Vincent Lloyd – « Masculinity, race, fatherhood »

Vincent Lloyd « Masculinity, race, fatherhood »

1. The ends of masculinity

If masculinity names a discrete set of social practices, and if we come to the realization that those social practices cause a good deal of harm, it should be straightforward to eliminate, or virtually eliminate, masculinity. This scenario portrays masculinity like cigarette smoking: once we realized cigarettes cause cancer, it was only a matter of time until smoking was wiped out of mainstream culture – over the objections of powerful corporate interests. For a time, cigarette smoking was associated with great leaders and great cultural and aesthetic achievements (for example, in Westerns), but that connection was contingent rather than necessary. Now that we realize masculinity, too, is ‘toxic,’ feeding violence that is physical, social, psychic, and spiritual, is it only a matter of time until masculinity is no more?

Or perhaps what we need are kinder, gentler forms of masculinity. In this view, the problem is with masculinity at its extremes, with the toxic masculinity that, as a component of the ideology of patriarchy, results in hostile work environments, sexual violence, pay inequality, and glass ceilings. Put another way, we need new answers to the question: What does it mean to be a good man? Instead of imagining masculine excellence in terms of power, self-discipline, rationality, and physical prowess, masculine excellence ought to involve rationality and emotional sensitivity, power and gentleness, self-discipline and vulnerability, strength and caring – or some such healthy balance.

Both the desire to eliminate masculinity and the desire to improve masculinity rest on an assumption that masculinity names a discrete set of social practices, but if masculinity is a component of patriarchy, and patriarchy is a deep and broad system of domination shaping our capacity to perceive the world and ourselves and so to act, a system of domination interlocking with other systems of domination including racism, colonialism, and empire, then these desires to eliminate or improve are twins, and equally misguided. The response to evidence of harms associated with masculinity ought to be attacking patriarchy, a project that requires focused analysis and organizing.

Liberation theology – and the Bible – teaches us to look toward marginalized communities for privileged normative insights, for revelations of the divine that can guide life in the world. In the contemporary United States, this means, for example, attending to questions of masculinity among Black Americans. One of the means through which marginalization is caused and confirmed is ascribing pathological gender roles to a subordinate community. Black Americans are classed as hyper-sexual and asexual, excessively masculine or feminine or deficiently masculine or feminine. Then, the superordinate community (whites) decrees that such pathological gender and sexuality must be managed (through regulation) or eliminated (through, at its extreme, castration, an essential part of lynching rituals). The impulse to find a kinder, gentler masculinity, or to eliminate masculinity altogether, appears quite different in this context: it appears complicit with the status quo, with the forces of white supremacy.

It is only self-hating Blacks, Blacks entranced by the false promise that respectability will secure a place of equality in the white world, who would participate in the discourse of managing or eliminating masculinity. However, as patriarchy and white supremacy interlock, Black Americans are particularly motivated to analyze and attack patriarchy. The difference between a moralizing discourse about masculinity and the practice of analyzing and attacking patriarchy is subtle but crucial.

The case of Black Americans is a particular, extreme case of marginalization, perhaps a paradigm of marginalization. The experience of enslavement strips away the possibility of kinship and ungenders.[1] The ‘pathologies’ of Black American kinship and gender lamented today, and in the past century and a half, are produced by slavery’s afterlives. The norms, values, habits, and modes of reasoning, feeling, and imagining that made it possible to treat a Black person as a thing persisted even after the legal regime of slavery came to an end. Blacks could be parents, but they would necessarily be perceived as bad parents; they could be women, but they would necessarily fail to live up to the standards of womanhood; and so, too, for Black men and masculinity.

A recurrent theme in the most renowned writings of Black men is the desire to be fully men, and the impossibility of that desire. To be a man here has no relation to biology, nor is it exhausted by the social practices of masculinity. Rather, to be a man means to be an authority, to set rules for oneself rather than to have rules arbitrarily imposed on one. This is closely connected with the desire to have a father and to be a father, where fatherhood represents authority, possessed not only for oneself but for one’s family. To be a man and to be father and to refuse domination: these three become one in the desires of Black writers, and they are triply refused to their aspirants by white supremacy. Richard Wright’s Native Son, Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man, and James Baldwin’s protagonist in Go Tell It on the Mountain each seek, in different ways, again and again, something which is foreclosed to them – to be free, to have and be a father, to be a man.

Wright, Ellison, and Baldwin describe Black narrators looking for paternity, and discovering that the role of father, as they imagined it, is foreclosed. White supremacy disrupts the pathway from the norms of an authoritative father to the norms of the world: Blackness means always being on the wrong side of worldly norms. The knot of fatherhood, authority, and masculinity does not hold: finding a father or a man is not assurance that one has found an authority. Put another way, when we look at society’s margins, the privilege given to the social practices of masculinity, the way they are treated as authoritative, is unstable. This does not mean that masculinity at the margins is harmless. Those who seek authority may perform masculinity excessively, or idiosyncratically, sometimes causing grave harms (for example, in domestic violence and sexual abuse). But masculinity from the margins, in authority’s shadow, also involves a dynamism that permits critical questions and novel experiments in masculinity.

[1] Hortense Spillers, ‘Papa’s Baby, Mama’s Maybe: An American Grammar Book’, Diacritics, 17.2 (1987), 64­–81.