Masculinity, also referenced as manhood, is a set of attributes, behaviors, and roles associated with boys and men, though it is distinct from the definition of the male biological sex, as both males and females can exhibit masculine traits. Masculine traits in Western society include strength, courage, independence, leadership, and assertiveness. Masculinity is closely associated with male roles, of which traditional or hegemonic masculinity is grouped in White culture. African American masculinity is also implicated because aspects of African American masculinity, such as sexism and homophobia, are central components of hegemonic masculinity. Masculinity socialization and formation are culturally laden and policed across multiple contexts. For African American males, the adoption of masculine attributes is simultaneously crucial for escape from various individual and institutional sources of victimization while targeting them for individual and institutional sources of victimization. Beginning during childhood, African American boys are closely scrutinized by mothers and grandmothers in particular for discernable “aberrant or questionable” actions and behavior in family settings that deviate from the development of a traditional masculine persona. Adult leaders, classmates, and peers in school settings, informal play, and league sports, as well as artistic endeavors, also frame the parameters of this gaze across developmental stages. African American males’ participation in religious instruction and activities are under the watchful eye of instructors and fellow participants attuned to identifying leanings and deviance away from nonsecular teaching, often enshrouded in traditional masculinity. Traditional masculinity is expressed in culturally bound gender norms that include socially constructed ideas, scripts, and expectations for being a man or woman. For African Americans, their centuries’ subjugation as chattel slaves, their subsequent seven-year “freedom” and tentative experience with the entitlements of US citizenship before the imposition of Jim Crow laws and practices throughout the nation, and the ongoing fight for civil rights has uniquely impacted their socialization as individuals and community. Virtually every aspect of African American being, including its unique cultural narrative is, to some degree, socially constructed in opposition, resistance, or adaptation to a dominant cultural masculinity narrative that operates largely to African Americans’ disadvantage or demise. African American masculinity is no exception. African American masculinity, at its best, reflects important dimensions of opposition and resistance as well as adaptation to a dominant, limiting, traditional masculine identity. Opposition to dominant oppressive structures often yields oppressive responses aimed at vulnerable individuals and resistance to engaging in a broader range and variations in masculinity. This life course trajectory is evidenced in multiple contexts and reinforced by family, peers, and state-sanctioned laws and practices.
The Conceptualization of African American Masculinity
An approach to digging deeper into the fractured features of modern Western masculinity is to explore the social construction of another subordinated masculinity—African American masculinity. What we will find is more evidence of the conflict and chaos at the heart of the dominant ideal of masculinity: heterosexual and White male. African American masculinity is socially constructed neither by African American males nor males solely, but rather from collective male and female and cultural perspectives, including that of White men. White men created the image of Black men as that of child, not a man, and as a body, not a mind. In short, just as femininity is the opposite of masculinity, African American masculinity is yet another contrast necessary for White men’s own self-image. The scholarship of cultural theorists like Paul Gilroy considers the hybridity of African American and other subordinate masculinities. Multiple paradoxes shape nonwhite masculinities as they interact with one another and operate alongside enactments of White racism. African American masculinity uniquely reflects the complexity of African American lives, the culture their lives animate, and the contours in which they operate. White racism and oppression, often in the form of hegemonic or toxic masculinity, paradoxically contributes to African American masculinity’s construction. The conceptualization of African American masculinity is examined in parallel by querying African American males as well as assessment via the lenses of research scholars. Pleck 1981 provides a stirring critique of theorizing and performance widely associated with Western masculinity, also recognized as White male hegemonic or toxic masculinity. Pleck questions the data undergirding hegemonic masculinity as suspect, and charges that findings are laced with misogyny, sexism, homophobia, racism, and bias. Hunter and Davis 1992 engages African American men to obtain their meaning of manhood. The authors report that, according to the study participants, manhood is multidimensional. Accountability was identified across studies that queried African American males as a major domain. Hunter and Davis, like Noel Cazenave, who preceded them, are among the forefront of scholars who have engaged African American males to identify their personal ideas about masculinity and African American male role adoption and construction. Hammond and Mattis 2005, a subsequent study in which African American men are queried about the meaning of manhood, reports findings that coincide with Hunter and Davis’s earlier findings (Hunter and Davis 1992 and Hunter and Davis 1994), which reported accountability and responsibility as major characteristics of manhood. Mutua 2006 issues a clarion call for progressive masculinities—that is, for gender roles that are free of sexism, violence, and homophobia.
Hunter, A., and J. Davis. “Constructing Gender: An Exploration of Afro-American Men’s Conceptualization of Manhood.” Gender and Society 6.3 (1992): 464–479.
Through qualitative interviews, manhood emerged as a multidimensional construct with four major domains (self-determinism and accountability, family, pride, and spirituality and humanism) and fifteen distinct clusters of ideas. The cluster of attributes rated as most important to being a man paralleled the conceptualization of manhood derived from the open-ended interviews.
Hunter, A., and J. Davis. “Hidden Voices of Black Men: The Meaning, Structure and Complexity of Manhood.” Journal of Black Studies 25.1 (1994): 20–40.
Hunter and Davis conducted a conceptualization process with thirty-two African American males (aged 25–55 years) to ask what manhood meant to them, gaining perspective on manhood often hidden in the discourse on the African American male “crisis.”
Hammond, W. and J. Mattis. “Being a Man about It: Manhood Meaning among African American Men.” Psychology of Men and Masculinity 6.2 (2005): 114–126.
Hammond and Mattis queried 152 African American men about the meaning of manhood. Responsibility-accountability (actions, thoughts, behaviors) was the most frequently endorsed category. It suggests that men’s understanding of masculinity’s relativity is subject to their social environment, leading to important implications in combating toxic masculinity within the African American masculinity framework.
Milton, T. B. “Class Status and the Construction of Black Masculinity.” Ethnicity and Race in a Changing World 3.1 (2012): 17–31.
Responding to the broader field of African American masculinity research, T. B. Milton argues that African American masculinity—and the behaviors associated with it—are now more closely associated with class status than with racial designation, with freedom of expression being much wider for men with higher socioeconomic status.
Mutua, A. Progressive Black Masculinities. New York: Routledge, 2006.
Mutua proposes an intersectional explanation for the existence of higher incarceration rates among African American men compared to women, where the interaction of race and gender targets African American men for certain kinds of treatment. Mutua argues for progressive African American masculinities that resist social structures of domination.
Pleck, J. The Myth of Masculinity. Boston, MA: MIT Press, 1981.
Joseph Pleck proposes a new theory (the sex role strain paradigm), offers a reinterpretation of sex role stereotyping, and offers a critique of research that allegedly demonstrates a biological basis for male aggression. Pleck’s critiques apply to African American masculinity’s association to traditional masculinity.
Rogers, B. K., H. A. Sperry, and R. F. Levant. “Masculinities among African American Men: An Intersectional Perspective.” Psychology of Men & Masculinity 16.4 (2015): 416–425.
Investigating how interviewees conceptualize the intersection of their masculinity with their race (African American), the authors found multiple themes that describe the men’s relationship with their masculine and racial identities: leadership, structural oppression, African American values, traditional masculinity, familial relationships, and self-definition.
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