Black Male Studies and Contemporary Black Art
Delivered at the Columbia Museum of Art, December 9, 2021
In his landmark philosophical text, The Man-Not: Race, Class, Genre, and the Dilemmas of Black Manhood (2017), philosopher Tommy J. Curry argues that anti-Black misandry — the systemic and institutional victimization of Black men based on their raced maleness — is a permanent fixture in the United States. Black maleness, according to Curry, must be considered a site of sexual victimhood, torture, abjection, and violent death, rather than as a site of a presumptive extension of white male privilege and hegemonic masculinity. In my estimation, this double-turn toward the study of anti-Black misandry, which is defined as the particular hatred of and targeted violence against Black men based on their biological maleness, and to the formation of a new field of and framework for analysis, Black Male Studies, comprises the most significant development in African American Studies in the twenty-first century. Curry and his text have signaled the arrival of a new philosophical focus and analytical equipment within Black Studies, aligning the contemporary trend of framing the ontological permanence of anti-Blackness, popularized in academic circles by Frank Wilderson’s Afropessimism and in popular-intellectual life by figures such as Ta-Nehisi Coates and Nikole Hannah-Jones, with an empirical and archival focus on the vulnerability and victimization of Black men. (If anyone is interested in a concise and hard-hitting critique of Afropessimism as a school of thought, I would recommend a September 2021 essay in The Nation by the incomparable Greg Tate, who just passed away on Tuesday, may he rest in peace.)
In the field of Black literary and cultural studies, perhaps the best-known example of this violent anti-Black misandry is located in Toni Morrison’s canonical novel, Beloved, for which a Black Male Studies framework can provide a conceptual idiom. In Paul D’s flashback to his time on a chain gang, the narrative remembers that “occasionally a kneeling man chose gunshot in his head as the price, maybe, of taking a bit of foreskin with him to Jesus.” This graphic scene of sexual exploitation of Black maleness, under threat and reality of violent death, at the hands of white men has been described by the literary theorist Darieck Scott as “the tale of the sexual exploitation of black men by white men, under the system of total control which whites enjoyed over black bodies.” Such embodied vulnerability, Black Male Studies might add, is 1) a matter of anti-Black violence across sexes, which has been underemphasized, to say the least, by the historically over-corrective academic tendency to focus on Black women’s vulnerability and abjection in the archive of slavery, which Morrison’s literary imagination tended to do as well, and 2) that such embodied Black male vulnerability is based in empirical fact and historical data and does not necessarily require literary fabulation, for the archive of slavery and colonialism, it turns out, thanks to Curry’s research, is populated with such incidents over and over again, including, in the Black Male Studies framework, into the post-emancipation period, such as in our own historical moment of digital recordings of state-sanctioned murder against Black men and boys.
Curry outlines the content of Black maleness in terms that comprise nothing short of a Copernican shift from our common-sense notions of gender:
Because maleness has come to be understood as synonymous with power and patriarchy, and racially codified as white, it has no similar existential content for the Black male, who in an anti-Black world is denied maleness and is ascribed as feminine in relation to white masculinity. If whiteness is masculine in relation to Blackness, then Blackness becomes relationally defined as not masculine and feminine, because it lacks the power of white masculinity. Thus, Black maleness is, in fact, a de-gendered negation of white maleness that is feminine because of its subordinate position to white masculinity, but not female, because Black maleness lacks a specific gender coordinate that corresponds to either white maleness or white femaleness — and, as shown later, relates to the white female primarily as rapist. (6)
From this “de-gendered negation of white maleness,” Curry argues that presumed and dominant notions of Black masculinity must come under scrutiny, specifically the common-sense idea that the racial-sexual position of Black maleness borrows or coextends male privilege and hegemonic masculinity from white patriarchy. If Black men are not afforded “a specific gender coordinate” at all, and thus no presumptive extension of white masculinity exists, then the notion that they propagate a toxic version of it — which, to be sure, is still a commonly held belief even in academic research, and even in Black Studies — is not only impossible but profoundly dangerous as it propagates historical justifications for anti-Black violence in the form of racial misandry.
Consider, for instance, how the police murder of Black men, which digital recording has sparked the largest-scale racial justice demonstrations to date in this country, could not be accounted for in any public discourse that I could see as a matter of race and sex, but rather exclusively of race:
To suggest that Black males are, in fact, gendered patriarchs is an erasure of the actual facts of anti-Black existence and a substitution of the white anthropological template at the core of negating Black (male) existence as its end. Michael Brown’s death, like that of Vonderitt Myers, Oscar Grant, John Crawford, Jordan Davis Alton Sterling, Philando Castile, and Stephen Watts, represents the accumulation of an intellectual failure to grasp the complexities and the motivations implicated within the genocidal logics of American racism beyond the categories of modern taxonomy. The Negrophobia that drove white America to endorse lynching as a technology of murder is the same anxiety and fear that now allow the white public to endorse the murder of Black men and boys as justifiable homicides. (7)
What would it mean to have a public antiracist discourse of anti-Black misandry as a fundamental vector and irreducible expression of white supremacist violence in an anti-Black world? Black consciousness regarding anti-Black “anxiety and fear” and “technologies of murder” is of course a fundament of Black psychic life, and yet if anti-Blackness designates the constitutive marker of the odious Enlightenment concept of “race” as the fundamental organization of violence in the western world, then Blackness can be said to designate the cultural and social life that emerges despite and beyond that originary violence. In an anti-Black world, “Blackness” also already designates a foundational tension between horrific violence and phenomenological abundance, and since this tension is, arguably, primarily a problem of the visual field, one might privilege visual art as a way to understand the complexity and richness of this term.
In other words, my primary contention tonight is that an attention to anti-Black misandry as framed by Black Male Studies can also be aligned with notions of psychic resilience, social splendor, and cultural possibility emergent from aesthetic practices regarding representations of Black maleness. Indeed, African American art of the contemporary period, including some of the pieces on view here in 30 Americans, offers counterintuitive meditations on and responses to anti-Black misandry. Black male self-expression and creativity have always been attuned to the strategies of description of and resistance to anti-Black violence, but how might a philosophical attunement to racial misandry inform the reception of contemporary Black art?
Taking the pieces from the 30 Americans collection on display here at CMA, we see representations of Black genderlessness as the proper expression of Black male embodiment through 1) formlessness, an ironic masking or concealment of Blackness that stems from the thought of Ralph Ellison, 2) the will to adorn, an African American aesthetics of embodied and practiced abundance as described by Zora Neale Hurston, and 3) a pattern of Black male opacity in representations of visage and facial expression, linked for me to the thought of Édouard Glissant. It is these three concepts that I want to trace tonight briefly in the hope of converging a reading practice of African American art with the philosophical attunement and political commitment of Black Male Studies.
To begin, Nick Cave’s soundsuits present a direct response to anti-Black misandric violence. Some of you may already know that this series of works, which currently number about 500, began as Cave’s emotive response to the Rodney King verdict in 1992: “And it was in outrage around the verdict of this individual that was violated by LA police. It was me asking myself what does it feel like to be discarded, viewed less than, dismissed as a black male?” Interestingly, these pieces, which began as found-object projects, became over the years more ornate and flashy, and the ones on view here are from 2006:
Quoted within the exhibit is Cave claiming that “this sculptural form… creates a camouflage, masking and forming a second skin that conceals race, gender, and class, forcing to look without judgment.” A deep psychic tension is created for us as viewers between Cave’s claim here of masking and concealing the constitutive social markers of “race, gender, and class” and our cognizance of the original incitement of the form of the Soundsuit series.
In other words, anti-Black misandry is the cause of the very desire to create an ideal visual field unfettered by looks of anti-Black judgment. In this view, these soundsuits must be considered an expression of Black maleness, both as the psychic response to the first skin that marks it for state-sanctioned violence and as a kind of protection or armor against such unfettered violence. Ironically, Black Male Studies would add that this simultaneous articulation of Black maleness and protection is precisely what it means to be genderless in an anti-Black world. These suits, I would thus contend, are the quasi-formal expression of genderless Black male embodiment.
Moreover, the “visceral sensibility” that Cave mentions at the end of this quote speaks to a longstanding Black aesthetic tradition, rooted, at least for me, in Ralph Ellison’s 1952 novel Invisible Man, that associates Blackness with aesthetic formlessness itself. If we define Blackness as the negation of all rigid forms in a bad world in which anti-Black violence is the definitive form of so-called “civilization,” then representations or intimations of the anti-formal, of formlessness, of ephemerality, of “visceral sensibility,” including that of the Black male body marked for violence, suggest a positive definition of formlessness in the Black aesthetic response to anti-Blackness. That is, we cannot view Cave’s claim of second skin as some shameful retreat from the fact of Black male embodiment, but rather as an index of what is still possible within an anti-Black world beginning from and then imagining beyond given formal embodiment.
In this vein, the particular elaborateness and Baroque beauty of the 2006 sound suits here at CMA are of massive importance. I am reminded, that is, of what Zora Neale Hurston described in her 1934 essay, “Characteristics of Negro Expression,” in which she describes an African American cultural tendency, first through linguistic practices, then through home decoration, and finally through religious rituals, that emphasize what she calls “the frenzy of creation” into what she describes as an aesthetics of abundant ornateness that she links in the middle section of the essay to both “the wearing of jewelry and the making of sculpture.” Fittingly, Cave’s pieces here are a fusion, it might be said, of jewelry and sculpture. The layered textures, resplendent colors, and general aesthetic overflow of the Cave sound suits on display here exemplify Hurston’s “will to adorn,” and such adornment is ineluctably an expression of genderless Black male embodiment.
And, of course, there is no greater proponent of both the alignment of the Black “Will to Adorn” with Black maleness than Kehinde Wiley.
The Baroque style that he is famous for at first may appear to be a cultural-political juxtaposition between contemporary Black masculine representation and 17th-century European oil painting technique, ultimately toward elevating the former into some vaunted high-culture status of the latter. Yet such a reading would deny the Baroque impulse already embedded within African American cultural practices, here exemplified by the Black male subjects that inspired the painting, their own will to adorn, described by Wiley as “young Black kids from off the streets of Harlem,” themselves invested in “fashioning oneself into the image of perfection”:
The sheer scale of this painting, needless to say, is a significant part of its adornment impulse, and while the figure portrayed is certainly not characterologically genderless (as in the Cave pieces), the brimming adornment and outright largeness of Wiley’s Equestrian Portrait suggest a similar protective and preservative impulse of Black maleness vis-à-vis racial misandry in an anti-Black world.
Then, finally, there is the matter of faces. Across the exhibit we see formless faces, intimated to be Black and male but with no particular visage:
This pattern is striking in part because the representation of faces has been a deliberate and crucial feature across the history of African American art, usually thought of as a cultural-political technique and strategy for portraying Black folks with dignity and full-fledged humanity, stemming from the first widely-known African American oil painter, Henry Ossawa Tanner, whose iconic Banjo Lesson appeared in the same decade as the codification of Jim Crow society, the ongoing boom of blackface minstrelsy as the nation’s first popular culture, and the violent white supremacist backlash against Reconstruction:
In fact, the field of Black Male Studies examines with special zeal the decade of the 1890s, in which the culture of lynching Black men as white public spectacle and Black political repression took shape alongside the codification of both scientific racism as cultural common-sense and “separate but equal” as federal jurisprudential precedent. Indeed, stylizations of facial expression and representations of singular faces, sometimes alongside body posture, have constituted an indelible feature throughout most of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries, as the careful face-crafting work of Hank Willis Thomas, Barkley Hendricks, and Nina Chanel Abney exemplify in 30 Americans:
The artist quote from my personal favorite of this exhibit, Henry Taylor’s Oh Henry, gets at a sophisticated explanation for why and how this very-contemporary pattern of facelessness has emerged and how it is linked to anti-Black misandry:
Here Taylor’s sense of a “figure with no face” is linked to the imposition of having to be “explicit” or transparent with aesthetic meaning, and thus the omission of eyes and the rest of the face suggests a politics of refusing the demand to be transparent. Since the human face is our primary morphological marker of the very notion of transparency (as we now all understand too well upon the practice of wearing masks during the pandemic), Taylor’s linkage of visage to opacity is particularly significant. In a related vector of Africana philosophy, the Martinican theorist and poet Édouard Glissant theorized that the Black and indigenous colonized possess a “right to opacity” that would protect them from the hierarchical demands of normalization and assimilation that come with full transparency in the eyes of the colonizer. His primary example for the Right to Opacity is the preservation and retention of Creole languages against the demands of a unified Francophone Caribbean colony, a literal lingua franca, yet the larger conceptual point remains that comprehension itself becomes a conduit for racial colonial violence. Opacity, then, is a way to protect against the violence of transparent meaning in an anti-Black world, which demands the comprehensibility and thus coercion of Black people.
Consider, for instance, the commonplace racist white cultural tendency to treat Black and other racial-minoritized people as substitutable, as in when a white person remarks that their Black colleague or acquaintance resembles someone else, usually a celebrity. The singularity of one’s visage has not protected them from such racist interpellation. Rather, the racist consciousness of the colonizer has made substitutability out of singularity anyway, reducing the individual Black person to the racist image of substitutable Black people inhering in the racist’s mind. Ironically, as Glissant would point out, it is the white person’s notion of putative comprehension and transparency that allows for such racist interpellation: “I understand your difference” but only by “relating it to my norm” in a world structured by anti-Black “hierarchy.” The right to opacity, which I read Taylor as invoking through the “figure with no face,” thus functions as Black protection from both singularity and substitutability.
Indeed, the very title of the piece, as well as its inscription across the top of the painting, indicates the theme of substitutability, referring to the 19th-century short fiction writer as well as the Nestle candy bar. In a world in which anti-Black substitutability takes a specifically violent misandric form, as the tragic case of Anthony Broadwater reminded us last week, the Right to Opacity as linked to Black male visage specifically aligns this framework with Black Male Studies. Yet we must also remember that here Taylor ultimately links opacity to beauty: “Sometimes you think it’s empty, but it’s not really empty — there can actually be beauty in that emptiness.” This notion of a beauty that inheres within opacity takes us back to the formlessness of Nick Cave’s ungendered Black maleness, a beauty that emerges as Blackness despite the violent forces of anti-Black misandry.
Amidst such beauty, and as a way of closing, allow me a brief personal reflection regarding my own relationship to both this set of artworks and to the field of Black Male Studies. I first saw 30 Americans in its inaugural travel exhibition at the North Carolina Museum of Art exactly ten years ago. Seeing these pieces, coinciding with the rising star of Kehinde Wiley in public culture, encouraged me to keep going in the pursuit of my doctorate in African American literature. In other words, though I had been thinking about African American art as long as I had been studying literature, it was this collection that anchored my commitment to this vocation — the study of Black culture — during a specially vulnerable moment of my professional development, known in academia as ABD, or All But Dissertation. Some six years later, the appearance of The Man-Not made an even larger intervention in my life, and the work of Black Male Studies, which I took up as a research area immediately in 2017, has been a crucial source of inspiration since. The reason for this is counterintuitive, for it has to do with my own racial identity in addition to my professional one.
Some of you here are familiar with my public-facing commentary this past year on anti-Asian hatred and violence during the pandemic era. Many Black intellectuals have either ignored the violence or exercised a rhetorical maneuver similar to the utterance “All Lives Matter,” in which the slogan “Stop Asian Hate” was reduced by their antiracist designs to “End White Supremacy.” Asian American intellectuals, for our part, only cared to raise our voices upon the murders of six Asian American women on March 16 of this year in Atlanta, but not for Angelo Quinto, Christian Hall, or Vicha Ratanapakdee. For me, it has been a source of deep pain and disappointment to realize that true people-of-color consciousness, large-scale interracial solidarity, and Asian American pride have been foreclosed by the raced and gendered arrangements of 2020 and 2021, including by the very people with the training and education to think and lead otherwise. As I work on the first-ever study of anti-Asian misandry, under the banner of Curry’s Black Male Studies series, it is becoming clearer to me that the study of racial misandry may be a refreshing conduit to establish philosophical overlap between these forms of racial-sexual violence in the anti-Black and xenophobic world we currently inhabit.