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Engaging Abrahamic masculinity: race, religion, and the measure of manhood.

Concerned with the humanization and transformation of masculinity, I want to share some preliminary thoughts that are part of a long-term project. I want to engage the racial, religious, and economic dimensions of masculinity in North America, an endeavor I call Masculine Work. As an intellectual and ethical enterprise, Masculine Work probes the fields of gender and cultural studies, philosophy, history, and religion. It offers new vistas for the analysis, critique, and transformation of gender in general and masculinity in particular. Masculine. Work is a kindred spirit of more than four decades of gender scholarship initiated by second-wave feminism, including race- and class-based gender scholarship as it is taken up by womanists in the field of religion. Masculine Work aims at addressing the most dominant and pervasive expressions of masculinity today as they are upheld and perpetuated by the monotheistic traditions of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. Also known as Abrahamic religions, these traditions sustain an institutionalized expression of masculinity, which I call "Abrahamic masculinity." In the pages that follow, I want to sketch the contours of an Abrahamic masculinity as it affects African Americans. I return to the analytical and moral imperatives of Masculine Work at the end of this article.

Masculine Dominance

For more than four decades, feminists and womanists have engaged in a categorical critique of masculinity in America. In their writings, male domination and supremacy have been treated as characteristic conduct of all men, inseparably connected to sexism, misogyny, and homophobia. The feminist and womanist critique of patriarchy challenged such an American masculinity. However necessary, their critique seemed to select specific populations of men, and it is specifically African Americans who have come to be seen as the most sexist, misogynist, and homophobic men in the United States. (1) This can be attributed to the longstanding, historically negative perceptions of black men and to their high visibility in the American media as a crisis population. In the past as well as our mass-mediated present, black masculinity has been interpreted in criminal terms. (2) Consequently, African American men play a prominent place in discussions about male dominance and supremacy in America. Because African American men are perceived as exercising these traits with greater intensity than other men, there is a need to revisit the categorical critique of masculinity initiated by feminists and womanists. To this end, a historical, global, and culturally specific analysis is indispensable for any critique of masculinity in racial and ethnic contexts.

The Religious, Historical, and Global Heritage of Abrahamic Masculinity

We should note, of course, that the forms of masculinity that black men are chided for cut across race, class, and ethnicity. Asian and Latino males, Irish and Middle Eastern males, Indian and Italian males, or, for that matter, from any other ethnic groups share and display, in some way or another, sexist, misogynistic, violent, and homophobic tendencies and behavior. Because feminism has made limited forays into most of these cultures, our knowledge of the depth of sexism, misogyny, and homophobia is limited. The same can be said about the various ethnic groups in this country, which, with their particular immigrant roots, have been shaped by religious and cultural traditions that extol the dominance of men over women. This is especially true for those groups that originate from a shared religious and cultural source of masculine ideals, such as Protestantism, Catholicism, Judaism, and Islam. Though diverse in many ways, they also share a dominant form of masculinity, which I suggest to call Abrahamic masculinity. (3)

The ancient Near Eastern legend of Abraham constitutes a pillar and ideal form of masculinity that dominates the world and American society, including the black community. The global power of Christianity, Judaism, and Islam is indicative of the extent to which Abrahamic masculinity pervades the world. We can see this reflected in many of the current global conflicts among and between Christians, Jews, and Muslims. These traditions extol the virtues of Abrahamic masculinity rooted in the legend found in the Hebrew Bible. Genesis 12 to 25 portrays a dominant male who is selected and chosen, for religious purposes, to be the founder of a nation (Israel). He is a property owner who possesses land and slaves; he is a husband and father whose relations with women and children are paternalistic and benevolent. Surrounded by slaves, a subordinate wife and subordinate male relatives, Abraham displays an exalted level of masculinity and social status that is legitimated and ordained by God, the ultimate dominant character in the text. Through Abraham, a tradition of patriarchy is established and continued through his male progeny. Ultimately, this Abrahamic masculinity will develop, expand, and lead to an empire that entails a succession of kings, whose powers and authority are legitimated on theological grounds. Empire is the ultimate end of Abrahamic masculinity.

Feminist and womanist biblical scholars have pointed to the subordinating and oppressive quality of Abrahamic masculinity and to the manner in which it perpetuates and legitimates inequality between men and women. (4) Such masculinity also thwarts the emotional lives and psychological development of children. However, Abrahamic masculinity continues to dominate and inform American culture, including the black community. Historically, African American men have been judged by this standard of masculinity, which, though rooted in religion, has found analogous secular expressions. Men who do not exude or embrace the virtues of dominant masculinity are often viewed in pathological terms: they are perceived as inferior, immoral, and criminal. Men who are not property owners or are not in dominant relationships with women, children, and other men, men who do not actively pursue marriage and procreation or do not engage in projects of nation building are viewed as toxins, lethal viruses, and cancers that ruin the fabric of civilization.

Black America and the Abrahamic Ideal

In the black communities in the United States, bishops, pastors, and ministers extol the Abrahamic masculine ideal; through sermons, media, and men's movements, they chastise those who reject or fail this ideal. (5) At the end of the twentieth century, during the mid- to late-1990s, Abrahamic masculinity as a normative male ideal found widespread public expression. Nearly three decades after the emergence of second-wave feminism and nearly a decade after the emergence of womanism, a variety of men's movements, both from within Islam and Christianity, emerged in the black community. These movements came about at the same time as those men's movements in the predominately white evangelical institutions. The Million Man March (led by Nation of Islam Leader Louis Farrakhan), the Promise Keepers in 1995, and the Manpower Movement in 1999 (led by famed Pentecostal minister T. D. Jakes) all expressed the supremacy of the Abrahamic ideal.

Perhaps the most visible movement was the Million Man March (October 16, 1995), (6) which symbolized the depths of Abrahamic masculinity particularly among African Americans. The Million Man March was extraordinarily successful in communicating the Abrahamic ideal and in conveying the notion that the plight of black men was due to their failure and inability to live up to it. Though lauded as an empowerment event, the March also communicated a pathological view of black males, which was consistent with longstanding white views of African American men. In an ironic and strange fashion, Farrakhan's efforts were applauded by white men, who otherwise had publicly criticized him for extolling racist views (against whites). Notwithstanding such criticism, powerful Reaganites like William Bennett, Pat Buchanan, and Rush Limbaugh supported the Million Man March. (7)

The Million Man March attracted black men from all income levels, ages, religious communities, lifestyles, ideological perspectives, and social status. It tapped into a sense of desperation among the population of black men, especially in relation to their social status. This sense of desperation lent support of black men who otherwise were fundamentally at odds with Farrakhan's masculine vision. (8) At the time of the March, the leadership establishment within black America, including influential black intellectuals, was indifferent to, and seemingly incapable of, addressing this pervasive masculine crisis. At the level of ideas and action, the impotence of the black establishment produced an ethical vacuum, which opened a door for a traditional and antiprogressive leadership especially with respect to the conditions of African American men. The Million Man March presented an option in the face of limited opportunities, and it deeply resonated among the population. Yet it exalted a masculine ideal that ended up doing more damage than good to black men by demonizing them, and it did not offer a transformative vision that would speak to the real immoral conditions that too many black males find themselves in. What is more, the Million Man March distorted the diversity of masculine identities and lifestyles that exist among black men--identities and lifestyles that often remain unexamined and are hidden behind stereotypes associated with blacks.

The Million Man March was unprecedented in its efforts to address the gender-specific conditions of black men in America. However, it produced no visible and long-term project with the aim of transforming their lives. Its greatest effect was the extent to which it communicated the need for black males to "man up." It echoed a masculine sentiment rooted in Abrahamic masculinity that has been around for millennia. The Million Man March symbolized the extent to which the Abrahamic ideal has been institutionalized in black America and beyond, and no significant rival men's movement or alternative form of masculinity have emerged since, with the aim to overcome the Abrahamic ideal and its pervasive, public impact.

Engaging Abrahamic Masculinity

Given the institutionalized nature and ongoing popularity of the Abrahamic ideal and its distorting effects and impact on the lives of black men and women, there is a need for a thorough reexamination of its continuing popularity in the world, especially among African Americans. Because feminism and womanism have been limited in impacting gender relations among African Americans, we need different visions and strategies for engaging and understanding gender among African Americans, especially among black men. Because Abrahamic masculinity does not exist in a historical vacuum, there is a need to engage the religious, historical, and culturally specific ways in and through which this ideal continues to express itself.

As I mentioned earlier, Abrahamic masculinity pervades Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, but it does so in culturally specific ways that are historically conditioned. One geographical region in which Abrahamic masculinity is highly pronounced is the American South, especially in Christian fundamentalism and revivalist evangelical Protestantism. Hence, the American South is an ideal site for such an investigation. (9) Because African American cultures have been shaped in profound ways by Southern legacies, like slavery, Jim Crow, and the Great Migrations, an engagement with race, gender, and religion is particularly illuminating in this context. For the most part, the South is an underexamined region with respect to race, gender, and sexuality. Consequently, most African Americans and white Americans are profoundly unaware of the extent to which notions surrounding masculinity, gender roles, and sexuality have been cultural conditioned by Southern expressions of Abrahamic masculinity. Ironically, the most sophisticated religious thinkers and cultural and gender theorists are black feminists and womanists with Southern roots. Alice Walker, Angela Davis, Delores S. Williams, Jacquelyn Grant, bell hooks, Beverly Guy Sheftall, and Katie G. Cannon are among the black feminists and womanists with Southern roots. In very profound ways, the South has conditioned their critiques of masculinity and their visions of gender relations among African Americans, and the South appears in their work in one form or another. (10) However, with the exception of Alice Walker, bell hooks, Delores S. Williams, and Angela Davis, the South and its impact on gender identity among African Americans have been treated in very modest ways, and the South remains an open region concerning the understanding and overcoming of the legacy of Abrahamic masculinity. A project on Masculine Work, as I am envisioning it, would demand greater scrutiny and theoretical investigation of the regional and historically conditioned legacy of Abrahamic masculinity, and the South would be an important context within which to study black masculinity.


My concerns regarding race, masculinity, and religion, which are connected to a long-term project whose aim is the humanization and transformation of masculinity, are best summed up in the intellectual and ethical enterprise I call Masculine Work. Abrahamic masculinity is the starting point for such work. In a word, the dominance of Abrahamic masculinity is an underexamined historical, cultural, and religious phenomenon. The way it expresses itself through African American culture is just one of its manifestations. What I wish to do is engage in a reflective and analytical enterprise whose goal is to impact black men: How is masculinity perceived in the black community? How are black men (and women) affected by the conditions in which they are entrapped in the South (and elsewhere)? In light of such concerns, the masculine conditions of black men, and the struggles of African Americans in general, require a critical and constructive apparatus, so that new masculine possibilities can emerge within and among black men. For this reason, it is necessary to treat masculinity and gender comprehensively and to attend to their specific contexts.

To this end, I align my work with thinkers like bell hooks and social and gender theorist Patricia Hill Collins, whose recent work is akin to what I seek to do. In Black Sexual Politics: African Americans and the New Racism, Collins revisits and reconsiders the gendered impact and legacy of slavery, Jim Crow, and the Great Migrations. (11) The book is a twenty-first-century reevaluation of gender as informed by the desegregation era and four decades of social change since the 1960s. Collins discloses the links between the past and the present. She takes seriously the role that history plays in the constructions of race, class, gender, and sexuality in the United States and she treats the past as a necessary component for explicating and untangling the complexities of these categories. Black Sexual Politics is a model for the kind of analytical work I envision, and I wish to build upon it by adding a religious and philosophical dimension. What I hope to accomplish is to open up new spaces for how masculinity can be understood, engaged, and transformed.


(1.) African American feminist bell hooks has written at length on the perceptions of African American men within and beyond feminist discourse. She argues that the attribution of sexism and misogyny to African American men has marked them as hypermasculine. See hooks, 1998, "Men: Comrades in Struggle," in Feminism and Men: Reconstructing Gender Relations. New York: New York University Press, pp. 265-280. See also ibid, 2004, "About Black Men: Don't Believe the Hype," in We Real Cool: Black Men and Masculinity, New York: Routledge Press, pp. ix-xvii.

(2.) For a robust analysis of American perceptions of African American men, especially as they are refracted through history and American media, see Neal, Mark Anthony, 2006, "There's a New Black Man in America Today," in New Black Man, New York: Routledge Press, esp. chapter 1.

(3.) For accounts of the historical and moral connections between Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, see Armstrong, Karen, 1993, A History of God: The 4,000 Year Quest of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, New York: Random House, and Miller, J. Maxwell and Hayes, John H., 1986, A History of Ancient Israel and judah, Philadelphia: Westminster.

(4.) See Weems, Renita J., 1991, "Reading Her Way through the Struggle: African American Women and the Bible," in Stony the Road We Trod: African American Biblical Interpretation, Minneapolis: Fortress, pp. 57-80, and Laffey, Alice L., 1988, An Introduction to the Old Testament: A Feminist Perspective, Philadelphia: Fortress.

(5.) For excellent accounts of media representations of masculinity in popular religion, see for example Lee, Shayne, 2995, America's New Preacher: T D. Jakes, New York: New York University Press; Walton, Jonathan, 2009, Watch This: The Ethics and Aesthetics of Black Televangelism. New York: New York University Press; Harrison, Milmon F., 2006, Righteous Riches: The Word of Faith Movement in Contemporary African American Religion, New York: Oxford University Press.

(6.) See Fletcher, Garth Kasimu (ed.), 1998, Black Religion after the Million Man March, Maryknoll: Orbis Press; Diamond, Sara, 1998, Not By Politics Alone: The Enduring Influence of the Christian Right, New York: Guilford Press; Stodgill II, Ron, 1997, "The God of Our Fathers," Time Magazine (October 6).

(7.) The extent to which Farrakhan's vision and leadership were consistent with the social and political views of Reaganite white men, see Marable, Manning, 1996, "Louis Farrakhan and the Million Man March" in. Speaking Truth to Power: Essays on Race, Religion, and Radicalism, Boulder: Westview Press, pp. 139-148.

(8.) See Dyson, Michael Eric, 1996, Race Rules: Navigating the Rule of the Color Line, New York: Addison Wesley, pp. 150-195.

(9.) See Niebuhr, H. Richard, 1989, The Kingdom of God in America, Middletown, CT: Wesleyan University Press; Noll, Mark A., 2004, The Rise of Evangelicalism: The Age of Edwards, Whitefield, and the Wesleys, Nottingham: Intervarsity Press; and Hunter, James Davidson, 1987, Evangelicalism: The Coming Generation, Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

(10.) See Walker, Alice, 1984, In Search of Our Mothers' Gardens, New York: Harvest Books; bell hooks, 1981, Ain't I a Woman: Black Women and Feminism, Boston: South End Press; Grant, Jacquelyn, 1989. White Woman's Christ, Black Woman's Jesus: Feminist Christology and Womanist Response, Atlanta: Scholars Press; Cannon, Katie G., 1988, Black Womanist Ethics, Atlanta: Scholars Press; Williams, Delores S., 1993, Sisters in the Wilderness: The Challenge of Womanist God-Talk, Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books; and Davis, Angela Y., 1998, Blues Legacies and Black Feminism, New York: Vintage Books.

(11.) Collins, Patricia Hill, 2004, Black Sexual Politics: African Americans, Gender, and the New Racism, New York: Routledge.
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Author:Neal, Ronald
Publication:Cross Currents
Date:Dec 1, 2011
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