The ‘Real Black Man’ Is Dead: Frank Ocean and Black Masculinity
Winning: that’s a good word to hear within social justice movements. Over the last several weeks, the President voiced his support for same-sex marriage, followed by hip-hop’s leading man, Jay Z. Then CNN’s Anderson Cooper came out, followed by Frank Ocean, an African-American singer in the world of hyper-masculine hip hop publicly released a letter affirming that he once loved a man. And just this weekend, the first sitting US congressman, Barney Frank, married his long time love. Politics, policy, social justice, successful same-sex marriage legislation – that’s been the conversation. Those rights have been hard fought, with sacrifice, strategy and struggle. But that’s not the only part of the journey. Behind every policy, protest, pivotal moment, is one person’s story, one’s journey of love, hurt, loss, fear, strength, and pain. Frank Ocean is one example of another step towards a different victory– an emotional revolution in re-imagining the rigid, narrow straitjacket that is conventional masculinity.
Frank’s love letter was a display of freedom, a call to action for all men. Our association with emotionality and homosexuality is hardly new and still complicated. This becomes a moment to have an intimate public conversation around our notions of masculinity. That conversation is tied to legacies of racism, notions of gender (and the threat of crossing gender boundaries), and rigid ideas of patriarchy. It’s problematic, painful and needs interrogation.
Reaction to Frank was broad and swift. Conviction and execution on Twitter was matched by Twitter justice in support. MSNBC’s Melissa Harris Perry spoke to author and public intellectual Michael Eric Dyson. The New York Times featured pieces that quoted the voices of some of hip hop’s great cultural critics including activist scholar and author Mark Anthony Neal, hip-hop feminist cultural critic Joan Morgan, film-maker Nelson George. They all spoke to a social shift that meant Frank would not mourn the death of a career at his own truth-telling hands as he might have done had this happened 5, 10, or 15 years earlier. The brilliant writer dream hampton captured the significance of Frank’s action as she languaged his revelation in these contexts: today’s media, the lack of real risk and low stakes for the white privileged world of CNN anchor Anderson Cooper versus the high stakes, high risk world of hyper-masculine hip-hop out of which came Frank Ocean and, for me, most importantly, within the powerful seat of love, loss, legacy and learning.
Other reactions explored this idea: that Frank’s acknowledgment that he loved a man is essentially liberating some of his straight brethren from their own bigotry. On the site Black Youth Project, reaction to Frank Ocean’s and Anderson Cooper’s “coming out” is expressed this way in a piece by writer scholar Summer McDonald: “Coming out also seems to work as a plea for the continued recognition of one’s humanity. The reaction to these public, quasi-confessions reveals to me that coming out seems less about the person revealing the “secret” and more about the response from the people witnessing the emergence from the closet. Coming out seems to be a really dramatic way of humanizing a concept and asking, “Will you still love me…?”
McDonald quotes a piece for Time.com, in which writer and cultural critic Toure puts it this way:
Studies show that people are more likely to be at peace with homosexuality even if they only know homosexuals through parasocial relationships — the sort of one-sided relationships we have with celebrities. It becomes harder to hate gay people when you find them in your living room all the time via Modern Family or Will & Grace. So coming out remains important because the visibility and normality of prominent gay Americans makes life easier for less famous gay Americans, some of whom commit suicide because they fear the life ahead of them.” McDonald responds in her thoughtful must-read piece: “In other words, coming out is important because it helps straight people stop being judgmental bigots. Perhaps I am in the minority in this, but this line of thinking is not at all okay. None of my identity serves to make people comfortable nor do I exist to make them better at being people. It’s just not my job. (It’s Google’s.) If coming out is important because of its utility to straight people, then I’d rather not come out.
I hear that. Coming out conversations may do little for those who now walk that journey, but there are thousands more living in different spaces – spaces where Frank’s words matter and are a life-line to becoming. Plus, there has always been a price to pay for action that liberates so many who are not engaged in the fight, not exposed to the ridicule of others, and not living with the consequences of that exposure for social justice and humanity.
In New York, I do a conversation series about the ways in which we are loved and then go on to love one another and shape Black leadership, institutions, gender relations as well as family and love relationships. It’s called: ‘Emotional Justice Unplugged’ – it’s an annual, multimedia, multi-platform, multi-generational, mixed gender arts and conversation series. We are in the third year; the panel and audience crosses color, culture, gender, sexuality. It really breaks down the politics of emotionality and the integral ways in which they continue to shape our motion and interrupt our progress. This year’s theme: “Black Love: A Re-Imagining,” we’ve had straight men, lesbian women, straight women, conversations between the sexes. On the April panel, activist scholar, Dr Marc Lamont Hill appeared alongside Brooklyn State Committeeman, Robert Cornegy Junior. Discussion circled again and again about the impact of conventional masculinity and its noose-like grip around necks choked by its rigidity. They talked about that plus childhood trauma; its spilling into adult emotionally dysfunctional behavior and the sanctioning of that via conventional notions of masculinity. Marc Lamont Hill said this about conventional masculinity, “I think of all the things that are possible if there wasn’t a cap on masculinity. For me masculinity itself is a construct that must be destroyed – it can’t be re-imagined. There is nothing healthy. I think there’s ways to have healthy, emotionally just constructs without this notion of masculinity We don’t want to destroy men – we want to destroy manhood. It’s built on all of these things that dehumanize not just others but us.”
That conventional masculinity often manifests as the ‘good black man’. Just say that line, “good black man” or “real black man” to brothers and groans, sighs, and arguments might ensue. Let black men hear that phrase from the mouths of black women and they hear a judgment, an unattainable prize, a statement of inadequacy and being held to some standard that leaves no room for the imperfect beauty of humanity to seep through. It is a standard that eludes them, causes fights, accusatory and blame-filled exchanges. It seems to make everybody mad.
In an on air interview for my radio show Wake Up Call on WBAI99.5FM, activist and writer Darnell Moore said this when talking about his own journey through childhood trauma into becoming a gay black man and loving who he saw in the mirror:
When I looked in the mirror, I saw failure, I saw someone who not only failed God, but also failed to meet this ideal of what one might call the real black man. I did not play basketball. I wasn’t tough. I did not fit that characteristic. Who’s affirming a black boy for deciding not to fight, who runs in the opposite direction as opposed to putting up their hands? Failing to live up to society’s expectations of what a real black man is supposed to be was a wonderful thing , because had I listened, had I continued to think that I’m not supposed to cry, I am supposed to be physically strong and therefore exert my power over women, I am supposed to think that cool equals anti-intellectualism and anti-education (all of these things that pushed me away from the type of adult and human being who needs to live a life socially responsible), I would not have been able to be cultivated into that. It’s funny to say, but I failed at being straight. I’m happy about it. It enabled me to be the human being in my fullness that I am today. So in many ways I lift that up. I think that the failure that I saw was such a good thing, that’s my reframe. Because I failed at being who everyone else wanted me to be, so that I could be who I was designed and created to be…and that’s success.
What Frank did was some grown men ish when it comes to feelings and love. Not that world of conventional masculinity where the accepted channel for all feelings is sex and anger, but a way more sexy world where masculinity is re-imagined and swagged-out. So, your swagger includes your sexuality, your panorama of feeling, your declaration of hurt. Your swagger need not be castrated due to expressions of emotionality. Now, for sure, hip hop’s hyper masculine world is not fairy god daddy transformed with the publication of one letter. I’m not talking about that.
Frank Ocean’s act equals emotional justice; emotional revolution. One step at a time. One conversation at a time. One revelation at a time.
I created that term to tackle a legacy of untreated trauma stemming from a brutal and violent, history of racialized violence. Those battlefields of movements – abolitionist movement, civil rights, Black power, women’s rights – moved nations forward, scored victories. They also left scars, like keloids on the soul. Bodies were broken and mended. Hearts broke and stayed broken. Some atrophied, rigor mortis settled in for several lifetimes. No time to tend to those wounds when humanity was on the line and Black folk were catching hell as they fought to escape nooses, to vote, to acknowledge and celebrate their identity, seek equality. Some wounds were bandaged; many festered, so many were passed generation to generation. Silence did not still their passage; indeed, in some ways it made that neglected emotionality more deadly. Movements moved nations until slowly a nation that profited from human bondage emerged from that space. Black folks’ journey has never been a single story. The blood, brutality, battlefields also saw love, laughter, creativity, community, and entrepreneurship. Success bloomed. As movements rose, fell, staggered; neglected emotionality continued its journey. We had intimate relationships with violence, risk was life and death, blood and breath. So love was this dangerous, forbidden thing, and it became revolutionary. Emotional justice is about giving voice to hurts – present and historical – to speaking the most intimate truths, not being held hostage to a generational inheritance of untreated trauma and to shaping your future and not being shaped solely by an unresolved past. That past manifests in our present; in how we love and stay, how we build family and community, shape relationships, construct institutions, negotiate power, navigate leadership. And so now we arrive at a moment to pay attention to what was necessarily neglected. Why now? Because there is a Black president in a White House, because a congressman married his love, because a mainstream news anchor declared his sexuality and an R&B singer in the hyper-masculine world of hiphop wrote his love letter to personal truth and freedom.