Reflections on Black Masculinity: Struggles and Triumphs
*This is a guest post from Dr. Tony Laing, a Postdoctoral Associate at New York University’s Research Alliance for New York City Schools. Dr. Laing is leading an in-depth qualitative study as part of the Research Alliance’s evaluation of the Expanded Success Initiative, which aims to improve college readiness among NYC’s Black and Latino young men. Dr. Laing also teaches gender and sexuality studies at Hunter College (CUNY). His research interests lie at the intersection of K-12 education, gender studies (specifically, constructions of masculinity), and African-American Studies. Dr. Laing’s dissertation, “Black Male Partial (In)visibility Syndrome: A Qualitative Study of The Narratives of Black Masculine Identities at the Pebbles School,” focused on Black masculinity. Specifically, Dr. Laing examined how a group of 12 heterosexual or homosexual high-school aged men constructed, perceived, and negotiated their masculine identities in the context of ideas about masculinity that created obstacles to their success in and out of school. He completed a Ph.D. in Educational Policy Studies from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign in 2014.
This blog post shares certain aspects of my personal journey as a Black male who both grew up in a majority-Black neighborhood and attended an all-White high school (outside of my respective community). It also details my personal struggles with masculine identity perceptions inside and outside of my community. This post also shares some personal accounts of the various social forces that led to certain emotional and psychological difficulties I encountered while traversing different community and educational spaces. These encounters posed certain dilemmas for me when I was seeking to be accepted by Black male peers and adults, which led to personal challenges I faced. What I didn’t know at the time was that I was chronicling my own path and unique perspective on what it meant to be a young Black male.
I grew up in Boston’s Dorchester section, a predominately Black inner-city neighborhood, and noticed that there were differences in how Black males negotiated masculine identities inside and outside of school. It was not initially obvious to me that the media placed enormous pressures on many Black males that induced them to adopt a specific form of expression of machismo.1 Some of my peers sought to embody many stereotypical traits that parts of society deemed characteristic of being “young,” “Black,” and “male.” They played sports, had multiple girlfriends, misbehaved in school, and/or were involved in gangs. Fortunately, my mom was determined that all of her children would graduate from high school and attend college. My educational opportunities, identity/ maleness, and creative abilities were nurtured, appreciated, and supported by my mother.
I did not subscribe to stereotypes assigned to many Black males by members of society such as misbehaving in class, having multiple girlfriends, or being involved in a gang; these unwritten male codes led to some of my peers picking on me repeatedly. They considered me to be an outsider or weak.2 They also questioned and/or challenged my manhood and repeatedly called me “faggot.” Unfortunately, I was not yet aware of Anderson J. Franklin’s encouraging words in From Brotherhood to Manhood: “the survival goal . . . to preserve . . . dignity and maintain . . . respect—particularly . . . self-respect—and . . . gain recognition, satisfaction, validation, and a sense of identity” (25). I was, in essence, invisible (based on class division).
Obviously, I was not literally invisible, but I did not feel myself as being seen by others. I also use the term invisibility to signal complete recognition and acceptance by others for whom I was as a Black boy. This trope of visibility is necessary (as opposed to simply using the word “recognition,” “knowledge,” and/or “respect”) to highlight and impart value to my personal experiences and those of other males, who may have experienced similar taunts growing up from members of certain social classes.
I was also infuriated by some of my peers’ perceptions about me to the effect that I was utterly insignificant. According to Anderson J. Franklin, “Invisibility is an inner struggle with feelings that one’s talents, abilities, personality, and [self] worth are not valued or recognized” due to subtle or overt prejudice, racism, and non-acceptance by others. “Conversely, we feel visible when our true talents, abilities, personality, and [self] worth are respected”(4). Thus, I became visible when I looked past my desire for “acceptance” from others, and “recognized” the value in my own identity and self-worth. Until I realized, however, the repeated taunts I endured reinforced my desire to stay the course in my educational and professional pursuits.
As a Metropolitan Council for Educational Opportunity (METCO) student at Concord-Carlisle Regional High School (CCHS)–an elite public co-educational suburban high school located 17 miles northwest of Boston–I observed that there were many differences between the quality of education and resources afforded to me that were not made available to many others who remained in Dorchester schools.3 As in my own community, I also experienced firsthand the social pressures to adopt specific masculine qualities (e.g. playing a varsity sport, joining gangs, playing street ball, engaging in petty theft (through peer initiation), wearing brand name attire, etc.) and fit in with many of the other METCO students, my White peers and other students of color at CCHS. Very few Black students participated in the CCHS-METCO program and few Black students were enrolled in enriched or Advanced Placement courses at CCHS when I was a student.
I had few Black male friends at CCHS, kept to myself, and did not play what some peers deemed to be “real sports” such as basketball and football. My sport of choice throughout middle and high school was (varsity) track (I was co-captain during my senior year of high school, and won several invitational state meets). After high school, while enrolled at Wheaton College in Massachusetts, I developed a greater awareness and confidence in my manhood and myself, and decided to define my own path and identity, which rendered me “visible.” As Franklin argues, “invisibility involves…adjusting our criteria for being seen or not seen, scrutinizing others’ criteria for inclusiveness, and discerning the difference between tolerance and acceptance.”4
From the start of my 9th grade year at CCHS, I found that some of the guidance counselors viewed the inner city middle school I attended as having been educationally inadequate due to the students’ overall academic performance and the low graduation rate of those students who attended that inner city middle school. Many students did not graduate from the middle school I had attended at the same rate, or with the same academic standing, as the suburban middle school students in the town of Concord with higher grades and access to better facilities and teachers.
In response to some guidance counselors’ views of my academic under-preparation, I decided to prove I could compete academically with my suburban peers in high school. During my sophomore year, I made a request to be enrolled in more challenging college preparatory, enrichment, and honors-level classes. This move to more advanced classes was not easy, and my mother played a role in facilitating this request. She was concerned about whether future educational and academic opportunities might not be afforded to me if I were to continue in special education and remedial classes.
While educators will often deem such interest in improved educational access as a sign of genius on the part of a White male, they tend to often view it as trouble-making when expressed by a Black male (hooks, 2004). In my case, however, this request helped redefine me —I was becoming “un-visible.” 5. Making this move eventually upset some other Black students who were not enrolled in Advanced Placement classes in large numbers. Their antagonism led me to question my identity and “my Blackness,” and led me to also ask myself, “Could I embody both: a quest to do well academically and develop an identity as a Black male?”
I made a transition from special education and remedial classes to a more advanced, college-preparatory curriculum. I also came to realize that I was becoming bidialectal in the classroom.6 This strategy enabled me to use a particular linguistic capital (e.g., Standard English) that the teachers valued while in school, and one valued by my peers (e.g., African American Vernacular English or slang) when I was in my neighborhood. Scholars J. L. Dillard, Geneva Smitherman, Audrey Nelson, Claire Brown and others labeled this ability to traverse different linguistic spaces as “code-switching.”
In attempting to deal with systemic racism (i.e., academic tracking and stereotypical assumptions) about my presence as a young Black male in high school, I had to simultaneously deal with how some family members and others—male and female—in my neighborhood viewed/treated me differently as a result of my participation in METCO and perceived femininity. This experience proved both physically and mentally exhausting.
While my mother nurtured my development, one of my older brothers, who served as a surrogate father to me, disciplined me if I exhibited weaknesses or non-dominant masculine characteristics (i.e., femininity). I regularly struggled with my understanding of my own sexuality as a male. My experience was reflective of Anderson Franklin’s words, “Already cataloged in the back of my mind was every useful lesson I have ever gleaned about [B]lack men and how to be one—or not” (25).7
Looking back, I used two coping strategies to deal with peers and family: I put up a personal front (an external toughness-image) and began scrutinizing others’ definitions of masculinity. Even when I used these coping mechanisms, I struggled socially with peers and male adults; as I had to encounter one set of boys at school (and on the bus to school) and a different set of boys as I got off the bus while walking home. Because of these uncomfortable exchanges, I periodically questioned what it meant to be Black, including developing an outward toughness or personal front.8
My own experience of seeing the relationship between masculinity and school-community based pressures led me to study social constructions of masculinity as an educator. My scholarship explores whether or not young Black men have different, more educative relationships to the pressures related to their own masculinity in communities and academic studies. I seek to understand masculinity constructions as seen from the perspectives of younger Black males. I also realize my own personal experiences do not diverge from those of other Black males. The problems I experienced with my family, peers and community inside and outside the CCHS-METCO program need not be obstacles for younger African American males.
- See Mercer & Julien, 1988; Staples, 1982; West, 1993 ↩
- See Mutua, 2006, 87: “Black men who understand Black masculinity through the lens of physical dominance often demand respect from those they see as being weak.” ↩
- METCO is a busing program that provides educational opportunities for urban city youth to attend suburban schools in Massachusetts, as an alternative to attending local public schools in one’s own neighborhood. One objective of METCO was to increase the diversity in many of the white homogeneous schools, and to expose inner-city youth to quality education (particularly if families had opted to not send their child to exam/private schools in their community) ↩
- Franklin, 2004, 35 ↩
- Ralph Ellison, 1952, p. xv ↩
- Godley & Escher, 2012 ↩
- For example, as mentioned earlier, one of my older brothers instilled in me his definition of what it meant for him to be a strong Black male; this often meant concealing my emotions. I suspect he may have learned this behavior and expectations from my mother or from peers. ↩
- Majors and Billson (1992) wrote about this “toughness-image” in Cool Pose: The Dilemmas of Black Manhood in America. “Coolness” is so important that some Black males reject the friendship of others who play a particular sport or engage in activities that can be construed as a sign of softness or hypersensitivity. ↩
Comments on “Reflections on Black Masculinity: Struggles and Triumphs”
The following experience of mine may help others deal with the real fear of growing up Black and male.
When my Black male students expressed fear of growing up Black and male, they were expressing, by hindsight, what Dr. Laing is expressing above. At the time, my students and I could not figure out of what they were afraid. I told them to rest the problem gently on their souls as they went to sleep, to see if a dream would uncover the fear. The dream was a fear of falling, a relatively frequent emotion in dreams, as they were lifted above their bed. The fear was groundless because they did not have far to fall on their mattress, but that was the fear, nonetheless.
Hope that analogy helps.
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