- "Any Man's Blues"1:Exposing the Crisis of African-American Masculinity in the Delusion of a Post-Racial United States in Toni Morrison's Home
Men are apt to idolize or fear that which they cannot understand, especially if it be a woman.—Jean Toomer, Cane 20
Introduction: African-American Masculinity and Toni Morrison's Fiction
The ongoing debate over black masculinity and its politics of representation in the literary field has been a continual concern within African-American culture. From the late nineteen-nineties to the dawn of the twenty-first century, the coinage the "post-racial era" by critics such as Paul Gilroy or Greg Goodale and Jeremy Engels destabilized the notion of whiteness and linked it directly to masculinity. More recently Kenneth Warren, in his book What Was African American Literature?, took up the relation between whiteness, masculinity, and race to clarify that racial prejudice remains ingrained in American culture and pervades current social structures and relations due to its patriarchal roots. Likewise, in her insightful study Playing in the Dark: Whiteness and the Literary Imagination, Toni Morrison linked whiteness and masculinity but added the impact of the pervasive "Africanist" influence that served to, eventually, situate the origin of such a link in slavery times. Indeed, black slaves' masculinity was the blueprint for slaveholders to uphold their power and their own sense of manhood. It is then understandable that the image of black men utterly unmanned and degraded as over-sexual beasts by their white counterparts during Reconstruction prompted African-American writers to delve thoroughly into their own internal fissures and contradictions to uphold a rehabilitated version of black masculinity. Slave narratives [End Page 91] penned by African-American male writers paved the way to secure a new understanding of the black man and the politics of representation. The key 1848 text Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass by Douglass himself established the capacity of black men to resist, endure, and prevail with their humanity intact in the national arena.
The politics of gendered racism in the first decades of the twentieth century brought about the shifting ideological circumstances upon which black men conceptualized their sense of manhood. In his seminal study entitled Constructing the Black Masculine, Maurice O. Wallace draws attention to the ways in which black male writers attempted to "combat the demonized or degenerative mythologies of themselves by creating counter-myths" (7). In this light, literary milestones like Jean Toomer's Cane (1923), Claude McKay's Home to Harlem (1928), or Chester Himes's If He Hollers, Let Him Go (1947) challenged and interrogated notions of African-American masculinity and eventually made themselves as vessels for asserting the potential mutability of black manhood. These works offered a more nuanced and kaleidoscopic vision of black masculinity compared to the fixed notions that many slave narratives offered. By showcasing the complexity that accompanied the torturous journey to self-portrayal with regards to black male agency, these pieces of fiction opened the way for new representations of African-American manhood in the modernist era and beyond.
However, it is Richard Wright's portrayal of a highly conflicted and distraught picture of black masculinity in his seminal novel Native Son which positioned—more than any other novel written by a black writer—the reconfiguration of African-American manhood at the center of cultural modes of representation in the Great Depression era. The novel exploded like a literary—and cultural—bomb in post-Depression and pre-World War II America bringing the entire racial history of violence and crime in the United States to the forefront and also determining the course of African-American literature up until now. Among the extraordinary achievements of Native Son, I concur with Wallace's contention that privileges its importance as "the locus classicus of the faults and failures of the racial gaze in American literature," therefore emphasizing yet again the link between black manhood and race (135). Yet, it is important to point out that recent studies on the novel have expanded the notion of black masculinity that Wright's masterpiece problematizes to offer a more accurate vision...