Black masculinity and its nuances have become an increasingly contentious topic in mass media.
Last week, Gabrielle Union’s hit show “Being Mary Jane” told the story of a young black queer male battling homophobia. A few months ago, news channels across the U.S. debated the “appropriateness” of San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick sitting out of the national anthem. Last year, FX’s television series on former football star O. J. Simpson’s murder case stirred up controversy, given that racist commentators tried to portray him as a “violent” Black man.
The list of controversies over the media’s portrayal of Black men in the U.S. goes on forever. But there’s one event in particular that stands out in many people’s minds: the 2014 police shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, MO.
Brown, an 18-year-old Black man who was accused of robbing a local convenience store, was shot and killed by white Ferguson police officer Darren Wilson. His murder immediately sparked debate in mass media about Black masculinity, among other topics.
Conservative media pundits tried to paint Brown as an intrinsically violent “thug” who got what he deserved. Liberal media pundits quickly whipped out his high school graduation photos, somehow trying to prove his “respectability” while offering condescending commentary about how “misguided” he was.
As the echo chamber of mainstream media commentators tried to make sense of the murder using racist and outdated notions of Black masculinity, waves of indignant protesters hit the streets, not just in Ferguson, but all over the country. The protesters, correctly pointing out that the real issue at hand is the violent white supremacist police state, have since created a new era of racial justice movements that are radically redefining Black masculinity.
It’s an understanding of Black masculinity that is not confined to gender, sexuality or geographic location. It’s also one that is defined by Black people themselves, not talking heads on television screens that believe in a so-called “post-racial society.”
teleSUR spoke to three Black activists involved in anti-racist struggles about how these movements are redefining Black masculinity.
Imani Henry is the founder and lead organizer of Equality for Flatbush, a grassroots organization that mobilizes Brooklyn residents against police repression and gentrification.
Henry, who played an important role in organizing protests against the 2013 police murder of 16-year-old Kimani Grey, believes that mainstream media’s views of issues affecting Black males are grounded in white supremacy and capitalism.
“They always paint us as drug dealers and hustlers, without giving details about their lives,” he said.
“The ruling class tries to wipe away all of our complexities as people. As far as they’re concerned, we’re still three-fifths of a person. We don’t have dreams or personal lives. They don’t see any of that.”
Despite these characterizations, Henry believes a new generation of racial justice movements, like Black Lives Matter, are smashing outdated conceptions of Black masculinity. These include moving past heteronormative views of masculinity.
“Masculinity is a non-gendered thing. As a trans person, I know masculinity is a social construct. It’s an identity that we define in our own bodies,” Henry said.
“I’m so proud of this new generation for understanding this. I see queer and straight Black women and men who identify with masculinity or femininity hanging out together and understanding that they are one.”
Henry also believes that mainstream media conceptions about Black masculinity fail to show Black men showing love and affection for other Black males. In the case of Grey’s murder, for example, he witnessed tons of the murdered teen’s friends crying and showing love for him while protesting against police.
“It was a rebellion based on love; their rage was righteous,” Henry said. “Those young Black men loved each other...and that’s a beautiful thing.”
Bruce Carter is the founder of Black Men for Bernie, an organization that promotes increased resources for Black youth in U.S. communities. His group supported Sen. Bernie Sanders in his 2016 Democratic Party presidential bid.
Carter, who also works closely with anti-racist movements fighting against police brutality, says young Black males are consistently portrayed in a negative light in the U.S.
“Our political system reinforces this belief that the government has no value for them aside from prison,” Carter said.
“It makes it seem like young Black males don’t want to get involved. It’s reinforced by violent acts broadcasted on television that only show black-on-black crimes. If you violently kill a person who looks like you, it makes it seem like you don’t care.”
The Dallas-based activist says, however, that a new generation of young Black males are stepping up and defining their own masculinity. Younger members of Black Men for Bernie, for example, are spearheading a nationwide campaign to create economic opportunity hubs across the country that combat poverty in urban areas.
Carter believes training young Black males to be business leaders in their communities is one of the best ways to combat outdated and racist notions of Black masculinity.
“When you meet the needs of people you tend to change minds,” he said.
“Unless we become more involved in organizing our people and fight for a seat at the table, we are always going to have the short end of the stick.”
Abayomi Azikiwe is the founder and editor of Pan-African News Wire, a revolutionary news website that covers affairs of African people throughout the continent and the world, including the U.S. He has also been active in protesting police brutality across the country.
According to Azikiwe, abolishing racist conceptions of Black masculinity are inseparable with the fight against capitalism and imperialism.
“It’s clearly related to the overall oppressive conditions under which we live in, going back to the enslavement of African people,” he said.
“That is the basis of these false rationales of Black masculinity that continue to exploit Black males and all Black people in general.”
Azikiwe believes that new generations of racial justice activists are eradicating stereotypes while correcting mistakes made by previous movements. He said there’s increased inclusion of women and members of the LGBTQ community in movements that were largely seen as male dominated.
“There is a greater awareness about gender emancipation and the class analysis of gender oppression,” Azikiwe said.
“Younger people understand these issues and have a better chance of avoiding mistakes of the past.”