Black Masculinity and James Baldwin’s ‘Another Country’

(These are segments from my much larger undergraduate dissertation titled, ‘You Took the Best, So Why Not Take the Rest?’: Locating a gay black masculinity in the works of Langston Hughes, James Baldwin, and James Earl Hardy. For the purpose of the article, I have removed paragraphs that deal with this idea of a gay black masculinity to deal with black masculinity more generally. If you would like to read the essay in its entirety, please don’t hesitate to get in touch).


When black masculinity is discussed in masculinities discourse, it is often grouped into two common categories. In basic terms, these are: hyper-masculine black masculinity (sexually aggressive, violent, a threat to society), or assimilative black masculinity (the ‘Uncle Tom’, passive masculinity). Both of these constructs, however, originate from a white American discourse, and are enabled to create a black masculinity that is antagonistic to that of ‘heteronormative’ white masculinity. These structural masculine systems serve to de-humanise those that don’t conform and locates them as counter-productive to masculine ideals; they create a ‘macho-effeminate’ binary that disturbs all forms of masculinity. But significantly in regards to black masculinity, the emasculation and hyper-masculinisation of the black male historically originates from colonial and slavery narratives, thus not only is the masculinity of black subjects being attacked, but it is then tied inherently to their race. This is evident from the immediate beginnings of colonial narratives, where:

“the person of the savage was developed as the Other of civilisation and one of the first ‘proofs’ of this otherness was the nakedness of the savage, the visibility if its sex. This led Europeans to assume that the savage possessed an open, frank and uninhibited sexuality—unlike the sexuality of the European which was considered to be fettered by the weight of civilisation.”[1]

Thus, by simply existing the black male is at once demonised for his skin colour and also his non-heteronormative masculinity that has been produced as essentially, explicitly, racialised. From Mercer and Julien’s above quotation, the roots of hyper-masculine black masculinity (and its relation to hyper-sexuality) are founded; what they also go on to root out is the reason for this ‘Uncle Tom’ construction, wherein slavery has debased the black male to, “objects of oppression, [which] cancelled out their access to positions of power and prestige which are regarded as the essence of masculinity in a patriarchal culture.”[2] (For clarity’s sake, when I talk of ‘Uncle Tom’ black masculinity, I refer to it in the context of the passive and assimilative, and not that of a masculinity that seeks to be deliberately harmful to the black community.) These constructions are indeed all deeply linked to racism, appearing as an apparent “threat to the moral order of Western Civilization”.[3] As we will examine later, these oppressive constructions are still consistently perpetuated by contemporary white American society and innately disarm the black male from articulating a masculinity of his own.

[…]

Why James Baldwin’s novel Another Country (1962) is so essential to this essay, and why it is indeed so essential to queer theory in general, is because of the “mobility and fluidity” of gender and sexual orientation throughout the novel that in turn challenges the rigid binaries of masculinity and sexual ‘ideals’.[4] Although the character of Rufus, who I’ll generally be focusing on, lives out and in the pre-constructed boundaries of black agency, his tortured existence in this life offers a stern critique of hegemonic masculinity and heterosexual discourse. Rufus’ untraceable sexual orientation contests tempestuously with masculine expectations and consequently he enacts inconsistent sexual politics, “betraying [his] naively liberal white lovers”, both male and female.[5] Rufus’ venomous relationship with his white Southern girlfriend, Leona, frames his heterosexuality as a corrosive force, embodying the expectations to perform a hypersexual black masculinity:

“Many times […] he had, suddenly, without knowing that he was going to, thrown the whimpering, terrified Leona onto the bed, the floor, pinned her against a table or a wall; she beat at him, weakly, moaning, unutterably abject […] and [he] used her in whatever way he felt would humiliate her most.”[6]

Rufus’ rape of Leona appears several times throughout the first portion of the novel and in committing the act he lives up to the racial fears of white America, miscegenation, the exact reasoning given for the lynching of black men throughout American history. This fear is founded on what was mentioned earlier as the perceived “uninhibited sexuality” of the “savage” located during the colonial period, an image that extends to the urban black male who is alleged to possess a similar uncontrollable savagery that creates an apparent ‘rape culture’ amongst black American men.

However, Rufus is of course not such a simplistic, racist stereotype and the above passage elucidates this—Rufus acts “suddenly, without knowing that he was going too”—naturally this doesn’t excuse his abhorrent abuse of Leona, but Baldwin’s syntax must be noticed: it suggests that Rufus is acting out of expectation, rather than choice. As a black male, he feels the necessity to enact a violent sexuality, even if it leaves him feeling (as it does after the rape scene), “drained and shaking, utterly unsatisfied.” (James Baldwin, p.60). Rufus’ antagonism towards this performance of hyper-sexuality is apparent; he despises his sexual relationship with Leona but, “because black men are denied equal access to the prosaic symbols of manhood, they manifest their masculinity in the most extreme form of sexual domination.”[7] For white America, Rufus is not allowed to exist peaceably with Leona, to perform a heteronormative masculinity, since to do so puts black masculinity on equal footing with that of white masculinity. Thus, the white male is no longer safely superior.

James Baldwin
James Baldwin

To allow Rufus to perform a heteronormative masculinity through his inter-racial relationship with Leona would oppose the stereotype of the ‘dangerous black male’ who should be undesirable to the ‘innocent’ white woman. This is where and why these binaries of black masculinity have been enforced by white American discourse—to protect the ‘superiority’ of white masculinity through denying the black male ‘symbols of manhood’ (in this instance: heterosexual love with a white woman) which threaten its own construction.

But why does Baldwin choose to frame black masculinity in the context of female exploitation? Why choose to have Rufus’ masculinity manifest into, “the most extreme form of sexual domination”, rather than create an alternative black masculinity that is outside the reach of white manipulation? In part, this is to illustrate the extent to which the expectation of black males to perform a hyper-masculinity inescapably weighs down on their lived existence, even if they wish to be outside it. Yet, it is also framing the brutality of Rufus’ heterosexual relationship as a “bleakly tragic failure both of heterosexual love and interracial violence”, and then linking that directly to hegemonic masculinity.[8] Although Rufus may aspire to a heteronormative form of white masculinity, by elucidating the patriarchal violence and racist stereotypes that this would force Rufus to support, Baldwin gives a damning verdict of this system of hegemony.


[1] Kobena Mercer & Issac Julien, ‘Race, Sexual Politics and Black Masculinity’, in Male Order: Unwrapping Masculinities, ed. Rowena Chapman and Jonathan Rutherford, (London: Lawrence & Wishart, 1988) p.106-107 (97-165)

[2] Ibid., p.112

[3] Ibid., p.108

[4] Cora Kaplan, ‘A Cavern Opened in My Mind: The Poetics of Homosexuality and the Politics of Masculinity in James Baldwin, in Representing Black Men, ed. Marcellus Blount & George P. Cunningham, (London: Routledge, 1996), p.36 (27-55)

[5] Ibid., p.41

[6] James Baldwin, Another Country, (London: Penguin Classics, 2001), p.60- all subsequent references are to this addition and will be cited parenthetically in text.

[7] Kobena Mercer & Issac Julien, ‘Race, Sexual Politics and Black Masculinity’…, p. 114

[8] Cora Kaplan, ‘A Cavern Opened in My Mind’…, p.32


by Rohan Rice (Twitter: @RohanRice)

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