- Looking for Leroy: Illegible Black Masculinities by Mark Anthony Neal
Looking for Leroy: Illegible Black Masculinities is Mark Anthony Neal’s fifth book, and as such, it continues his quest to articulate the aesthetic predilection of what he has previously labeled the “post-soul” generation—those born after segregation and who came of age during the rise of hip-hop. The cover art features a shirtless black male athlete dangling lifeless with his hand ensnared in a hangman’s noose as he palms a basketball. The image underscores the hypervisibility of black men, particularly in relation to athletic prowess and physicality in general, and it communicates how easily black men can fall prey to and be ensnared by the trappings of so-called success. However, it is important to place Looking for Leroy in the [End Page 173] context of the George Zimmerman trial; Neal’s text was published just three short months before Zimmerman was acquitted for fatally shooting an unarmed African American teenage boy, Trayvon Martin, on February 26, 2012. Situating Neal’s work in light of this trial and other similar court cases that captured the public’s attention—those in which black men feature prominently either as assailants or as victims (sometimes occupying both positions simultaneously)—highlights the severity and urgency of Neal’s mission to wrest the black male imago from the white psyche, to use George Yancy’s parlance.1
Neal contends that “the act of Looking for Leroy, like the search for Langston before him, might represent a theoretical axis to perform the kind of critical exegesis that contemporary black masculinity demands.”2 To that aim, he attempts to reread or make legible the bodies of black male actors and public figures such as Avery Brooks, Jay-Z, Idris Elba, R. Kelly, Luther Vandross, Denzel Washington, and Barack Obama. The book’s title is an obvious riff on Isaac Julien’s 1989 film Looking for Langston, which offered a reclamation of Langston Hughes as a black gay male icon of the Harlem Renaissance. Neal’s choice of title is apropos of the configuration of progressive post-segregationist black masculinities that simultaneously mirror the emergence of Alain Locke’s “new Negro” of the 1920s and 1930s, while also signifying the absence and repression of queer voices in Locke’s original concept. Picking up where his last book, New Black Man (Neal, 2005), left off, Looking for Leroy evokes Leroy Johnson, the fictional character from the movie Fame (Alan Parker, 1980) and the ensuing hit television series by the same name (NBC, 1982–1987) as a conduit for conveying the complexities of black masculinity in the post–civil rights era.3 As a corrective to Locke’s oversight, Neal uses the sexual ambiguity of both the character of Leroy and the actor who portrays him, Gene Anthony Ray, to queer contemporary representations of black masculinity.
Neal uses the term queer not only as a reference to nonnormative or transgressive sexuality but also as “a radical rescripting of the accepted performances of a heteronormative black masculinity.”4 If, as Neal contends, the black man as criminal is the most “legible” body, then Leroy’s example offers alternative vistas for rereading and imagining black male subjectivities. This newly proposed legibility should in no way be read as a conciliatory gesture on Neal’s part to provide mainstream white America with a more timid or safer version of black masculinity. On the contrary, Neal turns to the work of Seth Clark Silberman and Andrew Ross to discuss Leroy’s “fierce legibility” as a companion to the work of scholars like Richard Majors and Janet Mancini Billson, who unpack black male performances of the “cool pose” as a way to navigate [End Page 174] urban environs.5 Neal’s use of fierceness is another “theatrical response to the phenomenal pressure exerted upon black males,” one that, though still “cool,” challenges bourgeois and working-class notions of and societal constraints placed on black male public comportment.6
In the first chapter...