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  • Yearning to Be What We Might Have Been:Queering Black Male Feminism
  • Eric Darnell Pritchard (bio)

It's never too late to be who you might have been.

—George Eliot (Mary Anne Evans)

In yearning: Race, Gender, and Cultural Politics, bell hooks uses the word yearning to describe the "common passions, sentiments shared by folks across race, class, gender, and sexual practice."1 This yearning promotes the "shared space and feeling" that "opens up the possibility of common ground where all these differences might meet and engage with one another."2 Crucial to the engagement of which hooks speaks is self-critique. When cogently applied, self-critique creates the dialogically transformative shared space hooks sees as possible. Similar to hooks's observation, Chicana lesbian feminist Cherríe Moraga writes that we must engage in deep self-critique and get under our own skin as a step toward "entering the lives of others."3 Michael Awkward echoes Moraga's exhortation of rigorous self-critique in his iconic essay "A Black Man's Place in Black Feminist Criticism." More specifically, he examines the efficacy of self-critique in his discussion about the prevalence of the "self-referential discourse" within the formation of male feminism and male feminist subjectivities:4 "To speak self-consciously—autobiographically—is to explore, implicitly or explicitly, why and how the individual male experience (the 'me' in men) has diverged from, has created possibilities for a rejection of, the [End Page 179] androcentric norm."6 He pays close attention to the ways self-referential critique is contested territory within the relationship of men to feminism, writing: "[P] erhaps the most difficult task for a black male feminist is striking a workable balance between male self-inquiry/interest and an adequately feminist critique of patriarchy."7 He notes that scores of black men "have proved unsuccessful" in this endeavor.8 Despite this failing, Awkward maintains that black men can make useful, self-referential critiques to "inscribe a black male feminism."9 Through this rhetorical choice, Awkward establishes and models self-critique as a common feature of black male feminist discourse.

Through self-critique in writing, film, speaking, and performances, Black male feminists have explored patriarchal oppression and male privilege. Thus, one of the lessons for the future of black male feminism, as exemplified in the crucial work by black male feminist scholars, is the importance of being open to stretch one's self beyond one's comfort zone in order to honestly determine and address areas where black male feminism can be challenged and most productive. Of particular import are the ways self-critiques have also pointed out areas where black male feminism can expand its work, thereby turning the impulse of individual self-critique around to inform the project as a whole. As we've seen with black feminism and queer theory, such critique brings about growing pains that are organic to the development of radical critical intellectual projects. Continuing with the tradition of self-critique as a moment of critical collective growth, this essay focuses on additional unchartered waters for black male feminist discourse. I do this through an analysis centered on a slippage in the discourse in which heterosexual and cisgender identities are assumed. This slippage prevents people from seeing one another, privileges some identities over others, and forecloses some of the useful self-critique of privilege from which black male feminism evolved. Consequently, the discourse is not best positioned to actualize the full critical possibilities that we have been helped to see through scholarship in black feminist and black queer studies to date.

Assumptions of heterosexual and cisgender identities within black male feminist discourse runs the risk of promoting forms of sexual and gender normativity that is antithetical to black feminist discourse. As black male feminist critique has grown quickly in the last decade, self-consciousness of the project itself has not engaged some areas necessary to interrogate. Being attentive to the issues of the scholarly discourse disrupts the conceptual standstill that threatens to stagnate the radical potential of black male feminism. An effect of the assumption of heterosexual and cisgender identities is that issues of privilege become ensconced or misrecognized within the discourse despite earnest...


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pp. 179-200
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