Manliness and Its Discontents: The Black Middle Class and the Transformation of Masculinity, 1900-1930.
The black middle class is making a comeback in African American social history. (1) Martin Summers' new book adds to this re-centering of the African American bourgeoisie, while also critically engaging the field of gender studies--particularly the "new" men's history. Situating himself in the discursive space between Kevin K. Gaines' Uplifting the Race: Black Leadership, Politics, and Culture in the Twentieth Century, and Gail Bederman's Manliness and Civilization: A Cultural History of Gender and Race in the United States, 1880-1917, Summers argues that African American and African Caribbean middle-class men at the turn of the twentieth century subscribed to dominant Anglo-American ideas equating manhood with political citizenship, "character," productive engagement in the marketplace, patriarchy, self-restraint, and imperial designs. He contends, moreover, that as a "shift from Victorian asceticism to postwar consumerism" generated new definitions of manhood rooted in leisure, physical exuberance, emotive self-expression and sexual virility, black middle-class notions of manliness, too, underwent a corresponding sea change. (269)
Yet, the author maintains that in "constructing and staging" their class-bound gendered selves, black middle-class men did not simply emulate white cultural standards. Summers rejects depictions of a hegemonic (white middle-class) manhood in which subordinated masculinities function as mute objects of white, heterosexual, elite male anxieties, or as sites of uncomplicated resistance. While recognizing the far-reaching power of a hegemonic masculinity, Summers instead limns the process of black male middle-class and gender-identity formation as it occurred through modalities beyond direct white control. In the first half of the book, titled "Manliness," he considers the role of the Prince Hall Freemasons, and Marcus Garvey's Universal Negro Improvement Association (UNIA), as agents in the production of black middle-class male identity. Although politically dissimilar, intellectual leaders and publicists for both organizations promoted the same Victorian "producer values," and regarded black men as the natural providers for, and protectors of, the race. Like other representatives of an emergent new black middle strata, Freemasons and Garveyites also wielded an elite ideology of "racial uplift" wherein black progress was synonymous with class and age hierarchies in black institutions, and patriarchy was posited as the norm in black families and communities. While black women were subordinates in these practices, Summers demonstrates that they nonetheless participated in these discourses, either by actively endorsing their own domesticity, or by publicly opposing black patriarchal authority.
If Garvey nationalists and black Freemasons embodied a standard Victorian model of black middle-class manliness, another cohort of the black bourgeois elite symbolized a nascent masculinity, one influenced by migration, urbanization, war, and the libertinism of the "Jazz Age." The book's second half, "Discontents," focuses on this younger generation of middle-class black males, who eschewed the prevailing social codes of respectability, thrift, and sober plainness. Embracing mass culture and consumption, many engaged in a series of student revolts against restrictive administrative policies at Fisk, Howard, and several other black colleges and universities. Steeped in a modernist ethos of self-gratification, a number of emissaries from this generation--notably Harlem Renaissance luminaries like Claude McKay, Countee Cullen and Langston Hughes--adopted a masculinity that openly countenanced hetero- and homo-sexual relations. Summers reveals that in crafting a counter-hegemonic racial manhood, young black bourgeois rebels paradoxically (1) sought inspiration in the folkways of the black working class; and (2) celebrated values that, by Victorian standards at least, reinforced assumptions of black people as a "feminine" race. He concludes that the transformation of black middle-class masculinity may have liberated middle-class African Americans/Caribbeans from antiquated nineteenth-century modes of thought, but it also laid a basis for the scandalous excesses famously excoriated in E. Franklin Frazier's 1957 study, Black Bourgeoisie.
This book is closely researched, carefully organized, and skillfully argued. Summers thoughtfully balances social, intellectual, and cultural history. He deserves praise, also, for his treatment of the nuances of black class stratification. The differences between the bourgeois and working classes may often have been subjective, but they had enough of a material reality to produce "palpable lines of distinction" between the two, even considering that economic opportunities were sharply constrained for all black people. (7) Among its limitations, the book does not focus its lens wide enough to capture the fullness of the militant New Negro movement of the 1920s, of which the black campus uprisings, Harlem Renaissance, and Garveyism were all part. From this perspective, the UNIA--like the African Blood Brotherhood, the radical Messenger newspaper, the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters, and similar contemporaries--might share far more with the postwar rebels than with the late-Victorianism of the Freemasons. As Summers admits, the UNIA is a problematic example of middle-class organization, since its class character was so heterogeneous and, given its mass base, overwhelmingly working-class. Of course, the UNIA's predominant gender/class discourses reflected black bourgeois conventions, and for Summers this is the point. Even if one accepts this reasoning, a broader view of New Negro political culture might have given him more with which to compare the UNIA and Freemasons (two organizations) than the diffuse cultural activity foregrounded in the book's second half.
Summers' emphasis on individuals associated with the Harlem Renaissance suffers from a similar myopia. Men like McKay, Cullen and Hughes belonged to a small and rarefied bunch; as artists, their counter-cultural lives were hardly typical of most black middle-class Harlemites, much less most middle-class African Americans/Caribbeans elsewhere. They thus seem an inadequate foundation on which to rest a general argument about the changing norms of black middle-class manhood. Summers is on firmer ground interpreting the student unrest at Fisk and Howard. Finally, in his arguments about the exoticization of black folk culture, he never problematizes the popular representations of the black working class as sordid, profane, "instinctive," or otherwise "uncivilized." In fact, black working-class people never emerge from their objectification as the "Other" to their middle-class and professional counterparts. Intentionally or not, Summers' work highlights how much historians have yet to discover about the class-bound ideologies, masculinities, and mentalities of black workers in the twentieth century.
1. See, for instance, two contemporary works: Kevin K. Gaines, Uplifting the Race: Black Leadership, Politics, and Culture in the Twentieth Century (Chapel Hill, 1996); and Darlene Clark Hine, "Black Professionals and Race Consciousness: Origins of the Civil Rights Movement, 1890-1950," Journal of American History, Vol. 89, No. 4 (March 2003): 1279-1294.
University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign
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|Publication:||Journal of Social History|
|Article Type:||Book Review|
|Date:||Jun 22, 2005|
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