- Men in Black:Recent Studies of African American Masculinity in the Early Twentieth Century
The foundational work in American masculinity studies published in the mid-1990s—Kimmel's Manhood in America and Rotundo's American Manhood—while extraordinarily valuable, had the weakness of focusing exclusively on dominant (i.e., white) constructions of gender and neglecting marginalized and minority men. Even Bederman's equally important Manliness and Civilization, while effectively integrating the study of masculinity and race, nevertheless directed most of its attention to European-American authors and their texts as well as to dominant conceptions of manhood. As a consequence, there was a widespread anticipation of and call for studies of minority masculinities by the middle of the decade. Ross's Manning the Race and Summers's Manliness and Its Discontents have responded to that call with an examination of the construction of masculinity by African Americans in the Progressive Era and the Harlem Renaissance. Surprisingly, the books reaffirm many of the findings of the earlier groundbreaking works and, in the process, reaffirm both the power of dominant gender constructions during the Progressive Era and the value of the previous scholarship on those formations. [End Page 453] Ross's Manning the Race is an expansive and ambitious study of a variety of African American responses to Jim Crow racial policies in the early twentieth century. While Ross has difficulty at times unifying his book under a central analytical focus, his isolated analyses are intriguing and compelling. Reading more like a loosely connected series of essays, the book participates in different academic discussions, and it is somewhat misleading, as I have suggested above, to say that the book arises solely out of masculinity studies. (Summers's book, on the other hand, participates more exclusively in this field.) In many ways, Manning the Race engages more fully with the race studies tradition, including those works that have already attempted to bridge the separate discussions (such as Carby's Race Men, Harper's Are We Not Men?, and Blount's and Cunningham's Representing Black Men) as well as older work on the Harlem Renaissance, like Lewis's When Harlem Was in Vogue and Huggins's Harlem Renaissance. This effort to speak simultaneously to different scholarly traditions and to integrate different theoretical approaches creates some problems for Ross with regard to the study of masculinity, as I will explain later, but first I'll focus on what the book accomplishes.
Manning the Race is divided into three sections. The first part examines the theme of mobility in black literature and sociology during the Great Migration. Here Ross directs our attention to the race tracts and academic studies of Washington, Du Bois, Haynes, and others, and to several New Negro autobiographies, such as those of Pickens and White. The second part studies the dynamics of patronage in the Harlem Renaissance by looking at figures like Du Bois, Ovington, Park, McKay, Hughes, Locke, and Van Vechten. The third part explores the gender and sexual dynamics in urban folk novels of the Harlem Renaissance, particularly the works of Fisher, McKay, Fauset, White, Larsen, and Thurman.
The first part, especially the work on black sociology, is the most provocative and original portion of the book. Ross argues that mobility was both a virtue for blacks (it was symbolic of rapid social progress and of upward class mobility, and it came to be associated with modernity) and a liability (it evoked anxieties among middle-class black and white observers about the overly rapid development of the Negro masses, and it produced worries about the sexual mingling of whites and blacks in a circulating, urban population). This conflict provoked various responses. Race albums like Booker T. Washington's A New Negro for a New Century depicted staid, bourgeois [End Page 454] black men and women in an effort to illustrate the stability and stasis of the race. Black male sociologists...