Black Masculinity and Visual Culture
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Black Masculinity and Visual Culture*

I want to inquire into the social circumstances and cultural conditions in which contemporary representations of black masculinity are produced and circulate. Recognizing the dense intertextual nature of electronic visual media, my aim is to unsettle as much as possible the formal and largely constructed ways in which we see and understand visual representations of black masculinity. Much as one might experience them daily through ads, music television, television situation comedy, and sports, my desire is for this text, in effect if not in structure, to approximate the dense and relentless but always rich and increasingly inseparable experience of visual representations of black masculinity.

Self representations of black masculinity in the United States are historically structured by and against dominant (and dominating) discourses of masculinity and race, specifically (whiteness). 1 For example, the black jazz men of the 1950s and 1960s, notably Miles Davis and John Coltrane, are particularly emblematic of the complex social relations (race, class, sexual) and cultural politics surrounding the self-construction and representation of the black masculine in the public sphere. 2 As modern innovators in musical aesthetics, cultural vision, and personal style, these men challenged dominant cultural assumptions about masculinity and whiteness.

And it was through their music and style that these (largely heterosexual black men) defined themselves in a racist social order. For many of us, jazz men articulated a different way of knowing ourselves and seeing the world through the very “structures of feeling” they assumed, articulated, and enacted—from the defiantly cool pose and fine vines of Miles to the black and third world internationalism that framed the ceaseless spiritual and musical quest of Coltrane. Davis and Coltrane, like their contemporaries, enacted a black masculine that not only challenged whiteness but exiled it to the (cultural) margins of blackness—i.e., in their hands blackness was a powerful symbol of the masculine. 3

This figure of the black jazz man was not without contradictions. As a “different” sign of the masculine he was policed as much as he was celebrated and exoticized by white men and women alike. Policed as a social threat because he transgressed the social role assigned to him by the dominant culture and celebrated as the “modern primitive” because he embodied and expressed a masculinity that explicitly rejected the reigning codes of propriety and place. Drugs, sexism, pleasure, excess, nihilism, defiance, pride, and the cool pose of disengagement were all a part of the style, [End Page 401] personality, vision, and practice of an assertive heterosexual black masculinity that could not be confined within the dominant cultural logic. (The lives and careers of John Coltrane and Miles Davis illustrate the complex and wide-ranging relations of gender at play in the jazz world; Coltrane’s wife was a respected member of his band, while Davis often treated women with derision and abuse. My point is that, although the masculinity created by the black jazz man at once challenged dominant white discourses of heterosexual masculinity, with respect to women this same powerful and defiant black masculinity just as often maintained unequal relations of power between men and women. 4 )

These troubling and complex aspects of racial and gender politics continue with respect to representations of black masculinity, from the romanticization of the original gangsta (OG) and neo-nationalist in contemporary rap to the celebrations of the middle class in civil rights discourse. Contemporary images of black masculinity continue to challenge hegemonic constructions of whiteness even as they rewrite and reproduce forms of patriarchal authority, enveloping some of its most disturbing aspects in black vernacular style and expressive performance. 5

The political disturbances and cultural rearticulations of the black masculine these images produce require new contextualizations and different reading strategies. Black heterosexual masculinity is figured in the popular imagination as the basis of masculine hero worship in the case of rappers; as naturalized and commodified bodies in the case of athletes; as symbols of menace and threat in the case of black gang members; and as noble warriors in the case of Afrocentric nationalists and Fruit of Islam. While these varied images travel across different fields of electronic representation and social discourse...