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Looking for Leroy: Illegible Black Masculinities.

Looking for Leroy: Illegible Black Masculinities, by Mark Anthony Neal. New York: New York University Press, 2013. $22 paperback, $65 cloth. 224 pages.

Can a nigga be a cosmopolitan?" (p. 35). In his book Looking for Leroy: Illegible Black Masculinities, Mark Anthony Neal poses this question and plumbs popular culture for fresh, close readings of black male entertainers. Fame character Leroy, played by Gene Anthony Ray, signifies Neal's search for a radical black masculinity, one that exceeds and queers trite grammars around black male performativity and its attendant epistemologies. Neal, for instance, expresses "the act of looking for Leroy, like the search for Langston before him, might represent a theoretical axis to perform the kind of critical exegesis that contemporary black masculinity demands.... Leroy serves as a jumping-off point to examine other illegible black masculinities"(p. 8). Hip-hop mogul Jay-Z, actor-turned-scholar Avery Brooks, the late rhythm-and-blues crooner Luther Vandross--all of these black men become newly animated by Neal's use of black feminist theories and queer frameworks vis-a-vis historically and sociologically based analyses that interrogate the visual, the lyrical, and the biographical.

In Chapter 1, "A Foot Deep in the Culture: The Thug Knowledge(s) of A Man Called Hawk," Neal examines how Avery Brooks's television performances create a cosmopolitan black masculinity that complicates spatial politics and belonging. Neal analyzes several episodes of A Man Called Hawk-a 1980s spin-off of the ABC series Spenser for Hire--in which Brooks plays a black enforcer named Hawk. Hawk, according to Neal, embodies a combination of intellect and unapologetic itinerancy that rendered him indecipherable to mainstream American audiences. In relation to Hawk's roving identity, Neal explains, "Though audiences never see Hawk's place of residence, he is often shown in public settings that suggest his connection to a community" (p. 19). Neal also argues that Hawk's recurrent visits to spaces such as Mr. Henry's, a Washington, DC, jazz club, constitute black publics as his home. As a vigilante with a gun for justice and a mind for ethics, Hawk functions as the black male outlaw who, ironically, works with the law.

Neal also considers how Brooks's performance as spaceship commander Benjamin Sisko engages issues of time. In the speculative drama Deep Space Nine, the sci-fi iteration of Brooks grapples with temporality, race, and suffering. Neal contextualizes Sisko within the rise of black male global icons--such as Michael Jordan and Michael Jackson--and the Rodney King incident; this maneuver highlights the competing ontologies of historical pain and commercial transcendence. Consequently, Neal directs our attention to two rival schemes: first, how black (and brown) bodily trauma writes itself onto corporeality and collective memory; and second, how this same trauma ironically coexists with the prospect of crossing over--becoming a "timeless," and potentially "raceless," icon ready for mass consumption. Additionally, Neal notes how Brooks navigated the structural limitations of the television network, negotiating the development of illegible characters with a predominantly white staff of writers.

In Chapter 2, "'My Passport Says Shawn': Toward a Hip-Hop Cosmopolitanism," Neal situates Jay-Z within the hip-hop's postmillennial milieu of global marketing and local authenticity; subsequently, Neal queers JayZ's performance in virtue of his non-normative performances (e.g., transnational mobility and sartorial choices) and lyrical flow. As Neal puts it, his project concerns "the productive value of having the theoretical worlds of black feminist and queer theory-rendered as discursive interventions--travel through the body of a highly visible and influential masculine icon of hip-hop, as alternative diaspora" (p. 39).

Among Neal's many queer readings of Jay-Z, two of his most superb examinations include analyses of the videos "03 Bonnie and Clyde" (2003) and "Excuse Me, Miss" (2002). For "03 Bonnie and Clyde," Neal notes that Beyonce's hook was appropriated from Prince's 1987 song "If I Was Your Girlfriend," a recording whose chorus concatenates a series of gender reversals and same-sex relationships; such an appropriation, according to Neal, implies a sexual fluidity between Jay-Z and Beyonce. Notwithstanding the lyrical connection, Neal does not discuss how queerness unfolds itself visually in the video. As for his reading of the "Excuse Me, Miss" video, Neal identifies the elevator in which Jay-Z fantasizes about a woman as a "proverbial closeted space" (pp. 62-63). According to Neal, the upwardly mobile and concealed space of the elevator functions as a cosmopolitan closet, which opens up an interstice for the non-normative sexuality in a genre whose vehement homosociality--a social order that, according to scholar Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick, favors same-sex interactions and institutions--warrants a queer inquiry. This detail troubles the presumed heterosexual gaze of the scene, a regard thrown into further uncertainty given Jay-Z's reverie of opposite-sex interaction.

In Chapter 3, "The Block Is Hot: Legibility and Loci in The Wire," Neal furthers his discussion of black male cosmopolitanism and queerness by way of the HBO drama. In a conceptual move similar to that of theorists Hortense Spillers and Darieck Scott, Neal clarifies how black bodies are inherently constructed both as queer and as incapable of occupying normative gender roles. Neal supports his study with an overview of black female masculinity and then connects it to the butch-queer iterations in The Wire (e.g., lesbian detective Shakima "Kima" Greggs and erudite "homo-thug" Omar Little).

Further into the chapter, Neal illuminates the erotic and biographical parallels between Black British actor Idris Elba and his character Stringer Bell, a black American drug dealer who peddles cosmopolitan masculinity and cooperate savvy. Connecting Bell's urbane sensibilities to those of Elba, Neal asserts that the actor and his character are able to navigate disparate spaces and wield an erotic appeal, the latter of which Neal articulates through scholar James S. Williams's notion of homoerotic cinematics within The Wire. It remains unclear as to whether these queer cinematics, in their erotic pivot on black male bodies in urban settings, engender a form of violability for heterosexual audiences. Here, scholar Maurice O. Wallace's concept of "enframement" could offer headway in conceptualizing a racializing, cinematic gaze that is simultaneously sexual, violent, stagnantly taxonomic, and mobile.

In Chapter 4, "R. Kelly's Closet: Shame, Desire, and the Confessions of a (Postmodern) Soul Man," Neal parses the R&B's pied piper's Trapped in the Closet series (2005 and 2007), a "twenty-two chapter episodic music video" that "examines black interpersonal relationships in the age of DL (down-low) sexuality" (p. 119). Juxtaposing Kelly's sex crimes with the singer's own narration of deviant sexuality, Neal offers a challenging portrait of anxieties around black sexuality vis-a-vis AIDS and narratives of respectability.

For his examination of Kelly, Neal returns to the figurative space and interpretive power of closet to scrutinize the sexual and epistemological stakes of the post-soul man's melodrama. Neal describes Kelly's narrative position in the closet as a "privileged site of knowledge and surveillance" that contains "archival knowledge--music and extra-musical--of the soul men who preceded him" (p. 125). Given the arguable immateriality of music, the metaphors of queerness, and the physicality of closet within the video series, the "archival knowledge" of Kelly's closet could arguably register as both a physical space of sexual record and a lateral epistemological process. In terms of the latter mode, one could understand the antics of Kelly's Trapped in the Closet as a complex palimpsest of black sexualities, a queer surface that obfuscates the heteronormative projections of black middle-class respectability. With this said, Neal unfurls a patrilineal genealogy of past soul men--from Sam Cooke to AI Green--in which Kelly is situated. Toward the end of the chapter, Neal makes a plausible yet controversial speculation about Kelly's initial exposures to sex within the domestic sphere. Neal imagines that this (postmodern) soul man could have used the closet either as a furtive space from which he viewed adult sexual interactions or as an escape from sexual abuse. Neither lyrical nor biographical material can be found to validate Neal's diagnosis of Kelly's sexual appetites.

Finally in Chapter 5, "Fear of a Queer Soul Man: The Legacy of Luther Vandross," Neal discusses how Vandross's masculinity as a sensitive balladeer occupied a delicate position between respectability and pathology. Setting Vandross's career against both the height of the Black Power movement in the late 1960s and 1970s, and the desire for black respectability and aspiration in the 1980s, Neal explains that the singer eschewed the hypermasculine vocals and hypersexual bravado favored by a majority of his fellow soul men. Such an avoidance of black macho tropes queers Vandross, positioning him as an entertainer who commiserated with female audiences.

In addition to mapping a series of disconnections between Vandross and his fellow soul men, Neal also examines the disparity between the singer's girth and the cultural labor of his vocals. Neal argues that Vandross's corpulence "became a visual stand-in for the pathological excesses of the Chitlin' Circuit and segregation" (p. 149). However, Vandross used his voice and his music as a form of black respectability that emblematized "the refined sensibilities of the new black middle class" (p. 149). Yet, as Neal notes, rumors connecting Vandross's drastic weight loss to an alleged HIV infection corralled his body into public worries over lethal contagion and queerness. "In a broad cultural sense, with his increased popularity," Neal writes, "Vandross's body became a source of anxiety for some black audiences, initially because of his girth and later with the advent of the AIDS/HIV crisis" (p. 156). Neal juxtaposes the public panic over Vandross's supposedly homosexual corporeality with the heterosexual cooptation of his ballads in an effort to highlight the dichotomy of the queer soul man.

Leroy mines the contradiction between epistemologies of realness and self-making in relation to black men in popular culture. Neal has crafted an accessible text that creatively renders our understanding of black men as alien, offering complex connections between spatiality, cosmopolitanism, sound, and desire.

Jared Richardson is a PhD student in art history at Northwestern University. In addition to modern and contemporary art, Richardson's research interests include popular culture, speculative genres, and art of the black diaspora.
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Author:Richardson, Jared
Publication:The Black Scholar
Article Type:Book review
Date:Dec 22, 2013
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