Images of black masculinity lie between the contested space of race, sex, and gender. For much of the history African American males in the United States the black masculine body has been constructed as an object, an object that has been the holding place for white anxiety and sexual fear. Of which the most famous example is of Gus, the sex-crazed black man of D.W. Griffith’s 1915 revisionist film Birth of a Nation, who without the benevolent stewardship of the white man pursues a white woman until she hurls herself off a cliff edge. For this reason, black masculine self-representation has largely been constructed against white racial dominance that coded the black male body as over-sexed, incompetent, violent, and dangerous. The need to project a particular type of black masculinity in order to challenge and to mediate white racism has created a set of contradictions and ambiguity surrounding the black male body. Even as particular black masculinities challenge white racism they also have fallen into the trap of re-affirming heteronormative, misogynistic, dominate culture masculinities. Black masculinity is made ambiguous by its attachment to male privilege, while at the same time that it seeks to reject white racism. So even as black masculinity re-invents itself to challenge white supremacy, black masculinity and the dominant narratives that over-determine its subjectivity are rarely challenged or properly interrogated (Gray 402).
For instance, even as the iconic black Jazz men of the 50s and 60s such as Miles Davis and John Coltrane, emblematic figures of black masculinity in the public sphere, articulated the cool and slick aesthetic of that era. Even as these men in their defiant, assertive cool pose whose drug use, pride, and transgressive behavior pushed the boundaries that white supremacy laid on their blackness; they also “rewrite and reproduce forms of patriarchal authority, enveloping some of its most disturbing aspects in black vernacular style and expressive performance” (Gary 402). However, one performance in public led to another in different settings. For Davis, especially, who consciously projected a particular black masculine subjectivity onstage as described above, but participated in a different subjectivity once the curtain was down. As one observer had noted, “Miles seemed to need to turn himself into his dramatic image of what a really tough street Negro would be” (Iton 90). Davis’ masculine performance as a public figure masked his bisexuality in his private life (Carr 482). Davis’ separation of private and public are contrary to other masculinities expressed by Richard Pryor who talked openly about homosexuality in the black community pushing the boundaries and irony of black masculinities and sexualities with little regard to private/public binaries.
“I was the only dude in the neighborhood who’d fuck this faggot,” [Richard Pryor] often noted as part of his stage routine. “A lot of dudes wont play that shit. In the daytime. But at night, they be knockin’ on the door”. (Iton 91)
Pryor also relates stories of walking in on Dizzy Gillespie and Miles Davis kissing in Davis’ dressing room, saying, “When I entered he was kissing Dizzy Gillespie, with tongue and shit, which made me wonder what kind of shit he had planned for me” (Iton 91). And furthermore exchanges with Black Panther Party for Self Defense founder Huey P. Newton on his fear of going to prison.
In response to Newton’s suggestion that he would ‘bite off’ the penis of any inmate who tried to force himself on him, Pryor replied, “That’s a plan. But right before you bite, you know, you’re going to taste that dick in your mouth and wonder whether or not you like it”. Pryor notes that “Newton shot up from his seat and punched him.” (Iton 91)
Pryor’s stories are retold here in order illustrate the uneasiness with which challenges dominant virile masculinity enter the conversations around black male subjectivity. Even with his outburst against Pryor’s assertion that he might have homosexual desires, Newton seemed to understand what is at work here when he admits, “sometimes our first instinct is to want to hit the homosexual in the mouth, and a woman to be quiet. We want to hit a homosexual in the mouth because we are afraid we might be homosexual, and we want to hit the woman or shut her up because we are afraid that she might castrate us, or take the nuts that we might not have to start with” (Neal 6).
What I am attempting to suggest here is that black masculine subjectivities are as equally tied to protecting oneself from white racism and supremacy as it is attached to masking the ambiguous and contradictory nature of black masculinity inherent in the male privilege it uses and the subjugation of blackness in American society. The contradictory nature of this relationship has manifested itself in a black masculine subjectivity that at times has sought power in male privilege: heteronormativity, homophobia, sexism, and a virile masculinity as a way to combat racism. This policed masculinity has denied other ways of being masculine to enter the mainstream. In this way, male privilege continues on uncontested in the black masculine subject.
The gangsta figure whose outlaw, antisocial, antiestablishment behavior has a long history not only in African American lore, and certainly more generally in American popular cultural practice. For our purposes here it is important to understand the gangsta figures use for the black masculine subject in relation to the contradictions of male privilege and race subjugation.
Continue to Track Two: Stackolee and the Rise of Commercial Gangsta Rap