“That Man is Suspect”: Perspectives on Black Masculinity from a Black Queer Mother

Raising Black children—female and male—in the mouth of a racist, sexist, suicidal dragon is perilous and chancy. If they cannot love and resist at the same time, they will probably not survive. And in order to survive they must let go. This is what mothers teach—love, survival—that is, self-definition and letting go. For each of these, the ability to feel strongly and to recognize those feelings is central: how to feel love, how to neither discount fear nor be overwhelmed by it, how to enjoy feeling deeply.  ~Audre Lorde

How to be –in this world–/…Multiple. Petal/to/petal-Bending. Velvety-   /a    Dripping        Bloom/

How is presence (in this world)…Limited. Metal-to-metal. Wrist bound/Twined-      a  thirsting      bud

~Candice Merritt, “Black Being”

An Introduction

In the summer of 1979, black lesbian feminist Audre Lorde penned one of her famed essays titled “Man Child: A Black Lesbian Feminist’s Response.” She wrote the following about raising her then 14 year old son, Jonathan:

“The strongest lesson I can teach my son is the same lesson I teach my daughter: how to be who he wishes to be for himself. And the best way I can do this is to be who I am and hope that he will learn from this not how to be me, which is not possible, but how to be himself” (77).

I return to this essay today for solace and guidance as I think through the social and political conditions my son, a growing young black man, must sift through and navigate without me doing it for him. Like many black mothers and women, I too, carry the fear of my child’s survival in a world seemingly designed to crush his difference should he deter from proscribed paths and/or rigged to destroy his existence entirely should he stimulate a threat just for being perceived as young, black, and male.

Since coming back from travelling to my home for the holidays, I have reflected on my son’s maturation and several family conversations over the years. In doing so, I have become acquainted again with the expectations around my son from both public and intimate spheres. In particular, I have come to realize how much I am invested in trying to protect him from the demands placed upon his body. Here, I am thinking of his body in terms of not only its physicality but also as a larger metaphor for self-expression of his personhood.

I am thinking of the possibilities of how my son can decide to comport, dress, adorn, and shape his body to his desires and/or others. This essay is about how my son’s body, a perceived black and male body, is imagined publicly and intimately. It is about what modes of being are sanctioned and embraced while others must be torn out from silence and reclaimed.

“Man, a cat?! Y’all better get that boy a pitbull!”

When I think of my son, I think of a seven year old boy with sparkling, large brown eyes and wild black hair. I think of a boy who loved helping his grandmother garden and plant elephant ears outside our old, red brick home. He had a green thumb for sure then. I think of a boy with creativity that enjoyed painting and drawing favorite cartoon characters. I think of a boy with curiosity and interest in the greater world around him since he loved to go to the Science Center and see all the new animal exhibits.  Overall, I envision a boy with a kind sweetness—one who picked a flower and gifted it to his aunt.

These days, I must remember that my son is no longer seven and now approaches the age of sixteen. He is now taller than me (some say that this is not that hard to accomplish). He has hairy shadows on his neck and face. His voice has deepened, and his chest has somehow expanded.  He is also more independent than ever. I try to not take it personally that he no longer wants to spend every waking moment with me. Years ago, I was shocked that he chose to play his game online with friends rather than watch a movie on the couch with me even after not seeing me for a few months.  I had to remember as well than I did the same at his age, and also—I still do not want to spend every waking moment with my parents either.

Though my son is not the young boy I often remember him to be, he has not changed too much. These days, I imagine a young man with dreams of becoming a world champion gamer in first person shooters while making sure his cat and gecko lizard share in the glory (he loves his animals). His green thumb may now be trained for the left and right analog sticks, but he will still be up for a family adventure in gardening if we decided to do so. He is also still dazzled and fascinated by fictional worlds of fantastic beasts (and so am I). In the end, my son continues to exhibit the kindness and love of his young self; and I am proud of his growing quirks and his quiet nerdiness which believes that Disney has ruined the Star Wars canon since it no longer includes the extended universe.

I do not want the world to take my son away.

Of course, I am thinking of the physical threats to my child’s existence, but I am also incredibly anxious over the psychic and social ones that he must and will endure throughout his lifetime.

In American public discourses, we often hear of the state violence enacted upon black men and boys which sometimes comes at the expense of obfuscating the queer lives that have been taken by state violence as well. I am not here to pen more to this conversation which I know applies to my son. I write this today to etch a more explicit space to consider how black boys and men are narrowly imagined in the first place—imagined narrowly not just by the majority white society that my son and I find ourselves to occupy but also within our own communities we call “home,” such as our families, neighborhoods, churches, and schools. In short, I am not just afraid of the bullets etched by histories of American racism that could pierce my son’s body; I am also afraid of what might get destroyed within his self as he navigates meanings of blackness and manhood by those closest to him and me.

What are the ideal images of black manhood? What does it really mean to be black and a man?

These are the questions that I find tenuous to answer. The answers are contentious—some are irrevocable—others, incredibly deadly.

The answers to these questions play out often between my family and I; and the racial, sexual, and gendered meanings between us are so important that even the smallest minutiae of life choices come to matter, such as the choice of a family pet. My son has had a vast gamut of pets over the years—from hermit crabs, hamsters, fish, and now cats. One of my brothers believes that my son should not have a cat and that the family needs to get him a pitbull—a kind of symbol of masculine power, protection, sometimes aggression, and also loyalty. The cat, unfortunately, does not make the cut. The cat, a feline, has been cemented as feminine, the one to be chased—passive, finicky, and even untrustworthy. A kind of physical epitome of “These Hoes Ain’t Loyal” sentiment I guess.

My son adores his cat and his cat the same. We got her for his birthday years ago and he chose her because her name was Oreo, a favorite cookie of his, and because she was also black and white. I have had to defend this choice of a pet over the years. For practical reasons, the dog takes more maintenance and we do not have an enclosed yard at home nor at the time did my family and I want to take too much time caring for a dog anyways. Besides this, it is just a cat—a pet that can still teach him responsibility and bonding.

But, I know too well that the association of a cat fails to perpetuate ideas of proper masculinity. For instance, I have had one family member tell me that she would find a grown man “suspicious” if he owned a cat for a pet and would not date him out of fear that he could be “that way.” I find such meanings incredulous and comical, but also feel fatigue at trying to explain that the cat and the dog does not inherently mean masculine and feminine. Culturally, we have assigned meanings to these living creatures and imagined their existence in particular ways. What is threatened when a black man or boy exhibits attachment to this animal rather than others? As such, I cannot muster the energy every time to tell my relatives that if owning a cat means a boy or man is gay, then so what. So, I just tell my brother to just leave him be—if the boy wants a cat, let him have a cat.

After thinking through these conversations, I recently came across a picture of civil rights leader and American Congressman, John Lewis, with his cats during the holiday season. According to his Facebook page, Louis posted a new year’s greeting and wished everyone a safe holiday break. In doing so, he also shared the following photo (seen on the right) of how he spent his break playing with his cats.

Congressman Lewis and Cats
Representative John Lewis with his two cats

I felt joyed when I saw this photograph. The picture reminds me of my son playing in crunchy leaves outside when he was little and also of moments in which he has found joy in the care and company of his pets. I also felt relieved when I gazed at the photograph given my history of conversations and defense of my son’s choice for a pet.

Congressman Lewis is a well-respected, black man. He has historically fought for black civil rights, showing his commitment to black community life; is in a heterosexual marriage; educated; and has been decorated with various honors over the years. I felt relief because a “traditional” black man was seen playing with his cats, and no one questioned his masculinity or sexuality (yet) over the picture.

Although I am not here to push for calls of respectability, I was delighted to witness a respected black male so openly share a moment of play with his feline critters. To me, it reflects a moment of expanding bounds of black manhood. Although my feelings of relief does not question notions of “respect” and “tradition,” the picture provides a kind of visual consolation to my family. The picture, to me, says: “See! A respectable black man can have a cat! The cat doesn’t mean he is gay!”

“No man should be caught dancing like that, nephew”

The question of which pet is appropriate for a black boy to keep remains a historic one in my family. A more recent debate arose at home during this holiday season about the proper way black men and boys should physically express themselves. The conversation centered around professional football and NFL player, Odell Beckham Jr. and a series of videos that show him dancing for fans and with male friends.

Admittedly, football is an important sport in my family. Both of my brothers played it—each did in high school and one did it in college.  My oldest brother has had all three of his sons play the sport and has also done coaching. My other brother currently coaches a local little league team. From my perspective, the game is a “proper” sport to socialize young boys and men. The sport values appropriate male-bonding (competition, loyalty, and friendship) and also expressions of aggression and strength for what many consider goals for ideal male body development.

I must also state that I know that the sport to both of my brothers also represents a “ticket out” the “hood” in which my family and son lives. Thus, the question of whether or not my son should or should not play high school football became a heated and complex one when the time came to decide which high school he should attend. Since playing football is not solely about “correct” gender and sexual formation for black boys, the discussion also heavily intertwined with desires about which social avenues should young black boys take in order to achieve safety from poverty and racism in larger society.

I have told each of my brothers that football will not be my son’s only avenue out of poverty and that we should also value his intellect, curiosity, and creativity as well. He currently goes to a high school that does not have a football team and is known for its academics. This comes as a disappointment to both of my brothers, but I am dedicated to valuing my son’s body in a different way. We permit my son to play the sports that are available to him at the school since he does like to be active and does find a way to channel his emotions in the competition and in the physical practices required by the sports themselves. This, of course, still does not stop my oldest brother for finding football teams at other schools for my son to play at since he considers my son’s body as a “football body.”

This kind of looking and interpretation of my son’s body—a forming, black body, coded male—I find limiting in some respects. This narrow view of black male bodies became incredibly clear to me during a holiday conversation between my brothers, my father, and oldest nephew. Traditionally, during Christmas season, my family and I all gather around the television. When both brothers are in the house, sports become the show of choice and my brothers and dad begin to talk shop.

This Christmas, they and my nephew began to talk about playoff scenarios. During the conversation, the recent suspension of the New York Giants player Odell Beckham Jr. flashed across the television. I had no idea of who Beckham was. I heard that he began a fight during a game because another player called him a gay slur. Instead of calling out the homophobic remarks pelted at Beckham, my brother began to verbally confess that he found Odell Beckham Jr. “suspect.” He showed me a video of him dancing in a club with “no females”  and another with him and his friend that someone re-posted on YouTube with their written disapproval.

I looked upon the first video and felt elated at the sheer joy and fun that I thought Beckham to exhibit. Of course, I yelled, “YASSSSS!” when I saw it since I thought Beckham was, what I term,”gettin’ it.” The dancing itself looks like a mix of popular ones (Whip and Nae Nae) and Odell is front and center with sparkling silver shoes!

While watching, I felt an instant desire to join, imitate, and celebrate. My brothers, however, felt otherwise. My brothers instead focused on the men present in the video and the one that joins Beckham towards the end. One of my brothers was afraid that he was “backing up” on some dude, and I could not help but feel his disgust and disapproval.

My oldest nephew was present and defended Beckham. He retorted that just because a man dances does not mean he is gay. I agreed with my nephew, but my nephew’s defense came with the unquestioned assumption that any sexual expression outside of a heterosexual arrangement is unacceptable. I concurred and added, “Well, if he is gay though, that is okay.” My brother, however, could only say, “Nephew, no man, especially an NFL player, should be seen dancing like that.”

Reflecting back on this moment, I cannot help but feel my sadness at the constraints around black bodies, especially those around my son, his cousins, and my brothers.  Black being continues to be policed quite literally in the broader culture and streets. Yet, communities we call “home” engage in all kinds of policing of black self-expression. In the end, I am left asking:  Why do we confine black bodies to certain comportment, sounds, and expressions when we continue to seek freedom in the broadest senses?

“This generation right here today”: Envisioning Masculinities and Plural Expressions

When I think of the elation experienced by Beckham and his pleasure in movement with himself and others, I cannot help but think of black joy and the collective histories of our bodies enjoying rhythm and music. Historically, black bodily expression such as dancing, singing, and hairstyling has been castigated as “evil” and/or “excessive” by dominant white culture even while dominant culture has simultaneously taken pleasure in black cultural aesthetics. White fear and anxiety over the growing popularity of rock-n-roll and hip hop suffices as evidence. American cultural history should make us think further over why white parents worried over Elvis gyrating or over Eminem flipping the bird. Such cultural aesthetics and practices were transgressive of racial, gender, and sexual expectations of which groups of people engaged in low, dirty acts of the body and which did not.  Regardless of those who privileged repression and constriction of the body, the fact remains—the body can be a site of pleasure, and many of us across cultural groups have found joy and expression with/in our bodies and with other bodies as well.

My brothers may suspect that men who dance in a “feminine” way reflect a new day and age where black folk are “suddenly gay.” Arguably, gay and queer visibility has increased today, but Beckham’s expression of dance reflects a much longer history of black individuals who have choreographed rhythms and dancing forms with one another and have loved doing so. I do not know why many do not make this historic connection. After all, Soul Train was not that long ago.

Many in my son and I’s intimate spheres must begin to think of masculinity as non-singular and as an ever-changing way of shaping, carrying, dressing, and adorning the body. Cultural critic, Rinaldo Walcott writes that discussions of “black masculinity in the public sphere…assume not only heterosexuality,” but the popular way we talk about black masculinity also assumes one “…coherent black masculinity as well” (76).

This kind of coherency, or recognition of a “true” and only “one” black masculinity, heavily relies on a historic narrative of the emasculation of black manhood usually beginning with American slavery. The story goes: the black man could not be a man since he was another man’s property. He was a victim and now he needs to become a victor.

I write this not to diminish the brutality of American chattel slavery that black beings were subjected to.  I problematize this particular narrative of black manhood in history and current day America because it begs the question of how does black masculinity become victorious if we do not challenge what cultural ideas of power and masculinity look like in the first place. What does “fixing” black men and boys look like? What gets excised on the way to establishing the one idea of proper black manhood? Such a question calls us to dig further to untangle notions of manhood from conflations of masculinity with aggression, property, and domination.

As I begin to untangle masculinity with traditional notions of power, I am left with Audre Lorde’s vision for her son, Jonathan. She shares:

“I wish to raise a Black man who will not be destroyed by, nor settle for, those corruptions called power by the white fathers who mean his destruction as surely as they mean mine. I wish to raise a Black man who will recognize that the legitimate objects of his hostility are not women, but the particulars of a structure that programs him to fear and despise women as well as his own Black self” (74).

As my son matures and considers expressions of manhood and sexuality, I want him to know that to be a man means to embrace all parts of himself even when others tell him to hide or repress those traits deemed “undesirable.” I want him to value kindness and the vast expressions of human emotions (not just anger, happiness, or desire, but also sadness, fear, and more).

I want him to know that should he choose to explore his sexuality with another being, that it be done safely (both in the physical and emotional senses) and in full honest communication with one another. And should he decide to make more permanent intimate relationships, he should know that he must question notions of powerful/powerless and popular representations of human interaction. In doing so, he must practice feeling, connection, openness, and trust—all practices that I work on as an adult in relationships that I value.

Additionally, the question of what is proper black masculinity forces us to confront the reality that blackness and manhood are a variety of expressions. Blackness and manhood as quirky, giddy, playful, and fierce (in the Bey sense of the word) must be part of the sanctioned cultural repertoire. Consider Jaden Smith’s recent Louis Vuitton’s womenswear modelling and the androgynous photo shoot by Morehouse College graduate, Jamal Lewis, in Fall 2015:

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Some have said that Will and Jada Pinkett Smith should “get their son” and should not let a boy wear a dress as I heard on a local radio morning talk show the other day.  Clearly, “womenswear” serves as a mismatch for the idea of respectable black manhood. Perhaps Jaden will “get away” with this since he has access to more social and economic capital than many other black males, and his body has not been seen being “inappropriate” with bodies considered male. Regardless, many are still confused at Jaden’s fashion expression. Just listen to the conversation about the matter on the The View.

Similarly, the image of Morehouse College alum, Jamal Lewis, also challenges singular notions of black manhood as well. Lewis identifies outside of traditional ways of thinking of gender as simply man or woman. Lewis uses he and she pronouns and does not seek to have a “proper” or recognizable gender definition. As a result, Lewis has faced strange looks, institutional attire bans (women’s attire donned by students was banned in 2009 at Morehouse along with other “undesirable” garb), and probably some verbal scolding for his/her way of expression. I am not going to share the comments I have seen in regards to the Buzzfeed article that featured the photographs and story of Jamal Lewis’ experience at Morehouse College. I will just say that many black voices concluded that Lewis just did not belong at a historically black, all male, institution.

Considering the historic and literal constraints on black bodies and the current narrow holds on how we imagine black men and boys to be, I choose to read Smith and Lewis’ photographs against the grain. As I gaze upon their pictures, I tell myself that there is no one way to be black and/or a man. I choose to see black freedom and expression.

For Jaden, I see a kind of quirkiness in the high fashion getup itself. For Lewis, I am reading “fierce.” In each, I am thinking of blackness as multiplicity, beautiful, fluid, and deliberate. I choose to read these black bodies as being in a particular time and moment and not bound by the frames in which they appear then and there. I choose to remember that black bodies have always been monitored, policed, and shackled, and we have always tried to get our being free. As such, I choose to read Smith and Lewis’ expression as just being and as representative of a  much larger possibility for multiple types of pleasures and self-fashioning with/in black bodies.

As a black queer mother, I affirm these self-expressions. I do not hold these images as the only representations of black male bodies for my son, other boys, and men to aspire to.  I affirm these photographs because I want to let my son know that being in this world is multiplicity and complex. It is about bending and resisting that which tries to dry us of our joy and detain our magic. I affirm plural expressions of black being and the various ways many of us have come to name and carry ourselves. In the end, I do it for freedom—for my son’s sake, and my own.