Research in African Literatures 33.4 (2002) 221-223
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On Black Men
On Black Men, by David Marriott. New York: Columbia UP, 2000. xvii + 133 pp. ISBN 0-231-12227-6 paper
"Human existence is a struggle." So goes an Akan saying. As if he had this tragic wisdom of the ancestors in mind, David Marriott writes in his fourth chapter entitled "Fanon's Wars":
Existence may be a struggle for us all, but for the black his being is the effect of a war fought on at least two fronts. He must enter into combat not only with the presentiments and premonitions of a world condemning him to nonexistence, he must also enter the lists against his own image. (88)
This is Marriott's gloss on Fanon reading Richard Wright's dramatization of Bigger Thomas. Indeed, Of Black Men is a tableau of photographic variations on the twin thematic and contrastive questions posed early in Black Skin, White Masks: "What does a man want? What does the black man want?" Marriott's tableau tells an unvarying story: To be black is to live the violent usurpation of the first question, with all the native vicissitudes it portents, by the second. "Black existence" is not what Kingsley Widmer reading Richard Wright some forty years ago said it is—merely a special case of the human predicament ("Black Existentialism," Modern Black Novelists: A Collection of Critical Essays, ed. M. G. Cooke, Englewood Cliffs: Prentice-Hall, 1971, 81). It is an agon all its own.
We are familiar with the social and material aspects of this life of struggle, with the visceral violence, extrinsic and internecine, it exacts, with the more overt signs of what Lucius Outlaw, Jr. calls "scripted limitations on the futures of colored folk" (On Race and Philosophy, New York: Routledge, 1996, xi). Marriott's detective eye, however, is trained not on these brute and brutal facts, but on the subterranean world of "the symbolic role of black men in the psychic life of culture" (vii). From the searing first chapter "Photography and Lynching" Marriott's brilliant and organizing insight is to make photography, photographs of black men, an emblematic distillation of this symbolic role. For in a sense the differing scenes and contents and details captured by these photographs do not matter. On Marriott's reading, all these photographs serve one function: they are a pernicious iconography of black being evacuated of all personal particulars, an undifferentiated object of nameless fear and loathing and perverse desire. The lynching photograph encapsulates the fatal trinity of race, sexuality, and violence that will forever shape and haunt the dreams and fantasies of white men, and of black men. An unobtrusive ironist, Marriott allows us to see [End Page 221] elective affinities between the foundational negrophobia of the lynching photograph, Mapplethorpe's famous negrophilic photographs of the black male nudes, and the lethal consummation of this "racial scopophilia" in Jeffrey Dahmer's serial murders and unspeakable acts of necrophagia recollected, with meticulous solicitude, in his photographs!
The most disturbing and defining picture in Marriott's portrait studies of these "portrait studies" (38) is that of the souls of black men as governed by these very fixating portraits, these mnemonic codes of racist culture. "In this fable," he writes, "our dreamwork is an eye fixed by someone else's fascinations and repulsions, a distorting emanation sent to possess, to consume us" (41). A psychic and cultural life nurtured on a tradition of fearful identification with the image of the monstrous and lynched brute: such is black life. There is for black men this imperious obligation to live life as an unending answer to the founding and complicit images of white identity and black identity. It is an obligation that presides over all emotions and actions: the self-loathing and the fury no less than the pride and acts of self-affirmation. All black acts are under the spell of a racist iconography lodged in the collective unconscious. From that occupied territory, Marriott shows, emanate ostensibly rival forms of self-apprehension and cultural politics. Ostensibly...