- Black Masculinity and the U.S. South: From Uncle Tom to Gangsta
Over the past two decades, place and space have taken a prominent role in the study of identities. The field of cultural studies, fueled by new discourses in postcolonialism and postmodernism, has become saturated with works that examine identity construction at the intersection of race, gender, place and space. This approach has been especially prevalent in the study of black masculinity, which has been a site of public and scholarly discourse for decades. However, few works have analyzed texts within the context of cultural history to dissect the construction of black masculine identity in media. In Black Masculinity and the U.S. South: From Uncle Tom to Gangsta, Riché Richardson ambitiously attempts to describe and explain the ideological and political factors that shaped the construction of black masculinity in the South. She argues that "an engagement of black men in the South is crucially relevant to the more general dialogue about black masculinity in the United States" (18). Using several books and films as case studies, Richardson attempts to show that the othering of black men through mass media and political contexts has its origins in Southern ideologies and racial hierarchies legitimized by violence towards black men (and women).
Richardson's argument is in many ways antithetical to that of Paula Massood, whose 2003 book, Black City Cinema, emphasizes the idea that the city—as a psychological space and physical place—has been vital to the development of African American identity. Richardson argues that the tendency of scholars and mass media producers to link the black male "authentic" to the city dehistoricizes the development of black masculinity in popular media from the early twentieth century. This, she claims, has resulted in the normalization of a geographical dichotomy between Northern (urban, hypermasculine, revolutionary) and Southern (rural, brutish, passive) constructions of black masculinity.
Richardson weaves geography and time closely into her textual analysis of her selected works, highlighting how the black male image is inextricably intertwined within historical space and place. She begins the book with an extensive look at the characterization of black masculinity and its framing as the antithesis to whiteness in Thomas Dixon's The Clansman, which inspired D. W. Griffith's Birth of a Nation. Both works served to advance an ideological agenda of white superiority, and the images of the bestial black male rationalized and justified lynching as a means "to keep blacks in the subordinate, subservient 'place' that had been sanctioned by custom during slavery in the antebellum South" (25). Richardson contrasts the depictions of black masculinity and the noble Southern white man with those in white Southerner William Bradford Huie's 1967 novel The Klansman, and the movie it inspired.
What Richardson reiterates throughout the book is the idea that even works that claim to emphasize the urban black male image construct—and deconstruct—black masculinity from a genealogy that grew from the South. For instance, in her analysis of the Spike Lee films Malcolm X, School Daze, and Crooklyn, Richardson shows how the urban black man has become the embodiment of normative black masculinity at the expense of the disempowerment of Southern black masculinity. These films, she argues, reflect Lee's attempts to legitimize Southern black men as being intellectually inferior to their Northern and urban counterparts while at the same time the South maintains an idyllic charm. As she notes, "Lee's representations of black Southerners in this film has not evolved far from the prevailing tendency within black nationalist thought of the 1960s to romanticize black Southerners in order to claim [End Page 181] an authentic black historicity and ancestry in the United States, while, paradoxically, constituting the urban as the site of the most vital and authentic contemporary locus of blackness" (192). She makes similar claims with Ralph Ellison's Invisible Man, in which one of the characters, Trueblood, embodies the Southern brute that whites demonized and from which Northern blacks distanced themselves.
Richardson treats Trueblood as...