Reconstructing Black Masculinity: Challenging Stereotypes

Black masculinity in America is often defined by either how it conforms into dominant “respectable” culture or how it diverges from the dominant white culture, but black men often find themselves somewhere on the spectrum – not aligning themselves solely to either societal expectation of black masculinity.


| May 2017



Black Man Thinking

Black men often find themselves confronted by social expectations of what black masculinity means in America.

Photo by Adobe Stock/Memo

Invisible Man, Got the Whole World Watching: A Young Black Man’s Education (Nation Books, 2016), by Mychal Denzel Smith, explores the definition of black masculinity in America. Smith tackles socially taboo topics such as intersectional identities within the black community and hard issues including violence, mental health, and bigotry. The following excerpt from chapter one highlights Smith’s experience as a black youth.

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Growing Up “Respectable”

My parents sent me to college to become a credit to my race. It was never said in those exact words, but the idea was planted early on that my life would be one where I would defy all of the stereotypes associated with being a black man. I wasn’t allowed to sag my pants, or say the “n-word,” or listen to rap music that had explicit lyrics. My mother corrected my English whenever I dropped my g’s or started a sentence with “me and …” I wasn’t supposed to ever give anyone the opportunity to think of me as less than. Academic excellence was the biggest part of being “twice as good” and therefore a college education was non-negotiable. It was the key to the future my father envisioned for me. He wanted me to be an upstanding citizen with unimpeachable credentials who could gain everyone’s respect so they might see me as more than “just another black man” and come to see me as a man. My parents wanted me to become Barack Obama.

They never said it in those words either, of course, because they didn’t know who Barack Obama was. Hardly anyone did until July 27, 2004. He was an Illinois state senator with no national profile. He wrote a memoir that was released in 1995 that had a modest public reception. He ran for Congress in 2000 and lost. But four years later here he was, a candidate for an open U.S. Senate seat and being tapped to deliver the keynote address at the Democratic National Convention. I didn’t see the speech, because I didn’t see any of the convention, because I thought electoral politics was inherently corrupt and useless. The first election I ever paid attention to was determined by hanging chads and the Supreme Court, and ultimately gave us George W. Bush as president. I wasn’t about to put any faith in that kind of system. But I heard plenty about Obama’s speech the next day. My father was gushing about it. I had never known him to have any strong political opinions. My parents read the newspaper every morning and watched the news every night, but that was the extent of their political dedication. The most they said about politics to me and my little brother was that voting was important. But now, after hearing Obama speak, suddenly my father was a pundit. He was so impressed, he wished Obama were the one running to defeat Bush’s reelection campaign instead of the settled-for John Kerry. Obama was everything Kerry wasn’t. Naturally charismatic. A dynamic speaker. Youthful. Relatable. Black.

But the right kind of black. The successful, respectable kind of black. The kind of black that was “twice as good,” that made itself known and then faded. The kind of black that would allow people to just see a man. The kind of black man my father was raising me to be. I was curious enough to want to see what had my father, and everyone else, so excited. It wasn’t hard to find out, thanks to 24-hour cable news. All I had to do was turn on CNN and witness Obama on a loop, saying, “There’s not a black America and white America and Latino America and Asian America; there’s the United States of America.” There was more to the speech, but that was the part that got repeated the most, and I wasn’t impressed. Obama seemed to be trying to get the country to forget about racism at precisely the same time I was ready to raise the most hell about it. He was emerging as the kind of figure I had been taught to admire, but I did everything to reject the moment I started seeing the world differently. I was born in 1986 in Washington, D.C., when Ronald Reagan was presiding over the early phase of the War on Drugs. I grew up the son of a career Navy man in Virginia Beach, Virginia, during the 1990s, while Bill Clinton triangulated politics, exploded the prison population, and slashed welfare. I entered high school the year of George W. Bush and purged voter rolls. A conservative America was the only America I had ever known, and before 9/11 I didn’t think to question it. I was the son of a Navy man who had served under Republicans and Democrats and never uttered a single negative word about either in my presence. He was proud to serve his country and carry out his missions no matter who was commander in chief. My mother always made sure I was reading black authors and learning black history, but that didn’t carry over into a formalized ideology. I didn’t seek out any political education on my own, and living inside the bubble of American-born ignorance suited me just fine. But after the towers fell and Bush took the country to war in Iraq, the apolitical stance I’d adopted became insufficient to help me process what was happening in the world. I was unclear about where to turn to make sense of it all. Until I found The Boondocks.

Embracing Political Consciousness

The first time I saw Aaron McGruder’s comic strip The Boondocks was in the July 1998 issue of The Source magazine with Master P on the cover. I couldn’t actually listen to any Master P records in my house, but my mother always supported reading, so I talked her into letting me get a copy of The Source. And there, after reading about the LL Cool J – Canibus beef, I saw Huey, Riley, and Caesar being everything my parents raised me not to be. They weren’t corny like the characters in Jump Start and Curtis, the only two black comic strips in my local newspaper. But the Internet is magic, and when my cousin, Marcus, showed me that not only did The Boondocks exist in the form of two book collections but could also be seen daily on Okayplayer.com, it was as if the blackness messiah had come down to lay hands on me personally. I found it just as McGruder and the strip were hitting their anti-Bush administration stride, calling them out for lying about weapons of mass destruction and the ways in which the U.S. government had previously supported Saddam Hussein. But at the same time, McGruder was also skewering contemporary hip-hop culture, criticizing the crass materialism and obsession with gangster culture. And while the daily strip was explaining current events, reading the collections introduced me to part of the canon of black consciousness — Huey P. Newton, Frantz Fanon, Public Enemy, and Malcolm X. I’d known Malcolm for most of my life. There was one piece of art I can remember hanging on the wall wherever we lived. It was really simple — a drawing of the heads of three major Civil Rights–era figures, something you might find from a street vendor or at an African or African American themed festival in your town. Ours was of Martin Luther King Jr., the Honorable Elijah Muhammad, and Malcolm X. Malcolm was in the center; his head was the largest.