- Are We Not Men?: Masculine Anxiety and the Problem of African-American Identity
In recent years there has been no want of critical voices adding themselves to the ever-growing field of study devoted to considering the category of the “masculine.” This work has captured the imagination of the literary and cultural studies academy precisely for how, practiced at its best, it draws on race theory and gender studies, gay and lesbian studies and queer theory, psychoanalysis, and culture theory more broadly. In fact, one could say with a degree of certitude that masculinity studies enjoys at present a kind of intellectual vogue. As with anything that moves in and out of fashion, some of its products burn hot overnight and fizzle, while others make an indelible mark, becoming an important part of the historical record. In the arena of masculinity studies, Philip Brian Harper’s Are We Not Men? is destined to become an important part of that historical record.
In the preface to the text, Harper lays out quite clearly the intellectual and political goals of Are We Not Men? in the following statement:
Because Are We Not Men? is constructed as a set of analytical investigations rather than as a linear argument, and because it is concerned specifically with various types of difference within African-American culture, I may seem in this book to resist taking any identifiable cultural-political stand. On the contrary, though, I am actually striving to register my abiding belief that African-American social difference must [End Page 993] be acknowledged, attended to, engaged, and interrogated, rather than denied or deemed inadmissable, and this belief itself constitutes both a theory of cultural-critical practice and a political position.
And, indeed, he goes far toward reaching those goals in the text. Even more than this, Harper advances a compelling critique of essentializing black authenticity claims. Part 1 is especially useful in this regard. The very fact that Harper begins his investigations with a chapter entitled “Eloquence and Epitaph: AIDS, Homophobia, and Problematics of Black Masculinity” signals for me how far critical discussions of issues of race have come. Harper’s text, in this way, helps us to imagine African American Studies as a field that can sustain work which, even as it sympathizes with the political necessity and importance of a category like “race” to African Americans, critiques the ways in which that category is constructed to include and to exclude certain people. His work further points out the very dangerous implications such narrow constructions of race might have for addressing a health care crisis in the African American community like AIDS, which has unfortunately been rhetorically relegated to the exclusive domain of gay men. By observing—through a series of masterfully close readings—the differences in how both black and white media treated the announcement by basketball superstar Magic Johnson that he was infected with HIV, and the AIDS-related deaths of pop music, disco, and drag star Sylvester and news anchor Max Robinson, Harper helps us to identify the specific, masculinist, discursive forces at work that ultimately make it difficult for African Americans to find a public discourse through which to address the AIDS crisis productively as a broad-based communal problem. Harper puts it in this way: “If, even today, response to AIDS in black communities is characterized by a profound silence regarding actual sexual practices, either heterosexual or homosexual, this is largely because of the suppression of talk about sexuality generally and about male homosexuality in particular that is enacted in black communities through the discourses that constitute them.”
In chapter 1 Harper makes a bold move to center the consideration of sexuality and masculine anxiety in his reappraisal of African American racial identity. Such consideration, however, disappears from the critical mainstream of Are We Not Men? in subsequent chapters [End Page 994] almost as quickly as it appeared until we reach the book’s epilogue. It might have been interesting, for example, in chapter 2 on black nationalism if Harper...