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Boys to Men: Getting Personal about Black Manhood, Sexuality, and Empowerment
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A few years ago my ten-year-old son Elijah came home from school singing the lyrics to Soulja Boy’s hip hop anthem “Pretty Boy Swag” and rehearsing the dance move that the song gave birth to. While I was more than a little amused watching my bookish and rhythmically challenged son rehearse his swag trot, my fun was brought to a screeching halt when he began to recite the lyrics. Even though he was singing the so-called PG version of the song, the R-rated messages of misogyny and playa-masculinity were coming through loud and clear. As I value Socratic modes of parenting, I decided to engage my son in a discussion about this pretty boy swag phenomenon in ways that would hopefully resonate with him. I started the discussion by asking Elijah to define the term pretty boy. He responded that a pretty boy was kind of like a pimp; someone that looked attractive and that all the girls really liked. Rather than explain to him what a pimp really was, I made him look the word up in the dictionary and read the definition aloud. As he was reading the definition to me, his mouth gaped open in disbelief. “You still want to be a pimp?” I asked rhetorically when he was finished reading. “No,” he responded earnestly. “Why would anybody want to be a pimp? That’s messed up.” Given that I teach my son to embrace antisexist modes of masculinity, he immediately grasped why referring to himself as a pimp and celebrating playa-masculinity was problematic. If I was comforted by my son’s response once he understood the meaning of the words that he was singing, I was stunned at just how insidious and pervasive these destructive notions of black masculinity have become in the twenty-first century.

After my talk with my son, I decided to investigate the lyrics to the song further to see what else he was being exposed to, and discovered that the song was also virulently homophobic. At one point in the song Soulja Boy spits, “I’m pretty boy swaggin’ in the club I feel sexy/No homo shawty but my chest is straight flexin.”1 The expression “no homo” in hip hop culture is shorthand for “I’m not a homosexual.” This expression is used almost exclusively by black men and typically in circumstances where men are expressing affection toward one another or articulating themselves in such a way that could be deemed weak or unmanly. Given that the label “pretty boy” denotes a black man that places a high premium on his overall appearance and uses charm and charisma rather than brawn and thuggery to seduce women, someone who self-identifies as such would be particularly vulnerable to being maligned by his male peers as a “homo” or a punkass. When Soulja Boy says that he “feels sexy” in the club—a statement that tends to be associated with women not men—he follows with the line, “No homo shawty but my chest is straight flexin,”2 in a clear signal to heteronormative black men that he is indeed straight despite his suspect language use.

Its important to note that this “no homo” phenomenon is not the exclusive purview of hip hop culture, the whipping boy of a host of conservative institutions, including many so-called respectable black institutions such as the black church. Baptist minister and popular CNN pundit Roland Martin is a case in point. He made headline news when he tweeted several blatantly homophobic remarks during the Super Bowl. The most egregious involved comments about a titillating commercial that featured sculpted soccer superstar David Beckham in seductive poses modeling his new line of men’s underwear. Martin tweeted that men who liked the commercial were not “real bruhs” and that people should “smack the ish” out of them.3 When Martin first encountered pushback from gay activist groups and individuals over Twitter he shrugged it off, claiming that he was joking and that his words were being taken out of context. Though Martin’s tone changed from dismissive to apologetic after the controversy became headline news and CNN temporarily...

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