A version of this essay appeared in the Chicago Reader a while back.
The image of black men tends to provoke strong reactions in the media, whether pro or con. At the beginning of “Deconstructing Tyrone,” their study of black masculinity, Natalie Hopkinson and Natalie Moore pledge not to get caught up in the antagonistic hype. “The positive-negative thing? We are *so* over that,” they insist.
Even-handedness can certainly be a virtue when approaching a complex topic. But it can easily tip over into a bland refusal to stake out difficult positions — or any positions. The latter seems, unfortunately, to be what’s happening here. The authors are journalists, and they have essentially stitched together a book out of moderately insightful feature articles. There’s one chapter on Kwame Kirkpatrick, the young, black and (allegedly) swinging mayor of Detroit; one on being black and gay; one on females strippers and their dads; one on Buppies raising boys, and so forth. The style is chatty, informed, and ultimately positive, mining the common ground between NPR and Oprah. There are, inevitably, a few forays into more literary territory — in describing video performer Melyssa Ford, for example, the authors inform us that “Her long ponytail sways gently like spring leaves on a maple tree.” Luckily, these moments are few and perfunctory.
Though the book isn’t exactly thoughtful, it does contain a lot of suggestive tidbits. It’s interesting to hear, for example, that gay male style is much more straightforwardly masculine, and much less flaming, than it was a generation ago. It’s interesting to be introduced to Earl Thomas, a professional basketball player who has also made a reputation for himself as an activist poet. It’s interesting to learn that Jay-Z tells white people in his audiences not to chant along to “Nigga What, Nigga Who.” It’s interesting to learn that black men with a high income are less likely to marry than those in the middle-class. And, of course, the interviews with strippers and video chicks are interesting— or, at least, even in the authors’ studiously unexploitative prose, they make sensational copy.
In fact, what’s most frustrating about the book is that it raises so many issues and then leaves them dangling, not only without analysis, but without any sense that analysis is even necessary. The authors spend a certain amount of time discussing media representations of the “down low”; a term for closeted gay black men. But there is no discussion of homophobia in the black community, nor of how important the closet has been , in one way and another to black cultural expression (gospel music wouldn’t be the same without it, as just one example.) Similarly, the book takes several offhand jabs at feminism — but there’s no effort to explore the ways in which feminism has (or hasn’t) failed blacks, and vice versa. A chapter is devoted to interviewing female strippers about their dads — but , beyond a few lame references to a Chris Rock skit, the authors never explain what, if anything, this has to do with race. Certainly, the strippers are black, but their stories of abuse, impoverishment, and the lure of easy money don’t sound much different than those of white sex-workers, from Jenna Jameson on down. The black sex industry may well uniquely reflect black masculinity, but you’d never know it from reading this.
Theory — or at least some kind of point — is important because it gives a book direction; it helps to determine which details are important and need to be developed, and which ones are useless and should be chucked. More than that, though, it gives a work coherence and resonance. Hopkinson and Moore do seem to have a dim sense that they’re adrift, and they’ve tried to rectify the problem by ostentatiously claiming to be using deconstructionism. According to them, deconstruction as a philosophy is meant to “to take apart fake constructions to reach a greater understanding.” In other words, Derrida —an abstruse aesthete who spent his life generating impenetrable prose about unknowability — is here rejiggered as some sort of muckraking newspaperman, battling falsehood in the interest of the uplift. What next? Foucault as advocate of safe sex?
Since they clearly don’t have the slightest idea what deconstruction is, it’s no surprise that, despite the title, Hopkinson and Moore don’t actually use it. Nor do they replace it with any other critical lens. They do occasionally express opinions — they dislike sexist rap videos, for example, they think that “black male-female relationships have become crippled.” (page 103) and they really liked the 1994 Black Male exhibit at the Whitney. But without any intellectual framework, each contention boils down to little more than arbitrary personal preference. For example, the clearest reason the authors can provide for liking the Whitney exhibit is that it was among the first shows to place film stills and news photographs on a museum wall. Whoo hoo. Even when Hopkinson tells the story of a family friend who was convicted, probably wrongly, of murder, she can’t get any moral traction. Instead, the narrative drifts off into the familiar evidentiary minutia of true-crime drama — efficient, entertaining, but not particularly passionate.
In the not too distant past, any book which treated black men as human could have claimed to have a righteous, even subversive, agenda. But that is no longer the case. American institutions — schools, housing, prisons — remain racist and discriminatory. Yet the rise of a fairly stable black middle-class has meant that African-Americans are, at one and the same time, an oppressed minority and just another demographic marketing niche. Race sells, at least to a limited audience. It’s a product as well as a problem.
Hopkinson and Moore probably wouldn’t explain the transformation of racial discourse in quite this way. But they do recognize it and are, in fact, as enthusiastic about it as they are about anything. Thus, they earnestly praise the “Million Man March” because it was a media circus rather than an actual political movement. The march, they say, “launched a new front in black politics in which battles are waged in the realm of perception.” [page 38] This is a comforting thought, surely; changing the world doesn’t require thought, or sacrifice, or discomfort. With apologies to the Beatles, all you need is a PR campaign. Or a 200-page sound bite, as the case may be.
Perception and/or the media were important to the Civil Rights movement too, of course. King and his cohorts were brilliant at manipulating both black and white images, and then beaming them across the world via television. Civil Rights protestors weren’t focused on the images themselves, however, but on what they could get from them — on how they could leverage the perceptions they created into concrete political gains. This is very difficult to do, and especially in the north, it wasn’t always successful. Still, you can’t get anything if you aren’t willing to figure out what you want and develop some sort of strategy, however flawed, for getting there. Hopkinson and Moore seem to think that it they just say something, or anything, then they’re a force for good. Perhaps they’re preaching will entertain the choir. But it’s unlikely to do much more than that.