In Search of Manhood: The Black Male's Struggle for Identity and Power

By Aza Nedhari
2009, Vol. 1 No. 11 | pg. 1/3 |

Within the cultural framework of America, the systemic structure is characterized by White male patriarchy that allows for Black males to have the ability to negotiate the way in which they have been socialized and institutionalized to think, act, and behave because they are men. However, the reality of race and the lack of diversity in the purest sense,  impedes upon this effort and cripples the black male's ability to truly transition into manhood. He is left to constantly struggle and fight for an identity, for power, for respect, and for understanding of who he is versus what he is projected as: a nigger.

The “nigger” does not exist in a cultural vacuum, but is rather an “expressive of the cultural crossing, mixing, and engagement of Black male culture with the values, attitudes, and concerns of the white majority” (hooks, 1994).  The reactionary behaviors and coping mechanisms that manifest from this cultural group may appear incomprehensible to one who is not challenged with an anomalous form of self-awareness defined by a conflicting identity that forces the Black male to view himself through the lens of the dominant culture that does not perceive and does not allow him to function as equal. 

The pressure to conform to white male patriarchal standards of manhood as protector, disciplinarian, and provider are representative of such a dilemma for Black males. Despite the unconscious internalization and acceptance of the white male patriarchal standards, inequities in education and employment and limited access to educational opportunities prevent the expression of these behaviors (Harris, 1995, p. 279).

This paper will evaluate how the historical and contemporary antecedents of social oppression in American culture and the formation of a White male patriarchal system serves as a catalysts to the complex identity formation of Black males, the performance of masculinity, and the striving for power. A self assessment of challenges, biases, and beliefs experienced and held by the author in working with this population as well as competencies that can be utilized in working with this population, will be also be identified.

Historical and Contemporary Accounts of Societal Discrimination

The peculiar institution of chattel slavery was meant to be a permanent condition for Black males; a condition that would lay the historical framework for structual and institutional racism that  resulted in a conflicted formation of identity within Black males leading to perpetual servitude.   In 1863, Lincoln issued an Executive Order known as the Emancipation Proclamation. “In recent years, scholars pondering the meaning and significance of Lincoln’s proclamation have focused essentially on...motivations...and actions of the president...without attending to the sentiments reflected in the disillusionment that emanated from the dichotomy between Black perceptions of the documents promise and they realities in which they experienced”(Holzer, Medford and Williams, 2006, p. 1-2).

Despite efforts of the proclamation to gradually transition Blacks into citizenship, slavery continued to be legal until the ratification of the 13th Amendment in 1865. The amendment affirmed that physical bondage or involuntary servitude was outlawed in the US except in situations of punishment for crimes in which the person was found guilty. However, it did little to change to the sociopolitical culture in America as Blacks were still considered second-class citizens [as land ownership was equated to citizenship]. 

The author would further argue that the enactment of both the Emancipation Proclamation and the 13th amendment failed to liberate blacks and integrate them into society, but instead laid a foundation to maintain a refined version of slavery that manifested itself in the form of socioeconomic and psychological servitude.  

The Post-Civil War Reconstruction Era provided the illusion of hope to Black men, to be able to function as “freedmen” and obtain the privileges and rights of being an American. Debates ensued around enfranchising Black men, primarily veterans and those deemed “intelligent” amongst blacks. The four million others were in question. In 1867, Black men voted for the first time and held offices, but this was quickly overturned with the enactment of “black codes” and the impending rise of the Jim Crow era (1876-1960). Freedmen [Free Black males] had more rights than other free Blacks pre-Civil War, but had no voting rights, second-class civil and human rights, could not own firearms, serve on a jury, as was subject to vagrancy laws.

The black codes disenfranchised Black males made it increasingly difficult for them to control their own employment, a phenomenon that continues to exist in modern day. They [black codes] were formulated to recreate the social control that existed during enslavement and ensure the legacy of white supremacy. 

The rise of Jim Crow (1876-1965) validated anti-Black racism. Originating in former confederate states, the Jim Crow era was ushered in as “southern states began systematically to codify in law and state constitutional provisions the subordinate position of African Americans in society. Most of these legal steps were aimed at separating the races in public spaces (public schools, parks, accommodations, and transportation) and preventing adult black males from exercising the right to vote” (Davis, n.d.). Support for segregation laws was consummated by heinous acts of ritualized mob violence known as lynching. Booker (2000), argues that image of the black male as a sexual predator has deep roots in the American psyche (p.12), as lynching brought together the threads of contemporary racial image of black males into a paradigmatic justification for routinized barbarity (p.140).

At the height of the lynching period, Black males were the most targeted victims. Lynchings were social forms of entertainment that often attracted thousand of white spectators. “The burned, tortured, and mutilated body of the Black male would be torn apart by the crowd as battles broke out over body parts as souvenirs” (Booker, 2000, p.142). Between 1880 and 1960, nearly one hundred years more than 4700 Americans, primarily Black males are documented as having been lynched (Lester, 2005).   1915, would introduce a new purveyors of violence against Black men.  D.W. Griffith’s film Birth of a Nation, was released glamorizing lynching and popularizing the Klu Klux Klan (KKK), a white supremacist terror group, who justified their violence against black males through the need to protect white womanhood and defend white superiority in the post antebellum south, from the hyper-sexualized Black male who sought to take white women and establish Black supremacy. 

The result of Griffith’s film was increased violence against Black men in particular by the KKK; the summer of 1919, referred to as the “Red Summer” produced the greatest number of black fatalities due to lynching. For nearly one hundred years, the reality of life for Black men in America would be distinguished by a system of legal apartheid, murder, and struggle for freedom. 

As the life of a Black man was viewed unequal to that of a white person, the U.S. Department of Public Health initiated the experimentation of 399 Black men [most of whom were illiterate sharecroppers] in what is known as the Tuskegee Syphilis experiment. Between 1932 and 1972, these men in the late stages of syphilis, were “used as laboratory animals in a long and inefficient study on how long it takes syphilis to kill someone” (Jones, 1993).  It was never the intent of the DPH to neither inform the men of the seriousness of their disease nor cure them. They were denied treatment and many died as a result. 

The dawning of the Civil Rights era would breathe hope into the tyrannized Black man.  Characterized by social revolution, the consciousness of the age reflected the disdain of Black people towards racism, which for over 400 years left them in the revolving door of oppression, subjugation, and depression. Black men were still being literally and symbolically castrated and had failed to operate with full citizenship. 1964 would appear to be the turning point with passing of the Civil Rights Act that prohibited discrimination of all kinds on the basis of race, color, religion, or national origin.  1965, Congress would pass the Voting Rights Act, overturning the institution of the “black codes”. However, this same year, El Hajj Malik El Shabazz (Malcolm X), was assassinated. Shabazz, as many other Black men, was an outspoken activists and advocate against racism [white supremacy].  What Black men began to realize as the Civil Rights era came to a close and the Black Power movement took up the torch, was freedom only existed on paper, but the cultural reality of America told a different story.  

In an effort to demonized and destroy the attempt of Black men to obtain freedom and equality, J. Edgar Hoover, Director of FBI initiated the Counterintelligence Program (COINTELPRO).  This program was designed to disrupt and dismantle Black resistance in ideology and practice and ultimately led to increased violence including death to many Black male leaders. One of the programs primary aims was to “prevent the rise of a black messiah”. The rise of a messiah is a precursor to the progression of a people; as he is one whose aim is to liberate the masses from the oppression of white supremacy [racism]. As white fear of “losing control over the black gaze” heightened due to the cultural changes of the 1960s and 70s which eroded traditional forms of authority and loosened governmental and corporate control over people’s lives, the destruction of militancy, resistance, and revolutionary thought became more imminent. The system of white male patriarchy had to ensure that amongst Black people; no more messiahs [Black men] would be raised, thus serving as the motivation for the crack crisis.

The author would argue that the Crack era destroyed the fabric of Black civility and Black life. It ushered in a new form of enslavement, corporate slavery, which flourished and garnered mass dividends, off the subjugation and oppression of Black people, primarily Black men.  It began with cocaine as, Reeves and Campbell (1994) highlight in Coloring the Crack Crisis, and transformed into crack as Reagan began doing CIA operative mission and CONTRA scandals in South America in an attempt to destroy the Sandinistas. Cocaine, was a white drug, for those celebrities, rock stars, and other whites, and was not a crisis, but a socially acceptable form of pleasure. However, as cocaine transitioned to crack, the color of the drug changed as well.

Sentencing laws, such as the 1984 Anti-Drug Act, provided harsher penalties for Blacks than whites and the prisons became disproportionately filled with Black males. The neighborhoods of Black America were no longer embedded in social change and progression, but rather became victims of terrorization from an American culture rooted in racism. Black men were demonized for selling crack to black women who the media portrayed as cracks primary users; and then the family structure declines. Crack babies, are sociologists new trend and terms such as “crack-head”, “crack-house”, urbanized, ghetto, all are listed attributes under Black. The demonization of the black man was a way to discredit and destroy him in the eyes of not only theworld, but more importantly the black woman and the black child. What this leaves is a perpetuated cycle of victimization and reenactment of violence and patriarchy.

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