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Mirrors of masculinity: defining the state of the black male has never been easy, but a few selections can offer clues as to what's on the minds of many who make an effort to do so.

Whether from divergent cultures or disparate tribes, African men and women shared an unalterable commonality before their arrival as captives in America. They had history and culture from which they drew ideals of gender and selfhood. As bell hooks notes in We Real Cool: Black Men and Masculinity (Routledge, January 2004): "Black male bodies were not coming to the new world obsessed with sexuality; they were coming from worlds where collective survival was more important than the acting out of sexual desire, and they were coming into a world where survival was more important than sexual desire."

A stream of recent books by well-known as well as lesser-known authors, women included, explain how African male and female identity was laid upon the anvil of profit and transmogrified by the hammers of fear, lust, greed and oppression. Yet they also illustrate that the resilience of humankind is no more evident than in the African American quest for wholeness. The cost of psychic devastation has been high. The strength needed to reclaim self is near superhuman. In the face of unrelenting attempts to dismiss a people from humankind, the need for African American self-examination has never been more critical.

Will African American men dare to uncover their eyes to look into the mirror of reality? Is it the same reality if reflected by a woman? More than an esoteric exercise, these works show that how African American men define themselves emerges only partially from the chrysalis of whom they were before coming to America, but also from whom they have become by living in America. Here is a selection of books that offer some answers.

American Paradox: Young Black Men by Renford Reese, Carolina Academic Press, January 2004, $20, ISBN 0-890-89568-6

Reese looks at how the notion of "tough guy" has been embraced by today's black males as the authentic definition of masculinity; and he couples this acceptance of "thug" images with the negative effects on young black men.

Black Superman: A Cultural and Biological History of the People Who Became the World's Greatest Athletes by Patrick D. Cooper, First Sahara Enterprises January 2004, $20, ISBN 1-878-35355-1

No critique of American culture and manhood is complete without a discussion of athletics and the color line that long pervaded American sports. Cooper has produced an eminently readable and well-researched text that posits a plausible theory about the success of athletes descended from a specific quadrant of West Africa. Even for those who may arrive at a different conclusion, Black Superman documents extraordinary achievements without becoming, in the author's word, a "paean" to notions of superiority.

The Clan of the Black Man: A History of the Black Race by John Valentine, Xlibris Corporation June 2003, $22.99, ISBN 1-401-08734-5 Valentine, an historian and Egyptologist, argues that a healthy African American future must be grounded by the reclamation of the wisdom and values of the ancients, epitomized by the Egyptians. There are lapses into a romantic revisionism of Africa's past, subjectivity and justifiable outrage at all the world's players that traded in human cargo.

The author holds a palpable disdain for Arabs and their role in the trade. Yet his cursory familiarity with the beliefs of Islam results in skewed comparative religion conclusions. The book's strength is its interpretive exposition of ancient Egyptian culture, its religiosity, symbolism and the service he believes it can now render to modernity.

From Brotherhood to Manhood: How Black Men Rescue Their Relationships and Dreams From the Invisibility Syndrome by Anderson J. Franklin, Ph.D, Wiley January 2004, $24.95, ISBN 0-471-35294-2

Even as it counsels men not to fall prey to unyielding stereotypes about themselves or African American women, even as it challenges America's racism, this work espouses a fairly centrist view of American society. Yet Franklin's career as a clinical psychologist has yielded a treasure trove of lives laid bare across several generations of black men in their quest for "visibility."

Manliness and Its Discontents: The Black Middle Class and the Transformation of Masculinity 1900-1930 by Martin Summers University of North Carolina Press, April 2004, $21.95, ISBN 0-807-85519-7

The Harlem Renaissance, usually portrayed with a nostalgic affection for the literary gilts of its best-known artists, is shown by Summers to be a cauldron of sexual ambivalence in an era when African Americans began to coalesce into even sharper lines of class demarcation. Summers adeptly brings renowned voices to the page, as well as those less famous. Most welcome is his inclusion of chapters on the Prince Hall Masons and Marcus Garvey, respectively, in part elucidating the dynamic tension that still sometimes flows between those rooted in the Caribbean experience and the urban/rural dichotomy of the balance of Africa's descendants in America.

Manning the Race: Reforming Black Men in the Jim Crow Era by Marion B. Ross, New York University Press, June 2004, $24, ISBN 0-814-77563-2

Sure to invite controversy, this is an exceptional analysis of America's attempt to define African American men. Ross uses literary works to examine the multifaceted sexual cur rents that continue to seethe as the revulsion-attraction phenomenon, not only between Anglo-Americans and African Americans, but also among African Americans.

The Minds of Marginalized Black Men: Making Sense of Mobility, Opportunity, and Future Life Chances by Alford A. Young Jr. Princeton University Press, January 2004 $35, ISBN 0-691-09242-7

The author delves into the structural underpinnings of chronic underemployment and unemployment, and the minds of those affected. In a telling note, Young chose "chances" to conclude his title where one might have expected "choices." His subjects, however, while not without choices, face few good ones. Their observations of America and their place in it are nuanced and complex, but their reality speaks to an inevitable implosion unless there is visionary social reform.

New Black Man by Mark Anthony Neal Routledge, April 2005, $25, ISBN 0415-97109-8

Neal, a cultural critic and associate professor at Duke University, celebrates today's ideas of black masculinity and oilers his views on today's "Strong Black Man", a model of masculinity that urges readers to envision and embrace a black man whose strengths resides in family, community and diversity. He communicates his observations in an accessible and sharp narrative.

Race, Sex, and Suspicion: The Myth of the Black Mate by D. Marvin Jones, Praeger, January 2005 $84.95, ISBN 0-275-97462-6

Jones, a professor of law at the University of Miami School of Law, explores the basic conflict between the legal equality that black men possess as U.S. citizens and their social isolation stemming from white America's perceptions of them as "culturally alien."

We Real Cool: Black Men and Masculinity by bell hooks, Routledge, January 2004, $17.95, ISBN 0-415-96927-1 and The Will to Change: Men, Masculinity, and Love by bell hooks Washington Square Press, December 2004 $13, ISBN 0-743-45608-4

Passion is a word in ascendancy these days, ostensibly bestowing ardor and honesty upon its possessor. But it's sometimes used as a weapon of diminution with a dismissive undertone difficult not to notice, as if to say intellectual rigor is in some way lacking. So let's be clear, bell hooks is passionate about her belief in the need for men to transform themselves, and her intensity in no way diminishes the quality of her analysis. Any attempt to reduce hooks's writing to being merely a tough-love diatribe willfully ignores her insightful critique of the intersection of the personal and the cultural.

If you want to get right to it, start with We Real Cool, a no-holds-barred grappling with the African American male psychosexual self. But if you want to ease into a discussion about manhood, The Will to Change provides a good framework as an introduction to her work.

What Makes a Man: 22 Writers Imagine the Future edited by Rebecca Walker, Riverhead Books, March 2004, $23.95, ISBN 1-573-22269-0

Among Walker's selections are some pieces of enchanted writing, stories that sear the soul with their unremitting honesty and poignancy. Others seem more driven by ideological missions. This is not a collection of predominantly African American voices, but it's a fascinating melange of writers whose works challenge the reader's conceptions of maleness and authenticity.

Cuttin' Up: Wit and Wisdom From Black Barber Shops by Craig Marberry Doubleday, May 2005 $24.95, ISBN 0-385-51164-7

Cuttin' Up pays tribute to one of the most sacred gathering places of African American men--the barbershop. Marberry travels around the country, from Brooklyn to Detroit, Orlando to Houston, to observe and listen to eclectic topics from politics to sports, religion and women. All are discussed at great length. He presents such pitch-perfect portraits of black men sharing laughs and telling stories about life that the reader feels as if they're sitting right there in the barber's chair. Cuttin' Up celebrates the laid-back fellowship of men in the place, as Marberry writes, "Where we go to be among ourselves, to be ourselves, to unmask."

Khalil Abdullah is a writer and business development consultant in Washington, D.C.
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Author:Abdullah, Khalil
Publication:Black Issues Book Review
Article Type:Bibliography
Date:May 1, 2005
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