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Race Men.

Hazel V. Carby. Race Men. Cambridge: Harvard UP, 1998. 228 pp. $24.00.

In Race Men, feminist critic Hazel V. Carby produces a text that contains generally unsympathetic renderings of the cultural productions of black male intellectuals and artists. Carby is interested in exploring the "cultural representations of various black masculinities at different historical moments and in different media." While the range is broad, moving from history to music to photography and film, the analysis lacks depth, focusing primarily on the way she believes these cultural productions and texts construct and re-construct discourses on masculinity.

Carby scrutinizes W. E. B. Du Bois's Souls of Black Folk and finds that the text presents a "genealogy of race, nation, and of manhood" that is not only "gender specific," but also "encompasses only those men who enact narrowly and rigidly determined codes of masculinity." Carby accuses Du Bois in Souls, and Cornel West and Henry Louis Gates in The Future of the Race (1996), of engaging in a discourse that "privilege[s] black masculinity" and is dismissive of black women as race leaders and intellectuals. While Du Bois in Souls was making the case for the centrality of the African American experience in the formation of the American nation, he was also criticizing the racist attacks on black manhood coming from the larger society, that led to "tasteless sycophancy," a "parody of masculinity," as represented in the accommodationism of Booker T. Washington. According to Carby, Du Bois also believed that black manhood was undermined by the "betrayal by black women" who succumbed to "the lust of white men."

Carby's search and destroy mission against masculine and feminine metaphors in Du Bois's text is presentist and lacks balance. Her inability to distinguish between Du Bois's "gendered" discourse and the language conventions of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, in which cities, nations, ships, the weather, and even the environment ("Mother Nature") were described in feminine terms, is extremely frustrating. While Carby is preoccupied with exposing the feminine and masculine metaphors Du Bois employed, she never bothers to engage the definitions and descriptions of "manhood" Du Bois actually presented in his text. Du Bois declared that "Washington's counsels of submission overlooked certain elements of true manhood," which included the achievement of "self-respect," "self-development," and "ultimate assimilation through self-assertion." Carby, on the other hand, uses the terms black manhood and black masculinity interchangeably, whereas Du Bois's use of black manhood was embedded in a specific and explicit cultural context that Carby fails to examine.

The same should be said about the term race men, which Carby invokes, but never fully defines. Her only historical reference to the topic is St. Clair Drake and Horace Cayton's Black Metropolis (1945), and even they made the distinction "between 'sincere Race Leaders' and those Race men who are clamoring everything for the race, just for the glory of being known." No attempt is made to examine documentary evidence or to explain its historical context, but Carby declares that "most contemporary black male intellectuals take for granted the gendering at work in the other half of the concept 'race man'--the part that is limited to man. What we have inherited from them and from others is a rarely questioned notion of masculinity as it is connected to the ideas of race and nation." However, an examination of the historical record would reveal that for Du Bois, John Edward Bruce, T. Thomas Fortune, Marcus Garvey, and Carter G. Woodson, along with a strong commitment to the advancement of African peoples, their con ceptions of a "race man" generally included the protection of black womanhood. Carby would have us believe that such a commitment would be anti-feminist, even sexist. But what about "race women"? Would their self-concept be diminished by accepting the protection of

"race men"? The feminist ideological commitments of "race women" remain unexamined in Carby's text.

For contemporary cultural critics, photographs of the male and female body are considered socially constructed texts to be read and deconstructed. In a discussion of "The Body and Soul of Modernism" Carby reads Nicolas Murray's nude photographs of Paul Robeson, as well as black male nudes by other European and American artists, and argues that for these modernists the black male body represented "essentialized masculinity." However, because the black subject was unable to "gaze back at the viewer," these photographic texts reproduced "the unequal relation of power and subjection of their historical moment" in the early twentieth century. Carby also discusses Robeson's roles in Eugene O'Neill's Emperor Jones and All God's Chillun Got Wings, concluding that, in contrast to the character Robeson portrays in Oscar Micheaux's film Body and Soul, O'Neill utilized a "strategy of inwardness" to present racialized emotional conflicts for Robeson's character, rather than outward resistance and rebellion. Carby's notes that, with his expanding political consciousness and increased commitment to the advancement of the working classes worldwide in the 1930s, Robeson rejected these types of roles. Unfortunately, how these ideological changes were reflected in Robeson's racial consciousness (was Robeson a "race man"?) are left unexplored.

Carby describes the authentic and inauthentic nature of the relationship between ex-convict and folk singer Huddie (Leadbelly) Ledbetter and folklorist John Lomax and his son Alan. She believes that this unusual partnership demonstrated an attempt to use "the aesthetics of the folk" to create a "fictive ethnicity of blackness" that allowed the incorporation of potentially threatening black males into the national community. For C. L. R. James the cricket field in England's colonial territories not only was the space where "ideologies of masculinity" were put to the test, but also was "the battleground out of which nationhood ... [had to] be forged." Carby argues that in James's Beyond the Boundary (1963) and the novel Minty Alley (1936), "intellectual practice, racial politics, and cricket were ... unquestioningly imagined within a discourse of autonomous, patriarchal masculinity." In Black Jacobins (1938) James posits the existence of a "revolutionary black manhood that, both individually and collectively, gives birth to an independent black nation state."

Although Carby declares that the autobiographies of science fiction writer Samuel R. Delany and trumpeter Miles Davis are "absolutely central to any consideration of black manhood," in the chapter "Playin' the Changes," she really only discusses Miles: The Autobiography of Miles Davis in any detail. Carby is primarily interested in exposing Davis's misogyny and mistreatment of the women in his life, "the homosocial jazz world of creativity," the homoerotic elements in Davis's solo and ensemble performances, and jazz musicians' challenges to heterosexual norms by dating and marrying white women. Carby uses Delany's The Motion of Light in Water merely to present the alternative approaches to challenging heterosexual norms pursued by gay men, who fought back when harassed and attacked by the police for engaging in socially unacceptable behaviors.

In the final chapter, Carby describes the career of film actor Danny Glover and his movement from threatening black male characters to the Lethal Weapon trilogy and other films in which he became the embodiment of the "perfect black male" who is the "savior of white people." Carby asserts that, in the black- and white-male partnership films, the "race men of Hollywood dreams promise to annihilate what ails this nation and resolve our contemporary crisis of race, of nation, and of manhood." Despite the worthiness of this objective, it is not clear that early-twentieth-century African Americans would consider Danny Glover a "race man" whose film performances were culturally relevant. Carby's failure to deconstruct the meanings and functions of the term race man (or race woman) historically reduces her assessments to textual analyses and observations ungrounded in the African American cultural context.
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Title Annotation:Review
Author:Franklin, V.P.
Publication:African American Review
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Sep 22, 2000
Words:1270
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