. “A national effort towards the problems of Negro Americans,” Moynihan wrote, “must be directed towards the question of family structure. The object should be to strengthen the Negro family so as to enable it to raise and support its members as do other families.” Stated plainly, Moynihan ignored the impacts of racism and discrimination, arguing instead that the answer to Black people’s problems is to be respectable, marry, and have nuclear families.
Since its publication, many have rejected Moynihan’s story of Black masculinity and the concept of self-destruction it portrays. It’s been unmasked and recognized as the paternalistic and imperialistic racism that it is. But the negative stereotypes regarding Black men remain ubiquitous in at least American society, if not societies globally. And in response, many people have defined Black masculinity in direct opposition to what Moynihan claimed it was. However, a construction of Black masculinity that is purely reactive is limiting if it does not include a reflection of the lives, experiences and identities of actual Black men.
“…Black liberation has been conceptualized, generally speaking, in the narrowest of terms and has focused heavily on recuperating the Black manhood, constructing patriarchal families and ending racism.” – Beverly Guy-Sheftall, Professor of Women’s Studies and English at Spelman College tweet
A cornerstone of “hotep” philosophy is a fervent rejection of whiteness. Despite this, and rather curiously, its subscribers base Black liberation on traditional definitions of Black masculinity and the Black family structure that are directly informed by Moynihan’s racist solutions to the problems he saw with Black masculinity and the Black family. Moynihan argues that “a fundamental fact of Negro American family life is the often reversed roles of husband and wife.” In response, hotep philosophy preaches heterosexual marriage and the need for male heads of households. Moynihan claims that “because the disorganized family has failed in its function as a socializing agency, it has handicapped the children in their relations to the institutions in the community.” In turn, hotep philosophy warns against the disastrous effects of “deviant” behavior on Black children.
It upholds the idea that Black men are naturally heterosexual husbands who lead the family as the breadwinner and protector. While not the caretakers of children, they are present as fathers and are prideful and strong role models. Additionally, believers in hotep philosophy tend to be condescending towards those Blacks whom they consider “sleep”: those who, in their mind, perpetuate Black pathology. They may choose to focus on the “unfair victimization” of Bill Cosby while ignoring or defaming the victims; they may blame Beyoncé or Nicki Minaj’s overt sexuality for the failure of the Black family; they may fault white feminism for “encouraging” Black women into interracial relationships; they may harass unwed mothers and Odell Beckham for “creating” homosexual sons.
In other words, hotep philosophy is respectability politics.
The Visibility Project defines a hotep as someone who is, “championing for the rights of Black men while simultaneously throwing Black women, Black Trans persons, Black members of the LGBTQ community or anyone else who is not a Black male under the bus.” Although hotep ideology emerged as an attempt to fight white oppression, its use of narrow Black masculinity and patriarchy only extends that oppression.
His argument was clear: the man who cannot fulfill his hyper-masculine roles, who is unable to “strut,” is not a man. tweet
But perpetuation of the patriarchy through a deficit model of Black masculinity is not limited to the hoteps. The Black Lives Matter movement was founded by Alicia Garza, Patrisse Cullors, and Opal Tometi. Three Black women. And yet, people frequently refer to two men, DeRay Mckesson and Shaun King, as the movement’s leaders. It is these men’s opinions that are sought out, and whose names are widely known. This reflects a subconscious centering of the liberation movement around Black male-centered liberation, erasing the need for the bold lines that were overt reminders of who and what leadership and membership could be. Female leadership thereby ends up cast aside in favor of perceived male expertise.
If we fail to address this male-centered perspective, we do so at the risk of the movement itself. If we continue to fail to center the entire person, rather than parts of their identity, this movement will fall into the same trap as others before it. During the Civil Rights Movement, the archetypal member was a man who was educated, employed, heterosexual, and machismo. A prototypical woman could speak, fight, and dedicate her life, as long as it did not undermine the fragility of deficit Black masculinity. This limiting criteria largely excluded people like like Bayard Rustin and Ella Baker, from full visibility. This is not to say that the movement was led only by heteronormative men, but othered members and leaders faced increased internal and external resistance, and often had their contributions downplayed.
“…he was defeated long before he died, because, at the bottom of his heart, he really believed what white people said about him. This is one of the reasons he became so holy.” – James Baldwin, The Fire Next Time tweet
In writing a letter to his nephew in The Fire Next Time, James Baldwin talks about his father’s masculinity. He tells his nephew it was his masculinity, formed in response to and in the context of racism, which “defeated” him. Baldwin explains that in an attempt to become who he thought he should be, his father never became the person he actually was. Many writers, artists, and thinkers have pushed back against the narrow construction of Black masculinity as Baldwin does here. These counter stories provide insights into what a healthy, liberating form of Black masculinity may look like.
Don Belton writes, “I am one man. While I speak from a position of black and American masculinity, I am not a representative for these positions. The black man is not a monolith. There is no the black man.”
Mark Anthony Neal proposes a counter story, calling for the queering of Black masculinity. He contends that we need a “radical re-scripting of the accepted performances of a heteronormative black masculinity.”
Rudolph Byrd calls for, “a mode of masculinity for Black men who are committed to the abolition of emasculating forms of masculinity; a mode of masculinity for Black men who are committed to the abolition of racism, sexism, homophobia, and other ideological traps.”
For as long as the Black man has lived in America, he has formed his masculinity in a smog of racism. Black masculinity is, and has always been, an attempt at revolution. By its definition, it is everything that America said it was not. But is that enough? This narrow construction of Black masculinity has harmed Black people of all expressions of gender. What does it mean to be defined only in contrast to your oppressor? As Byrd says, Black masculinity is a reflection of “every Black man who has ever drawn breath and struggled of dignity and freedom in this American Republic.”
We need a Black masculinity that can exist outside of the context of oppression and American racism, one defined in its own right.