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A profeminist approach to African American male characters.

Michael Kimmel (1987) in Rethinking Masculinity points out, "Rarely, if ever, do we study men as men; rarely do we make masculinity the object of inquiry as we examine men's lives" (p. 11). Masculinity is and has been a problematic issue in the American society. Further, it has been suggested that masculinity has become an issue in a way femininity has not, with men constantly needing to prove and define their masculinities. Lewis (1981) declares that, "The need for active confirmation of one's masculinity is a cultural fact of life in American society" (p. 14).

Looking to history, one finds an attempt to address concerns like Lewis'. This attempt is noted in the rise of the men's movement, which offered differing ways for men to channel their feelings and attitudes in responses to their changing roles and situations. Arising from the men's movement, men's studies emphasizes the need to examine "men as men" and not as "universal paradigm[s] for human experience" (Boyd as cited in Franklin, 1987, p. 272). The discipline also explores, "how men [have] experienced history as men, as carriers of masculinity [and ...] assumes that 'masculinity' and femininity are the products, not of God, not of nature, but of historical processes" (Stimpson, 1997, p. xii). Generally, men's studies scholars believe that academics are guilty of having ignored men's unique behavioral and sociological problems (Gross, 1990). Although the thrust of men's studies has been largely sociological in nature, another potentially instructive way of exploring men's lives and their masculinities is through literary analysis and literary theory. There is no reason why literature should not be a part of this discourse of examining men's lives as men. As Hearn (1987) notes, men's studies ought not to be restricted to one discipline but instead must be interdisciplinary, as all disciplines "are relevant to an understanding of men and masculinity" (p. 20).

Focusing on the convergence of men's studies and literary studies, one cannot help but turn to African American masculinities. If it is agreed that attaining masculinity in America in the post-industrial era is very challenging, then, as suggested by Delgado and Stefancic (1995), "the social construction of men of color is even more troublesome and confining than that of men in general" (p. 211). For instance, their research into black manhood in contemporary America, lead White and Cones (1997) to assert, "the racial stereotypes [related to black masculinity] have been confirmed, validated, and deepened until they have taken on a life of their own" (p. 47). Black males are viewed as "... uncivilized and subhuman ... [and] sex obsessed ..." (Johnson & McCluskey, 1997, p. xiii) and black manhood is closely associated with criminality (Harper, 1996; Strickland, 1995; Williams, 1997). These and other stereotypes negatively affect black men's quests for normative manhood.

Confronted with the reality that the patriarchal order around which society is structured does not allow them equal access to the benefits of being "male," black men face another challenge. Black feminists like bell hooks (2000) and Patricia Collins (2000) point out that numerous black females have suffered at the hands of many black males, but, if "men's patriarchal dividends" are dependent on class, race, and social status, it may be fair to suggest, as have Thelma Golden (1994) and Ellis Cose (1995), for example, that black males, existing in a society that frequently stereotypes and restricts their abilities to fulfill their roles as fathers and husbands, have not fully benefited from "maleness." "If being privileged is part of being male, are black males somehow exempt--if not from being male, at least from being privileged?", Cose asks (p. 10). And Golden poses the question, "[S]ince masculinity in general is about privilege as the internal force, is black masculinity a contradiction in terms?" (p. 11). The questions that Cose and Golden pose are significant for although black males do benefit from being males, they are still disadvantaged by race.

Many black men have not been privy to the benefits of masculinity in the same way that many white men have been or potentially could be. Black men do enjoy some of privileges of being men and do engage in sexism, but, as bell hooks (2000) points out, many have also paid a price for being part of that patriarchal structure (p. ix). Black men not only suffer disadvantage because of the "hierarchies of masculinity" but this also has implications for their gender role fulfillment. If, as Alan Johnson (1997) declares, men "are affirmed through what they accomplish and how well they live up to the standards of patriarchal manhood" (p. 10), this represents a sad reality for many black men and their masculinities. Many African American men's masculinities are not affirmed, for they are often neither allowed to accomplish nor fulfill traditional male roles. As Kenneth Clatterbaugh (1997) has noted, the position of black people as "other" has negative implications, especially for black men and their gender role (p. 143)

The Representation of Masculinity in African American Literature

Focusing specifically on African American masculinities in literary texts, one notes that while men's movements and men's studies have explored the complex and multifaceted nature of masculinity, literary theory and criticism has slowly followed in this area. Men's studies offers a different, necessary, and expansive way of reading African American male characters. Prior to the late 1980s and '90s, the time, according to Clatterbaugh (1997), when men studies gained prominence, African American men in literature appeared to be, for the most part, approached in a more universal manner. Arthur Saint-Aubin (1994) describes this approach as "... in social sciences, for example, gender was understood to be 'natural' and immutable when 'men' was synonymous with 'humanity' and thus when masculinity was seen as unproblematic" (p.1054). Focusing on black male characters in black male authored texts, even after the emergence of men's studies, one finds, broadly, a continued analysis of black masculinities in a more universal and general manner. For instance, black masculinities have been explored in light of black history (Campbell, 1986; Ensslen, 1988, Goudie, 1995; Wilson, 1995). A primarily biographical approach is also sometimes utilized when analyzing African American male characters, where the extent to which they reflect the author's lives is the primary focus. Those and many other approaches have been adopted for African American male characters, but they lack a necessary problematizing of black masculinities. While focusing on black masculinities in a universal manner has its place, it is also necessary to conduct a more focused, gendered reading of black masculinities.

A more focused, racialized, and gendered reading of some black male characters has been attempted, but these have been, as suggested by Deborah McDowell (1995), in her explication of black feminism, mainly "limited to discussions of negative images of black women found in the work" of African American male authors (p. 15). Although masculinity is defined in opposition to femininity, it is important to acknowledge that other dimensions of masculinity exist. As Catharine Stimpson (1997) states, "To be 'masculine' is to have a particular psychological identity, social role, cultural script, place in the labor force, and sense of the sacred" (p. xii). Drawing on Stimpson's assumptions of masculinity, an examination of masculinity needs to be defined against a wider context and not just in relation to women, if we are to understand the motivations and behaviors of male characters. Indeed, as Deborah McDowell (1995) has stated in relation to black feminists, "feminist critics run the risk of plunging their work into cliche and triviality if they continue to merely focus on how black men treat black women in literature" (p. 15).

Many scholars have pointed, directly and indirectly, to the need for a more nuanced approach to literary works that men's studies would allow. While Clyde Franklin II, (1994) does not identify the need for a literary study, he does acknowledge the importance of black men's studies and the role it plays in black men's quests to answer the question, "Ain't I a man." Franklin states that "[w]ithout Black men's studies and an appropriate epistemology, it is indeed possible that ... many Black men will still be asking the question. "Ain't I a man?" (p. 283). James Reimer (1987) laments that male experiences have been treated in a universal manner. Pointing to some of the benefits that may be derived from a men's studies approach to literature, Reimer states that "[j]ust as the erroneous belief that male experience equals human experience affected literary criticism's treatment of women as characters and authors, so has it restricted our perceptions about men in literature" (p. 289). He contends that "traditionally, literary criticism by males has viewed the dilemmas of male characters on an abstract, moral, aesthetic, or intellectual level rather than in simply human terms. In particular, the nature and quality of human relationships for the male and the manner in which these are affected by masculine ideals are generally neglected" (p. 293).

Reimer notes that throughout the 1970s and early '80s, psychologists and sociologists highlighted the limitations and destructive nature of ideals of manhood and he postulates that "a men's studies approach to American literature, with its concentration on the personal, [can] reveal the ways in which manly ideals can restrict and complicate men's lives, often interfering with the satisfaction of their basic human needs" (p. 295). Reimer makes a valuable point in suggesting that there needs to be a relationship between the study of literature and men's studies as a discipline. While he does not identify his contentions as being specific to black men's masculinities, Reimer's views may be utilized in such a manner. The potential benefits of a men's studies approach to literature that he highlights can also potentially provide more insight into black male characters.

Black feminist, Cheryl Wall (1989) also pointed to the need for a marriage between literature and men's studies. Wall states, "In a complementary move, we may begin to ask the same questions about race, gender, and class of 'canonical' texts (and "noncanonical' texts by white men, black men, white women, men and women of color, everybody) that we ask of those by black women" (p. 9). Sherley Anne Williams (1986) called for a "thorough going examination of male images in the works of black male writers" (p. 307). Williams feels that such an examination would begin the process of ending the "separatist tendenc[ies]," which exist between African American male and female writers. Boone and Cadden (1990) also highlight the importance of such a perspective when they state that men's "present goals must be the engendering of [themselves] within the context of gender ideologies that encourage a range of possibilities for male selfhood" (p. 227). Thus, there is scholarship that suggests that, for a number of reasons, there is a need to revisit black male authored texts and black male characters through the lens of masculinity.


Profeminism is a theory of men's studies that offers a potential useful way of reading men in African American literature. A profeminist perspective focuses on the idea that "traditional masculinity is destructive to [both] women and men" (Kilmartin, 2007, p. 291). Further, this approach argues that "men ought to work to end patriarchy and men's violence and to roster equal right for women ..." (Kilmartin, p. 291). A profeminist approach does not excuse nor overlook a black male's sometimes poor treatment of black women, for example, but rather it attempts to explain the motivations for such behavior. For instance, while noting that profeminism acknowledges the violence that men use against women, Harry Brod, (1998) shows that profeminists understand that violence stems not only from men's quest for power but from their pain (p. 204). Not overlooking the fact that profeminism may be in crisis (Goldrick Jones, 2001) and that, as Clatterbaugh's (2000) review of the men's movement reveals, the profeminist branch of men's studies encompasses those who hold either a radical or a more liberal outlook, there are tenets that are basic to both the liberal and radical branches.

Profeminists acknowledge that men enjoy power and privilege in a society which is male dominated. They also emphasize the importance of understanding that masculinity exists along a continuum which encompasses differences of race and class. Both Liberal and Radical Profeminists view the masculine role, like the feminine role, as one which has its limitations. It is felt that men are restricted by masculine stereotypes and ideals (Kimmel as cited in Clatterbaugh, 1997, p. 48). Profeminists recognize, as R.W. Connell (2001) declares, that there exists a hegemonic masculinity against which most men must construct their masculinity. While they differ on how to address patriarchy, Profeminists view masculinity as a social construct. They believe that masculinity is dynamic as it changes through history and through contact with women and men from different circumstances and generations (Clatterbaugh). Black Profeminists, according to Clatterbaugh, "tend to stress that the patriarchal norm of masculinity set standards that are impossible for black men to achieve, thereby generating alternative but marginalized forms of masculinity" (p. 165).

Profeminism has its roots in feminist theories and as a precedent, black feminist discourse is instructive as it offers one of the ways in which the exploration of race, gender and one's place in the patriarchal structure may be understood and explored in literary texts. If profeminism is to draw on its roots in feminism, the seeming implication and logical extension then is that black men's issues of masculinity may be brought to the forefront by adopting a reading or theoretical approach that seeks to do what profeminism does, understand men in light of issues of race, gender, and their place in the patriarchal structure.

Profeminism as a Literary Approach

Using Profeminism as a literary approach would involve focusing on that aspect of Profeminism that encourages men to explore the "me' in men (Boone & Cadden, 1990, p. 2). As Michael Awkward (1996) indicates this is an important and necessary aspect that needs further exploration. Awkward declares, "The self-interestedness of a black male feminist would be manifested in part by his concern with exploring "a man's place" (p. 11). He states, "instances of afro centric feminism provide Afro-American men with an invaluable means of rewriting-of re-vis(ion)ing-ourselves, ... and literary traditions, and our future" (p. 9). A Profeminist approach to literary texts might then, focus on exploring how African American men define and experience their masculinities, thus accounting for the "me" in men. This would involve understanding the unique situations that various black masculinities face.

Using Profeminism as a basis for a theoretical approach to the text would necessitate adopting sensitivity to African American male characters and moving beyond defining African American masculinities only in relation to femininity. Such a reading would acknowledge that African American men enjoy some privileges of being male, but often resort to subordinate and alternative forms of masculinity as they have no claim to hegemonic masculinities, even while they measure themselves against the normative masculinity. A Profeminist approach to African American male characters would note that there exist black males who define their masculinities through violence and a quest for power and domination, but it would also acknowledge that the motivations behind these painful acts need to be understood. This approach would also acknowledge that the fact that African American men share unequally in the privileges of masculinity has psychological and social implications for African American male characters. It would necessitate understanding that in texts where African American male characters are featured, one may not find a black masculinity, but black masculinities. Reading a text from a Profeminist orientation would involve acknowledging that black masculinities exist on a continuum that encompasses differences in class and sexualities. It would illustrate that African American male characters are restricted by masculine stereotypes, more so than by ideals.

Some Problems

One of the difficulties with such a reading could be the belief that, as Calvin Hernton (1987) states, "[b]lack men have historically defined themselves as sole interpreters of the Black Experience" (p. 41). Hernton voices the opinions of many when he declares that black literature has been dominated by black men's experiences when he argues, "Traditionally, the World of Black Literature in the United States has been a world of black men's literature" (p. 38). Eugene Miller (1993) echoes a similar concern when he examines the problems associated with a men's studies approach to literature. "A men's studies approach to Native Son has not yet occurred," Miller states, "because men's studies has been feminist-based and hence accepting not only of feminist theories of men but also of the feminist axiom that all approaches to literature, among other things, have until recently been men's studies" (p. 689). If men have been the sole interpreters of the black experience and theirs has been the experience that has been focused on and written about then the question seemingly arises, "Why bother to study African American men and their masculinities and moreover, adopt a specific theoretical approach to do so?"

Another problematic issue with a profeminist approach to black male authored texts would be the concern displayed by many feminists who suggest that the continued emergence of men's studies will marginalize women's studies. Such a concern is voiced by Mark Kann (2000) in his exploration of the tensions between men's studies and women's studies, "many women's studies scholars do not trust the mixed, uncertain politics associated with men's studies.... [E]ven profeminist men's studies scholars are kept at a distance by the feminist professors who run gender studies programs in today's academy" (p. 415). Yet another issue is one postulated by Devon W. Carbado (1998). Referring specifically to black men, Carbado declares "that Black men occupy a privileged victim status in antiracist discourse" (p. 337), and this results in a focus on men "without a similar focus on Black women ..." (p. 337).

Utilizing a Profeminist Approach

At the height of the new emphasis on men and men's studies there exist very few articles and writings where African American men's literature, specifically African American male characters, are read in such a way that they explore, as indicated by Awkward (1996) and Boone and Cadden, (1990) the "me" in men. For instance, while some scholars explore the representations of black masculinity, through their analysis of various male characters, they do not focus on what Stimpson (1987) labels the "social script," of what it means to be black male in various American societies. In other instances, scholars adopt a black feminist reading but restrict their analysis to the construct of masculinity in relation to femininity. For instance, although David Ikard (2002) offers a black male feminist reading of Chester Himes's, if He Hollers Let Him Go, this reading is reductive in his focus of black masculinities, for he concentrates on the misogynist tendencies of the black male.

While Cathy Brigham (1995) and Aime J. Ellis (2002) and perhaps others have started a more expansive investigation into masculinity in African American male authored texts, there is a need for more research into this area. Continued research would help add a new dimension to literary analysis of male characters and would perhaps also help to reinforce, to use Anne McClintock's (1995) words, the insistence of "recent feminist theory" that gender is as "much an issue of masculinity as it is of femininity ..." (p. 7).

Why a Profeminist Reading

Acceptable manhood, as dictated by patriarchy involves not only men enjoying power but men paradoxically enduring pain as well. It is now time, as Cathy Young (1994) implies, to confront the fact that men may have a claim to being disadvantaged and victimized by the patriarchal structure of which they are a part. Although it is patriarchal, the American society offers black men few opportunities for achieving an acceptable and successful form of manhood. In the society, one of the few ways in which black men's masculinities are acknowledged is when they are configured as sexualized and criminalized individuals; this stereotype and portrayal, however, is not the reality of all black men, neither does it reflect the multifaceted nature of their realities and experiences. Utilizing literature and approaching black male authored texts through the prism of men's studies, more so, a profeminist approach, provides an opportunity to move beyond the labels and stereotypes of black masculinities. Delving into the imaginative allows us a chance, ironically, to highlight the reality of black male experiences. The men's studies approach provides insights into the complex nature, the power, the pain, the privilege, and the costs of black masculinities in American society.


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University of the West Indies, Mona Campus

Janice Cools, Department of Language, Linguistics and Literature, University of the West Indies, Mona Campus.

Correspondence concerning this article should be addressed to Janice Cools, Department of Language, Linguistics and Literature, University of the West Indies, Mona Campus. Kingston 7, Jamaica. Electronic mail:
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Author:Cools, Janice
Publication:The Journal of Men's Studies
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Date:Jan 1, 2008
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