Southern Cultures 12.2 (2006) 96-98
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One indication of a book's value is its ability to invoke powerful images for the reader, images that it directly constructs and those it might encourage by extension. In the early part of I Am a Man!, the powerful image of white male supremacy remained foremost in my mind. I reflected on Jack Johnson, the first African American "Heavyweight Champion of the World" (1908), and how his success in the world of boxing boldly violated racist constructions of white manhood and civilization; I reflected on all that mostly male "strange fruit" that the NAACP had so meticulously documented in attempts to get the federal government to pass antilynching legislation; I reflected on the image of that fourteen-year-old boy from Chicago who, while visiting relatives in Mississippi in 1955, was tortured and murdered for presumably talking "fresh" to a white store clerk; and I reflected on how massacres of entire African American communities (like Springfield, Illinois, in 1908 and Rosewood, Florida, in 1923) were motivated, in large part, by rumors that a black man raped a white woman.
The fact that white malesupremacy was so deeply gendered and sexually charged is not exactly news. But what we had not fully appreciated was the meaning and consequences of the male supremacy and masculinism within the Civil Rights Movement. To be sure, previous writers have alluded to various "macho" aspects of the Civil Rights Movement in their accounts. But prior authors have failed to systematically identify specific forms of masculinist rhetoric and tactics that were deployed at different moments in and against the movement. That, of course, is another sign of a book's value; its ability to make the reader appreciate the significance of something that had previously been a virtual blind spot.
The conventional view that the Civil Rights Movement was only about race, a struggle for racial equality led by nationally visible African American men, has been challenged by scholars in recent years. While race was, of course, central and [End Page 96] the role played by national leaders (like Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X) was certainly significant, there was much more to the story. In particular, gender-oriented scholars have documented and made visible the major role played by previously unsung women leaders and activists in the movement. Steve Estes's I Am a Man! marks a fresh approach that extends and deepens our understanding of the Civil Rights Movement by allowing us to see it through the gendered lens of masculinist rhetoric and tactics.
Estes defines "masculinism" in contrast to feminism, which strives to eliminate discrimination that produces gender inequality. Masculinism, on the other hand, "embraces the notion that men are more powerful than women, that they should have control over their own lives and authority over others." In the hands of movement leaders, "masculinist rhetoric uses the traditional power wielded by men to woo supporters and attack opponents. It rallies supporters to a cause by urging them to be manly or to support traditional ideas of manhood. It challenges opponents by feminizing them, and therefore linking them to "weakness."
Estes demonstrates convincingly the role of an emasculating masculinism intrinsic to the domination and oppression produced by white supremacists. It was present in the attempted eclipse of black manhood under slavery and then in the Jim Crow system with its omnipresent threat of castration and lynching of black men for presumed sexual improprieties toward white women. By examining crucial phases in the history of the movement, Estes reveals how both white supremacists and civil rights activists framed and counter framed the struggle in masculinist terms, drawing from a narrative repertoire about race, gender, and sexuality.
The core of the analysis begins with the widespread and powerful impact of the World War II experience that emboldened many black veterans to harness their anger and pride to the...