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MFS Modern Fiction Studies 49.4 (2003) 834-836
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Maurice O. Wallace. Constructing the Black Masculine: Identity and Ideality in African American Men's Literature 1775-1995 . Durham: Duke UP, 2002. xiii + 236 pp.
Despite four hundred years of (r)evolutionary and socially driven "democratic" progress, it is still a troubling paradox to consider the prospect of living as a black man in this country. To say the least, black men occupy a space betwixt and between the normative possibilities of human existence. They are summarily seen and not seen, hated and feared but desired, and likewise discarded and disregarded as productive American citizens, yet they are often emulated in many circles of our society. These perplexing states of being can cause even the most sound-minded man to doubt his very own reality. After all, how does one carve out a space for individual expression in a social realm that seeks to designate and determine the boundaries of one's humanity? How does one create a social ideal/reality that affirms one's purpose in life and individual essence?
These are some of the complicated issues Maurice O. Wallace investigates in his intriguing and highly satisfying study, Constructing the Black Masculine. Wallace's use of an action verb in his title ("constructing") alerts the astute reader to the ever-evolving process of identity formation. For African American men, this process is made difficult by America's "deeply psychic politics of race characterizing," according to Wallace, and its preoccupations with sexual and racial conceptions of the masculine ideal that seem to vex America's racial memory. Wallace deftly considers the dis-ease with which some previous studies addressed the concerns of black men. These studies stage masculinity one dimensionally. Moreover, race is assumed to mean "white," and African American identity stands as a [End Page 834] sociological parody of the ideals of white manhood. These misguided approaches recapitulate what Wallace sees as America's "ideograph," its "propensity to see black men half-blindly as a blank/black page onto which the identity theme of American whiteness, with its distinguishing terrors and longings, imprints itself as onto a photographic negative." This racial surveillance coalesces into a series of figurations, "archi-textual tropes," in Wallace's term, that black men must self-reflexively negotiate as speaking subjects in order to claim those "intrinsic dispositions of selfhood . . . that constitute the black masculine habitus," that space/sphere of discrete metaphysics which allows the subject to strike an ideological balance between race and subjectivity, between nationhood and personhood.
Given Wallace's focus on the visual, that is the ideological and critical gaze of identity politics as it presents itself in the West's political, social, and historical records, it is no wonder, then, that Constructing the Black Masculine is ingeniously framed around acts of seeing. While acknowledging the work of his literary forefather, Ralph Ellison, whose brilliant expos of invisibility stands as a magnum opus for anyone considering a study on the dynamics of the black masculine ideal, Wallace divides his study into three sections. Part 1, "Spectragraphia," situates the complexities of black male subjectivity within contemporary pop culture. Here, Wallace is at his best as he skillfully unveils the "ineradicable afterimage of the black male body in the white mind," following the memory traces present in such popular mediums as magazine covers, still photos, and the artistic works of European avant-garde painters of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. If spectragraphia is, as Wallace determines, "the imperfect—indeed, illusory—cultural vision" of the black male subject, then his investigation of the photographic images of such personages as Mike Tyson, Bobby Brown, and Tupac Shakur by photographer Albert Watson seeks to correct this socially contrived ophthalmological defect. Wallace addresses this issue by shrewdly analyzing the fetishistic nature of narrative scopically written on the bodies of black men and phenomenologically processed through the inner eye/I of the seer, whose teleological mindset "colors" his spectragraphic gaze.
In part 2, "No Hiding Place," Wallace outlines the ways in...