- LOOKING FOR LEROY: Illegible Black Masculinity by Mark Anthony Neal
What is black masculinity? How is it imprinted in contemporary popular culture? Many recall the photo of Lebron James on the cover of a popular women’s magazine posing like King Kong, or the attempts by the Ferguson, MO Police Department to demonize Mike Brown after he was shot and killed, and even then-Senator Barack Obama was briefly demonized for his affiliation with his minister, Jeremiah Wright.
Mark Anthony Neal’s Looking for Leroy: Illegible Black Masculinities pokes and prods at the way black men are bound or scripted into bodies that are “legible” only as pimps, petty criminals and “hip hop thugs” (3). The use of Hank Willis Thomas’s 2011 Strange Fruit photo of a young black male hanging by the arm from a noose with a ball in his hand wearing only basketball shorts immediately signals the “illegible” masculinity Neal is about to explore. Neal questions and challenges media representations of black bodies; he challenges the “tried and tested” construction of “legible” black male bodies that situates them as “props” to justify historical and contemporary lynching of black male bodies (5). He calls for a queering of black masculinity in the popular psyche that not only embraces “queering sexualities but also queerness as a radical rescripting of accepted performances of a heteronormative black masculinity” (3–4). In a landscape filled with a focus on black males, Neal’s book reminds us to discard “legible” black male bodies through the vector of Gene Anthony Ray, Avery Brooks, Jay-Z, Idris Elba, R. Kelly, and Luther Vandross—“illegible” figures of black masculinity in popular culture.
Thus there is no surprise that the book opens with a discussion of how the most “legible” black male body is often thought to be a criminal body and/or a body in need of policing and containment—incarceration (5). Neal challenges the public attitude/perception of black males that he says “plays out in every institutional arena from public education, the labor force, and health care to the criminal justice system” [End Page 145] (5). Similar to Haki Madhubuti’s project of black masculinity (Black Men: Obsolete, Single, Dangerous: African American Families in Transition, 1991), Neal adroitly challenges prevailing images and meanings of black masculinity that vastly differs from the popular consumption of “legible” images and notions.
The first chapter “A Man Called Hawk” is quite effective. Here he examines the career of actor Avery Brooks as an alternative to the performance of blackness that at the time that was either “cutting-edge cool or the paragon of black respectability” (8). He credits Brooks with slipping this dichotomy and displaying the full capacity of black expressive culture.
The second and third chapters continue to invoke Neal’s legibility/illegibility discourse through the rapper Jay-Z and the hit HBO series The Wire. In the chapter “My Passport Says Shawn” he adeptly argues that Carter and his rapper persona Jay-Z represent “fertile textual sites to extrapolate a cosmopolitan hip-hop masculinity that deftly challenges the prevailing tropes of (black) masculinity…in mainstream hip-hop culture”(9). In fact, the chapter begins by asking: “Can a nigga be cosmopolitan?” to evoke his argument for a “cosmopolitanism that finds resonance in the concept of the ‘Katrina generation,’ those black bodies deemed little more than ‘refugees’ by corporate media, reinforcing presumed inhumanity and foreignness of this population” (36). Neal analyzes Jay-Z’s lyrics to arc the argument forward that in cosmopolitanism are possibilities for hip-hop to create multiple, shifting identities and lifestyles that can be sampled, discarded, and reformulated (37). Looking closely at Carter’s lyrics, Neal suggests that he represents both a local and global notion of cosmopolitanism; he is a man with “subaltern sensibilities” (85). But while he wonderfully critiques hip-hop artists for remaining “wedded to concepts of realness or authenticity that are decidedly local”(37), I was hoping Neal would place more emphasis on the fact that these artists do not truly control their art—globally or locally...