Black masculinity in America is often defined by either how it conforms into dominant “respectable” culture or how it diverges from the dominant white culture, but black men often find themselves somewhere on the spectrum – not aligning themselves solely to either societal expectation of black masculinity.
Invisible Man, Got the Whole World Watching: A Young Black Man’s Education (Nation Books, 2016), by Mychal Denzel Smith, explores the definition of black masculinity in America. Smith tackles socially taboo topics such as intersectional identities within the black community and hard issues including violence, mental health, and bigotry. The following excerpt from chapter one highlights Smith’s experience as a black youth.
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My parents sent me to college to become a credit to my race. It was never said in those exact words, but the idea was planted early on that my life would be one where I would defy all of the stereotypes associated with being a black man. I wasn’t allowed to sag my pants, or say the “n-word,” or listen to rap music that had explicit lyrics. My mother corrected my English whenever I dropped my g’s or started a sentence with “me and …” I wasn’t supposed to ever give anyone the opportunity to think of me as less than. Academic excellence was the biggest part of being “twice as good” and therefore a college education was non-negotiable. It was the key to the future my father envisioned for me. He wanted me to be an upstanding citizen with unimpeachable credentials who could gain everyone’s respect so they might see me as more than “just another black man” and come to see me as a man. My parents wanted me to become Barack Obama.
They never said it in those words either, of course, because they didn’t know who Barack Obama was. Hardly anyone did until July 27, 2004. He was an Illinois state senator with no national profile. He wrote a memoir that was released in 1995 that had a modest public reception. He ran for Congress in 2000 and lost. But four years later here he was, a candidate for an open U.S. Senate seat and being tapped to deliver the keynote address at the Democratic National Convention. I didn’t see the speech, because I didn’t see any of the convention, because I thought electoral politics was inherently corrupt and useless. The first election I ever paid attention to was determined by hanging chads and the Supreme Court, and ultimately gave us George W. Bush as president. I wasn’t about to put any faith in that kind of system. But I heard plenty about Obama’s speech the next day. My father was gushing about it. I had never known him to have any strong political opinions. My parents read the newspaper every morning and watched the news every night, but that was the extent of their political dedication. The most they said about politics to me and my little brother was that voting was important. But now, after hearing Obama speak, suddenly my father was a pundit. He was so impressed, he wished Obama were the one running to defeat Bush’s reelection campaign instead of the settled-for John Kerry. Obama was everything Kerry wasn’t. Naturally charismatic. A dynamic speaker. Youthful. Relatable. Black.
But the right kind of black. The successful, respectable kind of black. The kind of black that was “twice as good,” that made itself known and then faded. The kind of black that would allow people to just see a man. The kind of black man my father was raising me to be. I was curious enough to want to see what had my father, and everyone else, so excited. It wasn’t hard to find out, thanks to 24-hour cable news. All I had to do was turn on CNN and witness Obama on a loop, saying, “There’s not a black America and white America and Latino America and Asian America; there’s the United States of America.” There was more to the speech, but that was the part that got repeated the most, and I wasn’t impressed. Obama seemed to be trying to get the country to forget about racism at precisely the same time I was ready to raise the most hell about it. He was emerging as the kind of figure I had been taught to admire, but I did everything to reject the moment I started seeing the world differently. I was born in 1986 in Washington, D.C., when Ronald Reagan was presiding over the early phase of the War on Drugs. I grew up the son of a career Navy man in Virginia Beach, Virginia, during the 1990s, while Bill Clinton triangulated politics, exploded the prison population, and slashed welfare. I entered high school the year of George W. Bush and purged voter rolls. A conservative America was the only America I had ever known, and before 9/11 I didn’t think to question it. I was the son of a Navy man who had served under Republicans and Democrats and never uttered a single negative word about either in my presence. He was proud to serve his country and carry out his missions no matter who was commander in chief. My mother always made sure I was reading black authors and learning black history, but that didn’t carry over into a formalized ideology. I didn’t seek out any political education on my own, and living inside the bubble of American-born ignorance suited me just fine. But after the towers fell and Bush took the country to war in Iraq, the apolitical stance I’d adopted became insufficient to help me process what was happening in the world. I was unclear about where to turn to make sense of it all. Until I found The Boondocks.
The first time I saw Aaron McGruder’s comic strip The Boondocks was in the July 1998 issue of The Source magazine with Master P on the cover. I couldn’t actually listen to any Master P records in my house, but my mother always supported reading, so I talked her into letting me get a copy of The Source. And there, after reading about the LL Cool J – Canibus beef, I saw Huey, Riley, and Caesar being everything my parents raised me not to be. They weren’t corny like the characters in Jump Start and Curtis, the only two black comic strips in my local newspaper. But the Internet is magic, and when my cousin, Marcus, showed me that not only did The Boondocks exist in the form of two book collections but could also be seen daily on Okayplayer.com, it was as if the blackness messiah had come down to lay hands on me personally. I found it just as McGruder and the strip were hitting their anti-Bush administration stride, calling them out for lying about weapons of mass destruction and the ways in which the U.S. government had previously supported Saddam Hussein. But at the same time, McGruder was also skewering contemporary hip-hop culture, criticizing the crass materialism and obsession with gangster culture. And while the daily strip was explaining current events, reading the collections introduced me to part of the canon of black consciousness — Huey P. Newton, Frantz Fanon, Public Enemy, and Malcolm X. I’d known Malcolm for most of my life. There was one piece of art I can remember hanging on the wall wherever we lived. It was really simple — a drawing of the heads of three major Civil Rights–era figures, something you might find from a street vendor or at an African or African American themed festival in your town. Ours was of Martin Luther King Jr., the Honorable Elijah Muhammad, and Malcolm X. Malcolm was in the center; his head was the largest.
One of my fondest early memories is of a Black History Month program that my father participated in while we were living in Naples, Italy. It was the Navy’s way of recognizing that, indeed, Black History Month was a thing and there are black people in our ranks. They had different service men and women dress the parts of notable black historical figures and then deliver speeches in character. I was four years old, and I watched the program from a theater balcony as my father, already kind of looking the part, stood and delivered as Malcolm X.
Then, in second grade, I chose to do my Black History Month project on Malcolm X. We were tasked with turning shoe boxes and paper towel rolls into a kind of movie reel that would have images and words about an important black historical figure. My mother took me to the library to check out all the (age-appropriate) books I could about him. My father let me borrow some of his books, too, including his copy of The Autobiography of Malcolm X. I didn’t understand much of what I read, but I knew the words excited me. I knew Malcolm excited me. He meant something special to me even before I could articulate what that something was. Malcolm X excited me because he was dangerous. I knew that much because when I gave the presentation of my project, several of my white classmates started crying and my teacher made me stop before I finished. It was about three or four of them, one right after the other, their faces turning bright red with only their tears to interrupt the discoloration, upset as I told them about how Malcolm X believed in fighting “the white man” by any means necessary and he brandished the guns to prove it. I remembered this episode when, at sixteen, I reread The Autobiography of Malcolm X. I was actually able to understand it this time, and I was better able to say what it was about Malcolm that filled me with pride. He was a student first, devouring every bit of knowledge that he could, and a teacher second, imparting his hard-earned wisdom to a people rejected from formal schooling. His uncompromising truth-telling made white people uncomfortable, so much so that whenever I brought him up in my history classes, my teachers quickly pivoted to Martin Luther King Jr. and nonviolence and dreams and color-blindness. I knew Malcolm was a threat — my second-grade classmates’ tears taught me that — but when I finally came to understand why, I held the threat close. The threat represented a truth I had, to that point, failed to see. Malcolm taught us that white supremacy was the enemy of self-love. He preached pride in our blackness as both a birthright and a tactic against an American system of devaluation. And he was killed for it.
I liked the idea of being that powerful and hated the idea of being defined by America’s racism. There had to be more to being black than the slavery and KKK I learned about in second grade, or that kid calling me a nigger in sixth grade, or a teacher advising me not to speak Ebonics in the eleventh grade, or my parents telling me to be “twice as good” all of my life. Malcolm X, as I knew him, was the perfect amalgamation of black genius and confidence needed to resist the system. He was my most important teacher, but following his example meant seeking more. I wasn’t going to find them at school because we had only ever been assigned two black authors and learned about the Civil Rights movement in half of a single class period. And I wasn’t going to find them at home, because we had taken down the Elijah/Malcolm/Martin portrait and never replaced it.
The teachers most readily available to me, who followed Malcolm’s model, came from hip-hop. My parents may have been able to regulate my listening choices when I was ten, but at sixteen I had the Internet and cashiers who didn’t check my ID at the CD counter. I was free to consume all the curse-word-laden gangsta rap my ears could handle. It was never just the gangsta shit that captivated me, though it did speak to a certain sense of rebellion that lived dormant underneath my shy, reserved persona. But as the wars raged on and the massive assault on civil liberties took root, politics was becoming more central to my life and I wanted music to reflect that. Hip-hop’s history gave me Public Enemy, Ice Cube, and KRS-One, the truth-tellers of their time following in the tradition of Malcolm. They were just as uncompromising and unflinching in their critiques of American racism, with the added bonus of some hard-ass beats accompanying them.
Hip-hop’s present was giving me the “conscious” rappers — dead prez, Common, The Roots, Talib Kweli, and Mos Def. They would balk at the label ascribed to them, but their music was a portal to a certain type of consciousness that didn’t get the most airplay. They were the best rebuttal against the claim that hip-hop was all about guns, drugs, money, jewelry, cars, and sex. Mos Def emerged as my favorite of the bunch, with his heavy Brooklyn accent dripping off his hyperliterate rhymes. Listening to his album Black on Both Sides was like a religious experience for me. He was talking about the theft of black culture, corporate greed, racial double standards, the oppression of a police state, addiction, practical street survival tactics, and self-worth. There wasn’t another hip-hop album that felt like it was handcrafted with me in mind.
In between the generations represented by Public Enemy and Mos Def was Tupac. He was killed when I was ten years old and was the first celebrity whose death I had any feelings about. I was sad and confused, because I was truly convinced that Tupac was invincible. He was the ultimate outlaw figure of my childhood, representing everything my parents wanted to keep from me —tattoos and guns and thug life. A total disregard for authority and figures representing authority. But I knew Tupac had resonance beyond pissing off my parents and Dan Quayle. When I reengaged with his music at seventeen years old, his legend was wrapped up in so much mythology, it was near impossible to untangle the facts from the myth. He was the son of a Black Panther, started the East Coast–West Coast rap beef, beat up the Hughes brothers, survived five gunshots, faked his own death, and was chilling in Cuba waiting to return like Christ. He was the hip-hop generation’s Robert Johnson or Jimi Hendrix — a figure whose life and death were shrouded in mystery, and because of that his musical and cultural influence became inescapable. But Tupac was also a political figure, articulating the rage of a generation that took to the streets in rebellion (called riots by the rest of the world) because the police could beat Rodney King within an inch of his life and be acquitted of all charges brought against them.
In 1994, he told MTV, “We asked ten years ago. We was asking with the Panthers. We was asking with them, you know, with the Civil Rights movement, we was asking. Now those people that were asking, they’re all dead or in jail, so what do you think we’re gonna do? Ask?” I wasn’t impressed by Barack Obama because he wasn’t Tupac. He wasn’t Mos Def or Aaron McGruder. He wasn’t Malcolm X. Barack Obama was my parent’s idea of black excellence: “well” dressed, “well” spoken, advanced degrees from prestigious universities, successful professional, ambitious, nonthreatening, a rebuke to the stereotypes. Twice as good. But he was a politician, and politicians didn’t tell the truth. My heroes were truth-tellers, the people who exposed racism and were committed to fighting in the name of black liberation. They knew there was no sense in asking for freedom. Barack Obama, and the speech that made him famous, seemed to be about denying the need for the fight. He wasn’t even asking — he was accepting. I wrote him off because he didn’t see what I was starting to see. I was going to college to learn how to avoid becoming who I thought he was — someone whose ambition would have them avoid the truth. I wanted to learn how to be the next Malcolm X, or Frederick Douglass, or W.E.B. Du Bois .I arrived on Hampton University’s campus in August 2004 so I could become a Black Leader. Hampton was the only school I applied to, partly because it fit the most important criteria of being a historically black university, but also because I was lazy and loathed doing paperwork. I promised myself to be more disciplined and vigilant in pursuit of the actual revolution. I showed up expecting there to be a whole army of people like me. I expected to engage thousands of other young black budding intellectuals about the politics of racism, and how we might unite and organize to bring down the system, with our struggle-weary professors guiding and cheering us along. Instead I found thousands of mini-Obamas and an administration happy to indulge their delusions. That’s not a totally fair description, but at seventeen that’s what I saw and I wanted no part of it. I told myself that was the reason I didn’t socialize much, that no one there understood me or shared my interests. It could have been true, but I also didn’t give them much of a chance. I’d written them off as apathetic and self-absorbed, as the 85 percent that the Five Percenters, a Nation of Islam offshoot, believed were deaf, dumb, and blind. I didn’t think they knew Malcolm, or knew Mos Def, and therefore wouldn’t know me. So I put my headphones on and tuned them out.
I would win everyone over in class, I thought. I would sit in the back, slouched down and inconspicuous, waiting until the perfect moment to coolly raise my hand and deliver the perfectly worded answer to the question everyone else had tried their hand at but failed to resolve. Everyone would be so blown away, and eager to hear more, that they would let me lead them to the revolution.
That’s how it happened in my head every single time, and not once in real life.
Reprinted with permission from Invisible Man, Got the Whole World Watching: A Young Black Man’s Education by Mychal Denzel Smith and published by Nation Books, 2016.